Inquiry?

Do schools need rules?  Does Canadian society promote bullying?  Why is it that humans are the only species that produce garbage?

These are a few of the questions that are guiding learning at BICS as our staff begins to provide inquiry-based learning opportunities for our students.

Teachers have always understood the importance of asking good questions but what is becoming a more prominent feature of learning is providing opportunities for students to own their learning by asking their own questions; and having the pursuit of these questions guide their learning.  When this happens, students become more engaged.  This process is central to inquiry-based learning, a core objective of our school’s “head” goal.

Increasing student’s capacity, ability and willingness to effectively exercise critical thinking skills is our school’s second goal.  Attached to this goal is the objective, to increase students’ ability to independently engage in an inquiry cycle that extends knowledge and deepens understanding.  An inquiry-cycle can briefly be described as asking a question, investigating it, responding to the question, discussing it with others, reflecting upon it, and then asking further questions to deepen inquiry.

Increasing student engagement is one reason to provide more opportunities for inquiry-based learning, the synergy between our school’s second goal and first objective, the development of critical thinking skills, is a second.  The Critical Thinking Consortium describes the habits of mind of a critical thinkeras being open-minded, fair-minded, and independent-minded, among others. These attributes can be developed as students engage in the inquiry cycle.  As students ask their questions of inquiry, they will need to be open-minded to the potential outcomes of their questions.  As they inquire, they must be fair-minded as their investigation exposes them to perspectives that may conflict with their biases.  And when they discuss the findings of their inquiry, they must be independent-minded in supporting their opinions with the evidence they have gathered rather than submitting to other opinions.

In addition to developing critical thinking skills, inquiry helps deepen understanding by focusing on big questions and enduring understandingsrather than facts and details.  While knowledge of facts is important and is acquired through inquiry, what is remembered in the long run, and what teaches students how to think about a topic, are enduring understandings. Understandings are foundational in the way one thinks about a subject and they are transferable to other subjects.  So what does an enduring understanding look like?  One example is, “Human body systems work together to create energy.” While students may not remember the name of the tube that connects the mouth and nose with the lungs (the trachea, which allows one key ingredient for energy, oxygen, to enter the body), students will remember the understanding this fact is attached to, namely that systems work together to keep a larger system alive.  This understanding is foundational for students to understand the human body as well as the interaction of other systems they will learn about in future studies.  This understanding can be pursued through questions of inquiry such as, What is the difference between a body that is alive compared to one that is not?

Much is made of companies like Google offering employees opportunities to pursue their own learning for part of their work week. Inquiry-based learning allows students to personalize their learning and pursue their passions, engaging them in their study, furthering their critical thinking skills and deepening their understandings.  We have much to learn about this goal, but the benefits of inquiry-based learning are clear.

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