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The Alchemy of Inquiry-Based Learning

By Mark Bennett

Inquiry-based learning holds a promising future for education. We are beginning to see an educational shift today in which the emphasis is placed not on students’ ability to recall content from curriculum, but their ability to be abstract thinkers, what Schnellert and Butler define as an alchemy of active learners who are “exploring to learn.”
Inquiry-based learning enriches students’ critical thinking skills, helping them become robust thinkers. It is a catalyst that will help prepare students for the future trials of an innovative workplace.
In my classroom over the years, I have discovered six attributes required to personalize education into a meaningful experience for students.
1. Prior Knowledge
Neuroscientists are discovering that each of us is a bundle of experiences, which together comprise our personality. As sentient individuals, we make personalized connections that link our interest and curiosity to the world. It is why Zemelman and Daniels remind us that “social studies learning should build on students’ prior knowledge of their lives and community, rather than assuming they know nothing about the subject.”
2. Ownership
In education, we need to nurture student involvement with the world. Aside from the academic component to pedagogy, character education has helped develop students’ values, ranging from responsibility and respect to empathy. For students to embrace ownership, Brownlie and Schnellert remind us they have to be “agents of learning…all the strategies of assessment for learning are geared toward giving them informed control, toward working with them to help students be the best they can be.” Educators must appeal to the learning styles in every student to create active and engaged learners.
3. Metacognition
It is our thinking skills that help us find creative solutions to the challenges that satisfy our curiosity and concerns. Students must embrace the notion that intelligence is the source of their personal development. Educators call this type of thinking metacognition, what Shander defines as “the process by which students use their critical thinking skills to improve their comprehension skills.” It involves students understanding “knowledge of self…knowledge of task… (and) knowledge of learning strategies.” If students become cognizant of their thinking, they become proficient in using creativity to problem-solve the new trials they encounter going forward.
4. Assessment
With inquiry-based learning, the focus of assessment moves away from curriculum toward the encouragement of this mode of assimilating knowledge. Fullan informs us “the new pedagogy flips the role of students and teachers where students are knowledge workers, learning to learn and think better, and where teachers see assessment as feedback about their impact and engage in dialogue with students about their aspirations and progress.”
Assessment has to be directed toward the learner, not the subject. The source of validity in assessment may be discovered in Cris Tovani’s observation: “when I am assessing students, I look at the way they are using strategies…I am looking for evidence of their thinking.” Evaluation originates in the living and thinking mind, in students’ ability to find reason in the culture of learning and meet personal challenges.
5. Student Perspective
Rote memory has proven to have a negligible effect in education. For example in Mathematics, memorization of the multiplication facts lacks meaning to students because it fails to hold any meaning to numbers. Automaticity in the multiplication times table, however, enables students to recall products because they have been taught place value and the connection numbers have to each other. Whenever students understand the relationship numbers have with our world, they begin to see patterns, even integrate their understanding to the subject of Physics where the language of mathematics is used to comprehend the universe.
Education is even changing with the concept of spelling dictation. According to Scott-Dunne, a Student Achievement Officer with the Ministry of Education in Ontario Canada, spelling ought to be taught “in a very different way, through inquiry and investigation, by engendering a love of words, by using higher order thinking instead of rote memory.” Words do not function in isolation. They require an array of strategies from phonemic awareness to syntactic awareness if educators are to develop student literacy.
6. Motivation
We know educators face challenges in the classroom, especially in the area of apathetic learners. Sadder and Midus remind us that “teachers’ sense of efficacy is a judgment about capabilities to influence student engagement and learning, even among those students who may be difficult or unmotivated.” If failure holds no option, teachers will undergo a process to discover students’ curiosity.
We need to give students the opportunity to connect to their sense of curiosity, to use their prior knowledge “by asking open-ended questions (so that) we allow students to take their learning to their best level…to personalize the differences in ways of life and in human beings.” Katz reminds us that learning is a living entity that has a natural link to every student if we allow opportunities for students to seek their own personalized connections.
Learning is about choice. As soon as students enter school, they must begin to construct an understanding of themselves as critical and creative thinkers linked to the world. Inquiry enables students to become aware of their world only if teachers allow them to engage in its authenticity strictly on students’ terms.
Leyton and Schnellert and Deborah L. Butler, “Collaborative Inquiry, Empowering teachers in their professional development,” Canada Education Vol. 54 No. 3 June 2014.
Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde, ‘Best Practice, Today’s Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools 3rd Edition,’ (2005). Heinemann, New Hampshire.
Faye Brownie and Leyton Schnellert, ‘It’s all about thinking,’ (2009). Portage and Main Press, Winnipeg, MB, Canada.
Stuart Shanker, ‘Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation,’ (2012). Pearson Education Canada.
Michael Fullan, ‘Stratosphere,’ (2013) Pearson Canada Inc., Toronto, Ontario.
Cris Tovani, ‘Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?’ (2004) Stenhouse Publishers, Portland Maine.
Doreen Scott-Dunne, ‘When Spelling Matters,’ Principal Connections Vol. 17 Issue 3, summer 2014
Maya Sadder and Gabrielle Nidus, ‘The Literacy Coach’s Game Plan, Making Teacher Collaboration, Student Learning, and School Improvement a Reality,’ (2009). International Reading Association, Inc. Newark DE 19714-8139, USA.
Jennifer Katz, ‘Teaching to Diversity, the Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning,’ (2012). Portage &Main Press, Winnipeg, MB, Canada.

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