Seymour Papert led the Epistemology and Learning Group, later the Future of Learning Group, in the MIT Media Lab, during which time he authored the Epistemology & Learning Memos – deliberations on how children learn to know and understand. The FOSIL Group Epistemology & Learning Memos honour this service to children and are offered in this spirit.
E&L Memo 2 | Focus on Inquiry: Reflections on Developing a Model of Inquiry by Dianne Oberg
Introduction by Darryl Toerien (2 May 2021)
Seymour Papert (1993) argued that the kind of knowledge children most need is knowledge that will help them get more knowledge. This epistemological concern – a concern with what knowledge is and how we get knowledge – is the starting point for our deliberations on how children learn to know, because what we think about learning, and therefore education (especially in schools), depends on what we think about knowledge.
The Galileo Educational Network describes inquiry as “a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world, and as such, it is a stance that pervades all aspects of life and is essential to the way in which knowledge is created”. Inquiry, then, is a fundamental human activity out of which libraries were born, initially as storehouses of knowledge. Although school libraries are a recent development by comparison (Wiegand & Davis, 1994, p. 564), as Daniel Callison (2015) points out, “the progression to student-centered, inquiry-based learning through school library programs was clearly underway more than forty years ago” (p. 3), and can be traced back to 1960 (p. 213). This means that inquiry as a dynamic process that unfolds in and through the school library is increasingly well understood, if not equally well supported. Consequently, a number of highly successful instructional models of the inquiry process have been developed, such as Barbara Stripling’s Model of Inquiry / Empire State Information Fluency Continuum, Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process / Guided Inquiry Design, and Focus on Inquiry, which is the subject of this E&L Memo.
I had the good fortune to meet Dianne Oberg following a keynote I was equally fortunate to have been invited to deliver at the International Association for School Librarianship 2019 Conference in Dubrovnik. It is revealing about Dianne that I only later came to appreciate the extent of her influence on the development of school librarianship, and not just in Canada.
Dianne is Professor Emerita – “teacher-librarianship, in school library program implementation and evaluation and in online school library education” – in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta (Canada). Dianne is also chair of the School Library Research SIG of the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL), and was the first editor of School Libraries Worldwide – the “official professional peer-reviewed (refereed) research journal of the International Association of School Librarianship” – and is still on its Editorial Board. With Barbara-Schultz Jones, Asscociate Professor at the University of North Texas (USA), she is co-editor of the IFLA School Library Guidelines (2015) and the IFLA publications Global action on school library guidelines (2015), Global action on school library education and training (2019), and the provisionally-titled Global action on school libraries : models of inquiry (2022). With her colleague in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta, Professor Jennifer Branch-Mueller, she was also instrumental in the development of Focus on Inquiry.
In collaboration with Elizabeth Hutchinson and #LibraryStaffLoveLearning, Focus on inquiry : a teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning (available under an * Open Government Licence – Alberta) was the subject of a 3-month study, which culminated in a Q&A with Dianne and Jennifer (see here).
- Callison, D. (2015). The Evolution of Inquiry: Controlled, Guided, Modeled, and Free. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.
- Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.
- Wiegand, W. A., & Davis, D. G. (Eds.). (1994). Encyclopedia of Library History. New York: Garland Publishing.
My Journey into Inquiry Learning
The place of libraries and library instruction was not evident in my early career plans. I was raised in a rural environment, and I had no regular access to libraries until my last years of high school. As a first-year university students, the first look at the card catalogue in the undergraduate library struck terror into my heart—it took up the entire first floor of the library building! However, a Bachelor of Education, majoring in Social Studies, forced me to use libraries for course-related research assignments, and gradually I gained some confidence and some skills. When I began teaching in a large and progressive city school district, I was fortunate to have access to several teacher-librarians who encouraged my work with project-based learning and who encouraged me to pursue education in school librarianship. After completing a part time Diploma program in school libraries, I was appointed to a full-time teacher-librarian position. That year was amazing, and I wanted to learn more! The next year, I entered full-time studies in the Master of Library Science program.
Upon completion of my master’s degree, I was appointed to a full-time position as teacher-librarian at a large high school that was well-known for its successful curriculum-integrated school library program. Soon after that, I began serving on the executive councils of my provincial and national school library associations. Association work brought me into involvement with advocacy, policy development, and policy implementation. Focus on Learning: An Integrated Program Model for Alberta School Libraries (Alberta Education, 1985) guided the professional development needed to support the implementation of Alberta’s first school library policy.
