By John Myers, OISE

 

If We Really Want Inquiry? Here Is My Best Suggestion: Whatever the subject, course or unit, let’s get students to ask the questions.

 

As I worked on parts 1 and 2 of this trilogy on Inquiry I consulted research, some of which is referred to in the previous Pedagogical Perspectives on this topic. In the meantime I taught my classes at OISE, observed classes in the field, even taught a few high school and senior elementary classes, and consulted with colleagues around the province, around the country, and around the continent.

While I try to teach inquiry to my teacher candidates as do other instructors, as I and other colleagues see the historical thinking posters in many classrooms, we seldom see the processes linked to inquiry as outlined in current Ontario curriculum guidelines.

  • Few examples have I seen of students, students with their teachers or teachers themselves explicitly formulating questions for a class inquiry.
  • Examples of gathering and organizing information too often consist of taking notes from a textbook or power point.
  • Analysis and interpretation are limited while regurgitation of “facts” reigns supreme, not in class discussions but simple Q and A.
  • Evaluating, drawing conclusions, and making judgments is minimal compared to giving simple answers to teacher questions staying in the lower ranges of Bloom’s taxonomy.
  • Communicating findings and acting on such judgments is rare, compared to the usual moving to the next topic with a minimum connection to the previous topic. Seems to be so even in social science, law, and civics classes where one might think important issues to tackle abound.

Why is this still so after decades of advocacy for inquiry teaching?

While it is possible that I and my colleagues have visited the wrong set of hundreds of classrooms in the Greater Toronto Area and have missed the inquiry-based lessons that meet the calls from the ministry, there are other solutions colleagues have suggested as have I in the earlier Pedagogical Perspective in this series.

One thing I noticed in my observations and confirmed when I asked my network of teachers is the power of doing what you have always done. Change is hard. If associate teachers avoid using inquiry processes then student teachers will follow their lead.  We in the “ivory towers”, even if we model in our teacher education classes inquiry-based practices, are often dismissed as out of touch. Perhaps this is ironic since we do our best to keep up with ministry policy.

 

Hope?

In previous Pedagogical Perspectives I have included tips on getting students to ask questions since in my view, backed by considerable research, good questions lead to good answers. Furthermore, it is s single step, not a complex confusing set of ideas as might be seen in the front matter of our curriculum guidelines.  Here are a couple of directions to take.

The first comes from Heather McCann who teaches at Branksome Hall. In her classes a skillful use of inquiry questions and student classroom technology made for exciting lessons when I visited her grade 7 classrooms. Her classes use https://coggle.it/ to collaboratively organize information through creation of a mind map. As noted before, I have suggested looking at Visible Thinking routines from Harvard’s Project Zero http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/visible-thinking.

In my Masters of Teaching classes on Assessment designing and using the routines was by far their favourite assignment.  This year they are, among other things, looking at https://www.pinterest.com/explore/visible-thinking/?lp=true.

Another resource Heather tipped me onto was Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, published in 2014 by Bloomsbury.  Among its gems are questions we should all try such as

“Can a school [or a class] be built on questions?” (p. 50). He offers an account of New York educator Deborah Meier’s take on learning skills/habits of mind such as

  • Evidence: How do we know what is true or false? What evidence counts?
  • Viewpoint: How might this look if we stepped into other shoes, or looked at it from a different direction?
  • Connection: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before?
  • Conjecture: What if it were different?
  • Relevance: Why does this matter? (p.51).

“Who is entitled to ask questions in class?” (p. 56). I have outlined the “snowball” technique for helping students formulate questions and noted the value of the procedure for diagnostic assessment. Another resource that offers a technique for teaching students is the Right Question Institute http://rightquestion.org/. Signing up— it’s FREE— allows you to check out the Question Formulating Procedure and some of its applications. Also check out http://amorebeautifulquestion.com/

Then, as I have written some years ago in a Pedagogical Perspectives, there are focus questions for a unit or a course. Some examples from our related curricula include:

  • Why is there a Canada? (from decades ago by John C. Ricker, teacher, textbook author, dean of the Faculty of Education U of T and Order of Canada recipient)
  • What makes our world “modern”? Why the dominance of the west? (from the gr 12 World History course)
  • Are we dominated by reason or emotion? For social science and economics courses. (Dan Kahneman won a Nobel prize in economics for looking this question.)
  • What is True? What is Beautiful? What is Good? (Three questions from Howard Gardner for all curricula.)

Another approach I used to use “back in the day” but had forgotten is opening, not with a question or having students formulate questions, but providing a provocative proposition. This you would have students interpret, write individual responses, share and compare. If you can, collect the written responses and see where they take you.

For example, Don Mesibov from St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY used the following (PRACTICAL PRACTICES  Volume 3 Practice 20 May 15, 2017). “All generalizations are false, including this one.” Oliver Wendell Holmes (an opening to an equity course).

In a philosophy course unit on ethics I might use the following from Mesibov to get students to compare: “It matters not whether you won or lost, but how you play the game!” Grantland Rice with “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Red Saunders repeated by Vince Lombardi.

When I did this my questions included:

  • “Thinking is overrated.” (social science)
  • “Justice may be blind but not always right.” (law)
  • “A wise consumer needs to do more than think about it.” (economics)
  • “The colonial period tells us all we need to know about modern America.” (U.S. history)
  • “Without Québec there is no Canada.”

Summary                                                                                                                                       

Change is hard, otherwise we would see inquiry-based teaching all over. Issues abound from assessment to instruction to meeting ministry expectations, real or perceived.  Did I mention parents who probably got tired of their kids asking questions by about age 5-6?

So this series advocates that we keep it simple, concentrate on decent questions since they may promote decent answers, get students to play in this game. The references and tips I have modelled and referred to offer a variety of ways to proceed. And some teachers do inquiry already. Work with them.

We can all learn.