Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Inquiry is a natural process. Infants learn about their world by watching, touching and tasting everything that they see. Through these experiences children begin to make connections, organize and understand their world. Inquiry learning in the classroom has many of these same characteristics. It allows students to construct meaning in order to achieve deeper learning.

14-connections-01An inquiry approach to classroom learning can give schools a child-centered feeling. By definition, inquiry is about finding out, without being told. Inquiry encourages children to formulate and investigate specific questions related to a topic of interest. In order for lasting learning to occur, children must make connections between what they know and what they are learning. This connection helps children retain information, apply information to new situations and reinforces the need for continuous learning. Inquiry inspires children to be curious.

Inquiry increases engagement. When children are seeking answers to real questions, they are more focused and engaged. They are not distracted because they are already participating in something that is meaningful to them. An inquiry focus allows teachers to center instruction around a real-world problem, to create a context for learning and engage children in the learning process.

So does that mean that teachers using an inquiry approach fail to teach the required curriculum? Certainly not! Inquiry-based instruction is taught along a continuum from teacher-directed to student-centered. At some points in the school day it is most appropriate for the teacher to dictate both the content and process of instruction. At other points in the day children may be free to pursue a topic of interest while meeting a set of instructional competencies set forth by the teacher. At other times children are learning about the topic in a manner that best suits their personal interest and learning style.
Inquiry is often thought of in relation to the science curriculum. The inquiry model is heavily predicated on the scientific method. Scientists ask a question, make a hypothesis, develop a procedure, conduct an investigation and evaluate results. During science instruction children are taught to think like scientists and follow that procedure. Inquiry about a topic of personal interest can be a vehicle for developing skills in reading, writing and thinking. Math skills can be practiced in the collection and analysis of data as part of an inquiry study.

Systems thinking is an ideal complement to an inquiry approach. The tools and habits of a systems thinker help the learner to make connections, to ask good questions and construct deeper understandings. Systems thinking allows the inquiring mind to organize its thinking by making it visible. The systems thinker focuses on patterns and trends, looks at circular causality, seeks out multiple perspectives and recognizes interdependencies. All of these habits of thinking are well supported by an instructional environment of inquiry. Applying systems thinking tools (e.g. BOTGs, causal loop diagrams, stock-flow diagrams) helps the learner reflect on her thinking and thus helps generate additional questions for further inquiry.

Inherent in an inquiry approach to education is a deeply held belief that children are capable human beings who can create questions of interest and who must accept responsibility for their own learning. The inquiry approach fosters deep understanding, places the responsibility for learning on the learner and creates a dynamic climate where learning is exciting. Even more important, an inquiry approach when paired with systems thinking gives students the tools they need to be life-long learners with an inquiring mind.

I Think I Am Going to Make a Change…

“I am going to make a change in my personal reflection journal,” exclaimed an excited Jonathan during sharing time in his fifth grade classroom.

His teacher inquired, “What are you going to change?”

“I am going to add a behavior-over-time graph [BOTG] to my journal entry every day, so I can see the trends. It will help me more when I am 20 or so.”

“How will it help you when you are older?”

“Well, I am only 10, and my writing is not so complex. When I am older, I might not really get what I meant, but I’ll always be able to understand the graph. It will help me remember more.”

Jonathan was excited about what the systems thinking tool helped him remember. He committed to using the tool regularly as a part of his weekly journal assignment. At 10 years old, he grasped the power this would have to positively impact his future.

The value of an instructional strategy comes when students are able to use that strategy independently. For Jonathan, the transfer was almost immediate. The BOTG went from an assignment to a personal application that would enhance his ability to communicate. Jonathan’s commitment to using the tool is an example of what makes systems thinking different than other instructional methods. It helps students to clarify, communicate and go deeper with their own thinking.

Recently during a coaching visit a teacher said, “My students are tired of behavior-over-time graphs. I need to find another tool.” As teachers grow in their use and understanding of tools, they need to muster the courage to try new things. However, if students are growing weary of using a particular tool, another question to ask is, “How am I helping students become more independent in their use of the tool?”

Behavior-over-time graphs are an excellent example of a tool that is easy but not simple. In other words, it is not difficult to teach children how to construct a line graph on which the x-axis always represents the time and the y-axis represents something in the system that is changing (i.e. a variable). It can be modeled very concretely with easily accessible data for a variable like temperature. Students can also be taught to use various scales for perceptual data representing dynamics for variables like amount of pain or level of happiness. So while these graphs may be easy to make, their interpretation may be incredibly complex. For instance, students may use multiple sources of information to assess a candidate’s popularity only to learn that depending on the source, the conclusion drawn from the information is very different. Likewise, a student who must retell the story of a graph representing the plot of a novel may have a very difficult time accounting for the increasing level of tension at a given point if he does not fully understand the text being analyzed. The same level of complexity can be seen in an adult example. Comparing a school staff’s perception of the suspension rate to graphs of the actual trends produced by the data can also produce a deep conversation about the accuracies and discrepancies between the data.

The conditions and expectations for use of a behavior-over-time graph as a tool for learning influence the strategy’s effectiveness and the level of student engagement. As teachers increase their sophistication with systems tools, they become increasingly adept at matching the tools and strategies to their instructional objective. The greater the congruence of the tool to the learning outcome, the greater the effect it has on learning and engagement. The other way that teachers and students both grow in their use of the tools is the level of independence and ownership students take for the tools. In the example above, Jonathan had a great level of confidence and independence in his use of the BOTG tool. He was able to personalize the tool in such a way that it helped him take an increasing amount of personal responsibility for his own learning.

There are benefits when a student is able to internalize a systems thinking strategy. Always be ready to make a change, keeping in mind it might not be to a new tool, just a new application.