Getting the mix right: Teacher guidance and inquiry learning.

Open inquiry, free inquiry, guided inquiry, structured inquiry…I’ve even recently heard someone remark they use ‘the controlled inquiry method (???)’.  Over the last few years it seems there has been a proliferation of descriptors qualifying the kindof inquiry that can happen in the classroom. Lately, as I hear these terms being bandied about in workshops I have become intrigued by what people actually mean when they use them and I have begun to wonder how helpful it all is.

 I recently asked a group of teachers to define what they meant when they talked about the use of ‘guided’ vs what they called ‘free’ inquiry.   In the end, it came down to whether or not the students chose what they were inquiring into. If the teacher chose, it was guided. If the kids chose, it was free. The puzzling thing for me about this response is that most successful inquiry journeys are a result of both teacher AND student choice. It’s not either/or – it is AND.   I have also heard some declare they use a ‘guided inquiry’ approach which in reality meant they executed meticulously pre-planned , step by step units that invited no student questions and ended up in cookie-cutter activities across the team (not inquiry at all and not what most would consider guided inquiry to be). When it comes to open or free inquiry, the view can be similarly extreme. The descriptions of free inuquiry I have heard at times sound pretty close to simply being ‘free time’ or ‘choosing time’ - involving very little inquiry.  

At its very heart, inquiry is about investigation. It occurs when the learner seeks to discover/resolve/create/uncover/understand something. Inquirers are most often driven by questions. In the classroom – these questions may be devised by teachers or by students or both. They may be personal questions or questions develop with, for or by a group. As the young learner pursues these questions (Why? What if? Why might? How could? Why should? What makes…?) they inevitably require some form of guidance. In fact I am tempted to say that ALL inquiry journeys I witness or support in the classroom are guided.  But the level and nature of guidance varies according to the needs and prior knowledge of the learner and the context within which the inquiry is taking place. Perhaps it is more straightforward to consider guidance (from teachers, peers and other mentors) as a givenin inquiry but to understand that that the nature and level of guidance is necessarily dynamic.  And what do I mean by guidance?  The things we do and say to support students as they inquire – listening, observing, strategic questioning, timely feedback, demonstration, explanation, noticing and naming, suggesting and connecting them with resources/others who may be helpful. 

 As many readers of this blog know, I have long advocated for learners of all ages to have regular opportunity to inquire into questions or needs they have determined are important to them (iTime/discovery time for example). This usually sits alongside a shared/class inquiry into a compelling question and is most often explored over several weeks. Seeing these personal inquiries as ‘free’ can be very misleading. I have seen many cases where the very fact that the student chose something highly personal meant they required even more careful conferring and guidance. These moments can feel less ‘free’ than shared inquiry where collaboration might offer a firmer platform for voice and choice.   Like the oft used metaphor of the swan gliding across the water  - underneath those independent and self-driven learners engaged in personal inquiries is a strong set of structures, scaffolds a repertoire of strategies and agreements. Teachers are busy conferring, running small clinic groups, giving targeted feedback, noticing, naming and ‘nudging’ – they are being the active guides they should be. 

 A central goal of the contemporary teacher is to nurture learner agency.  When understood deeply, Inquiry based learning has alwaysbeen about agency. It requires learners to make choices and take responsibility for designing ways to investigate problems, questions, challenges and passions. But the role of the teacher remains critical in this approach. Far from being an arms-length facilitator ‘on the side’, the inquiry teacher is continually weighing up if, when and how to ‘step in’. They actively work besidethe learner observing, listening, questioning, prompting, suggesting, explaining, demonstrating, refining or redirecting as required. This is guidance. When we position students as inquirers, we offer them opportunities to make decisions about their learning every day. The extent to which we guide those decisions varies but good teachers know how to adjust the level of guidance for optimal learning.  Seeing teacher guidance as a single, linear trajectory (from more to less guidance over time) can be similarly misleading. The level of guidance required is much less linear and much more determined by context, purpose and the needs of the learner.  

So I have been playing around with this image – as a way to illustrate the nature of teacher guidance in inquiry – and our quest to nurture agency through it. I see it a little like a sound engineer’s mixing desk. For most of us, the tendency can be to raise our level of guidance too high and too soon and for too long. Practising the techniques of releasing responsibility, allowing some struggle, observing and listening, slowing down, waiting and explaining at the point of need means we learn to step in less frequently and with less ‘volume’ than we may have thought necessary.  

Looking at the diagram below imagine allthe ‘buttons’ are at the lower end (minimal guidance). One would need to ensure there was sufficient justification for such low level teacher involvement.   It is certainly possible for some learners but unlikely to be the case for everyone at any given time. Conversely, when teachers make all the decisions for students, when each of the buttons are at or near maximum level, we would have to question whether we can really call this ‘inquiry learning’ at all!!  In reality,  inquiry teaching usually requires an ever-changing mix of guidance levels. 

 Guidance is important - but the level and nature of it will vary according to the needs to the learner.

Guidance is important - but the level and nature of it will vary according to the needs to the learner.

 It is nuanced and sophisticated work but being conscious of the decisions we make, and developing the habit of ‘turning down’ the volume to enhance learner agency can help us become more intentional and informed teachers as we guide learning through personal or group investigations. 

What does guidance in inquiry look like for you? How do you ‘adjust the controls’ to maximise learner agency?

Just wondering…..