Your observation underscores Neil Postman’s point – made with Charles Weingartner more than 50 years ago! – that “of all the ‘survival strategies’ education has to offer, none is more potent or in greater need of explication than the ‘inquiry environment'” (1971, p. 36, emphasis added). This remains the case, and realizing the educational promise of inquiry requires some understanding of the debilitating tendencies that rob inquiry of its potency, four of which we addressed most recently in our AASL presentation – Leading an Inquiry-Based School: Discovering the Promise – which are:
Inquiry as a dynamic process and skills is divorced from learning important content.
Inquiry is reduced to a mechanical process with no spirit of wonder and puzzlement.
Without both a spirit of wonder and puzzlement and a dynamic process, inquiry is reduced to a thoughtless fact-finding activity.
Increasing emphasis on the “engineering of learning” based on ‘hard evidence’ from the field of cognitive science endangers the possibility of inquiry.
What we have yet to address is the extent to which an individual school is, or isn’t, what John MacBeath (1993) termed an enabling environment, and discussed so perceptively.
In the context of inquiry, the work of the Developing Inquiring Communities in Education Project (DICEP) is extraordinary. DICEP started in 1991 as a collaboration between teachers in public schools (Grades 1-8) in metro Toronto and surrounding areas and university teacher educators at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto. Over 10 years, the Project saw a shift in focus from “a study of ‘Learning through Talk’ in elementary science classrooms [to] creating opportunities for inquiry-based learning and teaching at all levels and in all areas of the curriculum” (p. 2).*
Gordon Wells, who led the collaboration, concludes with the following observations:
“In general terms…the force that drives the enacted curriculum must be a pervasive spirit of inquiry, and the dominant purpose of all activities must be an increase in understanding.” (p.7)
“However…there is no straightforward, universal method of achieving these goals .” (p.7)
“Each classroom is thus unique. And so, if teachers are to create communities that work collaboratively toward shared goals while valuing diversity of opinion…and, at the same time, are to foster individual initiative and creativity, they also must approach the task in a spirit of inquiry….In fact, teacher and students together must become a community of inquiry with respect to all aspects of the life of the classroom and all areas of the curriculum.” (p.7)
“First, if classrooms were to become places where students were actively and enthusiastically attempting to construct answers to questions that were of real interest to them – rather than simply going through the routines of ‘doing school’ – more would be needed than the introduction of prepackaged inquiry activities, taken from teachers’ manuals or downloaded from the Internet.” (p.8)
“Second…a great deal hinged on being able to change the habitual patterns of interaction in the classroom, with their built-in assumptions that it was teachers, not students, who were entitled to ask questions and that such questions should be the ones to which there were correct answers, already known by the teacher….really interesting questions rarely had simple answers.” (pp.8-9)
“Not only do schools, as institutions, have established patterns of organization…that make it difficult to depart from traditional practices, but both teachers and students have been enculturated into roles and routines that are often hard to break.” (p.9)
“Every classroom is unique in respect to the persons it brings together, the resources available to them, and the constraints under which they operate. This means that any theory of pedagogy or curriculum necessarily has to be adapted and modified according to local conditions. There is, however, a much more fundamental reason for the failure of top-down reform, namely, that the relationship between academic theory and the practice of teaching is much less direct than the implementation model implies.” (p.16)
“In the long term…for change to become institutionalized it must be appropriated by those who are involved on a continuing basis, and enacted in the moment-by-moment decisions that make up daily classroom practice.” (p.15)
Research is integral to inquiry – mainly in, but not limited to, the Investigate stage of the inquiry process – and aims at “generating evidence for [answering] the chosen/ given question through empirical investigations of various kinds and/ or from consulting relevant [and reliable] sources” (Wells, 2001, p. 191). By definition, then, all research is thoughtful, but only thoughtful research tasks actually develop researchers. And in turn, inquirers.
This misapprehension is what happens when inquiry is divorced from learning important content.
*The work of DICEPS was foundational for the Galileo Educational Network (GEN), which served as the professional learning arm of the School of Education at the University of Calgary from 1999-2022, whose defintion of inquiry ours is enlarged from:
Inquiry is a stance of wonder and puzzlement that gives rise to a dynamic process of coming to know and understand the world and ourselves in it as the basis for responsible participation in community.
Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1971). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
MacBeath, J. (1993). Learning for Your Self: Supported Study in Strathclyde Schools. Strathclyde : Strathclyde Regional Council.
Wells, G. (2001). The Development of a Community of Inquirers. In G. Wells (Ed.), Action, Talk, & Text: Learning and Teaching Through Inquiry (pp. 1-23). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.