Inquiry is an approach, not a 'subject'.

In my last post, I described the importance of walking the world with questions in our head.  Well….there has been one question in my head all year and, quite frankly, it has really been bugging me.  A teacher raised the same question during a meeting last week.  I figured it was time I put it out there (thanks Vanessa!) Is it time for a shift in the language we use to describe approaches to ‘inquiry’ in many of our schools?  I have become increasingly uncomfortable when I hear teachers and kids describe a certain session as “inquiry time” – as if inquiry were a subject. You all know what I mean:

 “After lunch we will be doing inquiry – so have your inquiry folders ready”

“ This is the unit of inquiry we are doing – we will get on with that after writers’ workshop”

“What are we going to “do” for inquiry this year? (always referring to the topic/focus of the inquiry)

“OK kids – it's inquiry time!”

“ We are doing maths, then music – then inquiry.”

 In Australia in the nineties, we saw an important shift from what was often described as “integrated” units towards more inquiry-based learning journeys.  While the “integrated units” were in themselves a great improvement on the shallow themes that dominated the previous decade, the emphasis was still more on teacher-centred curriculum organization (integration) and less on student-centred approaches to learning (inquiry).   Gradually, integrated units (that generally focused on science, social studies and health content while blending literacy, numeracy and the arts as appropriate) became less rigid, less choreographed, less activity-based and began to morph into more problem-based, inquiry oriented journeys with understanding at their heart.   Integration of learning areas was still a viable and important goal but the deep understanding and engagement afforded by an inquiry approach became more apparent.  Recent times have seen a growing emphasis on inquiry vehicle for learning to learn – or building ‘learning power’ as Claxton puts it.  Understanding remains critical but,  as access to content becomes increasingly straightforward - it is the skills and dispositions students gain from each journey that carry greater kudos.

“Units of inquiry” have become a mainstay of the inquiry school. They provide important vehicles through which to help students develop the concepts, skills and dispositions they need as 21C learners.  Quality programs of inquiry include robust, challenging and dynamic investigations for students to experience over their years of primary schooling.

So it’s not the “units” I have a problem with per se.  But if we continue to describe this as ‘inquiry’ time and fail to help students see themselves as inquirers across the day – the message is confusing.

When I facilitate a readers’ workshop – I position students as inquirers.  I use essential questions; the students act as researchers as they engage with text; we seek patterns and connections and identify further problems for investigation.  In addition, students are often engaging with texts that are directly linked to their “inquiry” into an essential question about the world.  Our focus may be on reading – but we are inquiring all the way.

How might I re-think my language to better reflect the reality of a day in the life of an inquiry classroom? Our learning involves us inquiring as readers, as writers, as mathematicians, as scientists, as historians, as musicians – as team members and as self-managers.  How to I let my students know that they are inquirers more often than when they are simply “doing” a unit?

I’d love to hear some thoughts about this – I doubt there is a straightforward answer as this issue reflects the complex and nuanced entity that is how we both organize AND name what we do each day.  But blocks of time in the timetable labeled “inquiry” just aren't right…. And the language we use matters.

What do you think?

Just wondering….