Redefining Inquiry-Based Learning

Definitions of “inquiry” typically focus on the student’s inquiry. Fine, but I also appreciate Mylène at Shifting Phases’ shifted focus to teacher inquiry:

My definition of “inquiry” as an educational method: it’s the students’ job to inquire into the material, and while they do that, it’s my job to inquire into their thinking.

So she measures the quality of her tasks and instruction by how how much access they grant into her students’ learning. She also shares an organizational strategy that helps her understand which of her tasks grant her the most access. All great.

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Tracy Zager writes in response to several commenters who think this is all obvious and everybody already does it:

I disagree in a big way. My own children come home from school with endless folders of completely useless products. Useless in that they give the teachers no actionable information, no insight into the children’s thinking.

Imagine you had a single piece of student work and were going to talk about it with colleagues for an hour or two. Which pieces of work would lead to rich discussions about students’ thinking and mathematics, and which wouldn’t? If you’d run out of things to talk about in 5 minutes–if the assignment wouldn’t lead to a productive, insightful discussion among teachers–why are we assigning it?

Yeah, practice. Why else? That can’t be the answer for everything.

Most of what I see assigned in schools yields no insight into students’ thinking for teachers.

So I think this is a big, important idea that goes far beyond common sense.

2015 Oct 31. Mylène posts a follow-up, “Who’s Inquiring About What?” and the the last paragraph is a stick of dynamite:

Want to help me improve? Here’s the help I could really use. If you were one of the people whose first reaction to my original post was “I already know that” — either I already know that to be true, or I already know that to be false… what would have helped you respond with curiosity and perplexity, adding your idea as a valuable one of many? If that was your response, what made it work?

2015 Nov 11. Also make sure you read (at least) the intro to a paper linked by Brian Frank that coins the term Discovery Teaching.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

12 Comments

  1. Maybe. But I typically see “inquiry” framed as what the students do, and in some cases what they do may give much access into their thinking.

  2. Yeah…. not so sure this is something that any teacher wouldn’t do as a matter of course. Can’t say it redefines inquiry-based learning or for that matter any aspect of teaching, learning centric or not.

  3. “Yeah…. not so sure this is something that any teacher wouldn’t do as a matter of course. Can’t say it redefines inquiry-based learning or for that matter any aspect of teaching, learning centric or not.” — Mike

    I disagree in a big way. My own children come home from school with endless folders of completely useless products. Useless in that they give the teachers no actionable information, no insight into the children’s thinking.

    Imagine you had a single piece of student work and were going to talk about it with colleagues for an hour or two. Which pieces of work would lead to rich discussions about students’ thinking and mathematics, and which wouldn’t? If you’d run out of things to talk about in 5 minutes–if the assignment wouldn’t lead to a productive, insightful discussion among teachers–why are we assigning it?

    Yeah, practice. Why else? That can’t be the answer for everything.

    Most of what I see assigned in schools yields no insight into students’ thinking for teachers.

    So I think this is a big, important idea that goes far beyond common sense.

  4. Hi all, thanks for the questions, ideas, and resources. Very thought provoking! Follow-up post is at my site, it got out of hand for the length of a comment…

  5. If you’d run out of things to talk about in 5 minutes–if the assignment wouldn’t lead to a productive, insightful discussion among teachers–why are we assigning it?

    Actually practice can be the answer most of the time. Why can it not?

    Great quarterbacks, who already throw the ball rather well, still practice for hours on end. Practice is, it turns out, immensely important even when you are an expert.

    Let’s lose this idea that children have to be learning something new all the time. Learning something old well is often much more useful.

    Most of what I see assigned in schools yields no insight into students’ thinking for teachers.

    You might be surprised what an expert can do with apparently very little. (It’s pretty much the definition of expert.)

    Also, just how much time do you think we have to spend analysing individual student’s work? I have 120 students this year. I have time to do one piece per student every couple of weeks, if I’m going to do it well — actually look for what the student is thinking and providing useful feedback. That’s six hours of out of classroom work. I’m paid for five hours of non-class time a week. So all the lesson preps, curriculum work, pastoral stuff, etc is done in unpaid time.

    Imagine you had a single piece of student work and were going to talk about it with colleagues for an hour or two.

    Two hours on a single piece of student work. What is it “The Illiad”?

    I don’t spend two hours a year thinking about any particular individual student’s work.

  6. Tracy,

    I feel sorry for your children but aside of that, your comment is a non sequitur to what inquiry learning is all about as it reveals your children’s teachers aren’t doing it. And you seem to get that.

    Completely agree with Chester regarding time management and time spent looking at student work. I would never spend 2 hours on any piece of work, never mind discussing it with a colleague.

    Less is more. And I think, Tracy, if you go back and re-read what you just said about mountains of useless stuff your children bring home, you just might begin to agree.

  7. I’m clearly not explaining myself well, so let me try again.

    I am not suggesting you look at 120 students’ work for 2 hours each, every day.

    I am suggesting that, once in a while, it’s extremely useful to sit with your colleagues and a single piece of work, a few pieces of work, or a full class set of work and analyze it.

    If you can’t decipher much about the student(s)’ thought process by looking at the work, you’re left with a couple of related possibilities, neither of them desirable:

    1) the assignment was poorly designed for the goal of teacher inquiry into student thinking; or
    2) the student didn’t do much thinking to finish the assignment.

    This is the kind of reflective work I was thinking about when I read Dan’s summary: “she measures the quality of her tasks and instruction by how how much access they grant into her students’ learning.”

    If you accept the premise of the quote, then tasks and instruction that don’t grant access to students’ learning are lower quality than tasks that do reveal students’ learning and thinking.

    I am arguing–and I honestly do not think this is controversial–that by that measure, most tasks that most teachers assign are low quality.

    Does that help?
    Tracy

  8. I think it’s a nice confluence when the format of the work provides a one-to-one correspondence with their learning, but I don’t think that that ever happens, even in the best designed tasks, and I’m not sure that that’s desirable in any case.

    I don’t accept the premise of the quote though. The quality of my tasks are not measured by how much access I get into their learning(i would bold the word I here if I could), but rather how much access my students get into furthering their own modes of understanding and indeed, more importantly, how inspired they are to learn more. When learning becomes fun and they forget they’re learning, I know I’m on the right track, something that is inherently impossible to achieve when they’re busy justifying every line of reasoning or attempt in the process.

    I’m reminded of a speech last year’s valedictorian made at commencement this year. He recounted with obvious gusto the FUN in staying for hours after school day after day designing and building a rollercoaster in class… Could I possible have measured all his learning in any format except that of direct experience? No, not if I’m honest with myself and with what HE got out of it. And would it have mattered? Not to him, and if not to him, not to me either.

    He’s at the top of his class in Mechatronics at university and doing wonderfully. Can’t measure my pride in his achievements, and I can’t measure how much that roller coaster experience meant to him.

  9. This is an interesting response, Mike, thanks. I think we probably agree more than we disagree.

    One thing I wanted to point out: I never used the word “measure.” I’m not talking about measurement, I’m not talking about data, and I’m definitely not talking about grades. That’s a whole other pricker patch.

    I’m just talking about listening to students’ thinking.

    Students’ mathematical thinking is central to all the planning and teaching I do, so I need to create conditions such that I can find out what they’re thinking. That means engineering a reasonable, informative mix of observations, conversations, and carefully chosen products that will give me insights into kids’ thinking and inform my teaching.

    The general term for that process is usually formative assessment, but I think Mylène is onto something important when she calls it teacher inquiry. I like that stance. It puts the onus on us in a productive way.