I love this conversation because your insights and challenges are making me think about the practical implementation of inquiry-based learning and teaching. Although I was a classroom teacher and a building-level school librarian for over 20 years, I have been engaged at a whole-district and library-educator level for the many years after that wonderful on-the-ground experience. I tend to think large picture and ignore the day-to-day implementation.
That being said, I would like to counter your feelings of lack of preparation for the paradigm shift because you were not trained as a teacher. I regard the librarian role as a fellow learner as well as a teacher. I have learned the most about the skills I need to teach students by engaging in inquiry as a learner myself and reflecting on the process. How did I find a topic that I was passionate about? Where did I seek information? How did I make sense of the information I found? What did I do if the sources were too pedantic and complex for my taste? I actually have two topics that I have been pursuing for years, just because I’m interested in them. As I thought about my own research, I discovered several tendencies that I am ashamed to admit, but that are pretty common with students. I succumb to confirmation bias, I interpret meaning based on my own assumptions and making quick inferences from headlines and graphics, I quit looking when I cannot easily find “good” information, and on and on.
By looking at my own inquiry learning, I developed a level of comfort in my inquiry-based teaching. I could identify the skills I needed to teach. When I then went to the next step of thinking about how to teach those skills, I did rely on my teaching background briefly to structure the lesson in four phases: direct instruction, guided practice, independent practice, and sharing and reflection. But what unlocked the content of direct instruction and guided practice for me was, once again, putting myself in the learner’s role. I remember trying to develop a lesson on inference. I know how to make inferences and always used to tell students to make inferences while they read. But some students don’t know how to make inferences. I challenged myself to think through my mental process in making an inference – what were the steps I had to go through to perform the skill? I then was able to select text about a sample topic and transparently model my own thinking as I was making inferences (direct instruction). Then I guided students to think through the process as they were making inferences from a different passage of text (guided practice). I provided students with graphic organizers to lead them through the steps during independent practice. Then we came together to share inferences and reflect on what students had learned about making inferences.
I have one other comment that I think is relevant at this point in our conversation. I do not believe that the only time to teach relevant inquiry skills is when students are engaged in a full inquiry project. If we are reading a story to early elementary students, we are teaching skills of inquiry when we ask them to make predictions from the cover, or compare the feelings of two different characters, or interpret the meaning of the illustrations, or state the main idea of the story. I have been doing some learning recently about the deep reading skills that are necessary and integral for inquiry. When we know that a history teacher is preparing to cover a particular era, we can curate high-quality resources and offer to teach students one important skill as a part of that classroom work (e.g., to identify point of view, interpret visuals, or question the text to uncover the explicit and implicit meanings in those sources). My thinking is that we can start the journey toward inquiry in our schools by infusing the skills of inquiry throughout the curriculum and being transparent to the students and teachers that the skills they are learning in their classroom assignments will all come together and empower them to be successful at larger inquiry projects.
Although it may seem that we are ahead of you in implementing inquiry-based learning through our school libraries in the United States, I can assure you that we are not. We’re in this learning path together. This conversation is helping me figure out how to shift the traditional paradigm of the school librarian’s role to become the facilitator of a school-wide inquiry stance.