You asked about what each phase of the inquiry cycle adds to the intellectual experience of our students. I would like to add my thoughts about what having an inquiry stance and moving through each phase of the inquiry cycle adds to the cognitive, social, and emotional lives of our students. Those aspects are, of course, integral to the intellectual experience, because we know that we don’t set emotions and the social context aside any time we are learning, whether in school or in the world outside of school. Thinking about the social and emotional value of learning through inquiry is a fairly new and very intriguing area of what I’m thinking about these days.
We’ve had a tough week in the United States with the pandemic racing through the country and political unrest permeating our thoughts. I have my own thoughts about why our social context has become so fractured, but I thought I would try to look at it from a young person’s eyes (as much as I can imagine what they are thinking and feeling). I think both the pandemic and political chaos have threatened the values that make our students strong: safety, a sense of belonging, being listened to, finding meaning that connects with their lives, a sense of empowerment. I think many of our students feel scared, helpless, confused, and powerless. The question for me is: How can students develop positive emotional and social attributes while engaged in inquiry? Here are my first thoughts about how students can nurture their whole selves during the process of inquiry?
Connect. During this beginning phase of inquiry, students need time and opportunity to figure out who they are. What are their interests? What do they feel about the topics under discussion? What do they already know? Is what they already know correct? What personal experiences have they had in the past that are relevant? What do they want to know? What does the main topic have to do with their own lives? What do their classmates think and feel about the topic? This phase is a time of exploration, not only of the topic, but also of themselves. Students need to find personal meaning and motivation at this stage. They need to feel that they can be successful and safe in seeking to learn something new.
Wonder. Elementary-age children, especially early elementary, love to ask questions. They sizzle with curiosity. By the time they get to upper elementary and middle school, many have overridden their sense of wondering with the safe feeling they get when they stay within the guardrails of the teacher and established curriculum. But the essence of inquiry is the personal sense of wonder fostered in each individual. To help students develop the confidence to ask questions that matter to them and that stretch the boundaries of the prescribed curriculum, librarians and teachers need to provide a strong safety net and caring guidance, so that students know they can ask questions that are meaningful to them and also know they will have the time and opportunity to change those questions when they discover better ones. By focusing on the value of the inquiry process itself rather than on a final, “perfect” product, librarians and classroom teachers can help students feel empowered and safe in taking risks, failing, and asking deep and complex questions that they care about but that are difficult (or maybe impossible) to answer.
Investigate. So many cognitive skills are involved in the Investigate phase of inquiry that it is easy for librarians and classroom teachers to overlook the importance of the social and emotional skills necessary for students to move successfully through their investigations. Students may start by being confused about their focus, then frustrated because they cannot find the information they are seeking, then overwhelmed because they have found too much. Many students compensate by being laser-focused and ignoring the messiness inherent in inquiry, especially at this phase. Perhaps the timeline of the assignment has forced them to just get the job done. That transformation of inquiry into simple information-gathering means that students are not getting full value from the experience. It is incumbent upon the educators to infuse this phase of inquiry with teaching strategies and opportunities for students to get support from each other, to resist confirmation bias and persevere to seek multiple perspectives, to make sense of and form their own meaning from the information, and to get beyond their own assumptions and biases to develop empathy.
Construct. Construct may be the scariest aspect of inquiry for many students who have always learned what they were expected to learn from lectures and textbooks, but never have had to come up with their own ideas, opinions, or conclusions. I actually did not learn to do that until I was in college. If our goal is to imbue our students with self-confidence in their own expertise, then we must teach students to build their own understanding based on the evidence they have discovered. Certainly a great deal of scaffolding, support from educators and peers, and reflective conversations are necessary for students to feel safe, empowered, and confident to form their own interpretations.
Express. Although certainly the Express phase is about completing and communicating the final product, the real value of Express is in the personal attributes that students develop. When students are enabled (through scaffolding, guidance, and practice) to successfully present their ideas to others, they develop their own voice, self-confidence, and agency. They feel empowered to tackle another learning experience in the future. They adjust their own identity and begin to see themselves as experts.
Reflect. Reflection is an essential attribute throughout inquiry, but at the end of an inquiry experience, it adds an element of mindfulness that will position students for future learning. During this phase, students are asked to think about their own experience of inquiry as well as their final product. Sometimes students have been asked to keep a research log throughout the process to record their thoughts and feelings, which certainly makes this final reflection more authentic. Even if students have not tracked their own emotional and social growth during the process, librarians and classroom teachers can ask guiding questions that will enable them to parse their own emotional and social growth. That self-awareness will lead to more successful learning experiences in the future and a greater sense of satisfaction about what they have accomplished.
Of course, there are many other aspects of the student experience during inquiry that we should explore. I am interested in how we can know if students are getting the value we intend for them to gain through inquiry. I wonder how we can help students make inquiry a natural part of their lives, not just a stance that applies to their academic lives. I also wonder how students can maintain the healthy social and emotional attributes that we help them develop when they confront the real world of pandemics and political uncertainty. How do librarians and teachers empower all students to develop self-confidence, voice, and agency?