In 1986, I was appointed to the University as an instructor in school librarianship, and I began a deep dive into the foundations of school library education for pre-service teachers and teacher-librarians. Brainstorms and Blueprints: Teaching Library Research as a Thinking Process (1988) by Barbara Stripling and Judy Pitts was one of the texts that I and my students relied upon—we appreciated its clear examples of library instruction and its emphasis on developing students’ critical thinking skills (and it resonated with my background in social studies and project-based teaching and learning). Thank you, Barbara!
When educators in the K-12 sector began to implement the policies and practices outlined in the Focus on Learning document, the lack of guidance related to instructional matters became apparent. Focus on Research: A Guide to Developing Students’ Research Skills (Alberta Education, 1990) was developed in response to educators’ concerns. This document presented a model of the “research” (inquiry) process, based on research with learners, especially that conducted by Carol C. Kuhlthau, and also incorporating important suggestions from Alberta teachers and teacher-librarians. A professional development event, a week-long immersion in Summer of 1990, with Dr. Kuhlthau as the keynote speaker and workshop leader, made an important contribution to the school library community’s commitment to a research-based process model. I am grateful for the opportunities that she opened up for me, including serving on the evaluation team for the DeWitt-Wallace Reader’s Digest Library Power program. Library Power was a decade-long multimillion dollar program for improving school libraries in the United States; nineteen communities across the country each received $1.2 million in funding (matched by their school authorities) for library facility and collection upgrades and professional development for teachers and librarians. My work as a Library Power case study researcher involved investigation into the transformations in thought and practice necessary for implementing inquiry-based learning in an elementary school. That experience shaped my thinking and practice as a school library researcher and educator.
A decade after the publication of Focus on Research, findings from continuing research on models of library instruction, as well as suggestions from teachers and teacher-librarians, indicated that it was time to enhance and rethink the 1990 research process model. Although the essential elements of the Focus on Research model were strong, changes in curriculum, students, technology, professional development, research findings and the world of work all pointed to the timeliness of an update. Additionally, research and practice pointed to a need for a deeper consideration of the implications of technology and the implications of the affective nature of inquiry-based learning.
In 2004, the Ministry of Education in Alberta published Focus on inquiry: A teacher’s guide for implementing inquiry-based learning. The document is freely available from the Ministry’s website (https://open.alberta.ca/publications/0778526666).
This E & L Memo brings together my reflections on the history and development of the Focus on Inquiry model and on the changes in my own knowledge and understanding of models of inquiry. Please note that in this memo I am sharing my personal connections and perspectives. Others, including my co-writer for Focus on Inquiry, Dr. Jennifer Branch-Mueller, may have quite different perspectives! Also, it is important for me to acknowledge that my graduate students’ experiences with inquiry, through their work in schools and their research in schools, have contributed a great deal to my understanding of inquiry. Since I retired from the University as Professor Emerita in 2011, Dr. Branch has been working with the graduate students in teacher-librarianship who continue to bring questions and concerns from the field into the academy. Thank you, Jennifer!
Focus on Inquiry: Twenty Years in Development
Focus on Learning (Alberta Education, 1985) presented Alberta’s first school library policy and an Integrated Program Model for School Libraries. At the heart of the model was Cooperative Planning and Implementation, an essential aspect of each of the three components of the model, Instruction, Management, and Development. Instruction was placed at the focal point of the model and consisted of four instructional elements: Information Retrieval, Information Processing, Information Sharing, and Appreciation of Knowledge and Culture. Although the four elements of Instruction were described in terms of skills to be taught and student outcomes to be achieved, there was little guidance as to how teachers and teacher-librarians might implement Instruction, which was defined as “A series of teaching/learning strategies designed to develop a full range of information skills that are correlated to meet both the needs of the student and the goals and objectives of the classroom curriculum” (p. 6).
Five years later, Focus on Research: A Guide to Developing Students’ Research Skills (Alberta Education, 1990) was developed in response to the instructional concerns of school-based educators. However, shortly after the publication of Focus on Research, the team of researchers and practitioners involved in its development began to be aware of some shortcomings of the document. They saw that they had been ineffective in their attempts to convey the importance of attention to the affective or emotional domain in inquiry-based learning, and they realized that they had provided insufficient background information for users of the document–whether teachers or teacher-librarians—many of whom did not have a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of information seeking.
Unfortunately, the early 1990s were marked by cutbacks in educational funding, and the human and financial resources for developing a revised inquiry model were no longer available. A serendipitous combination of circumstances in the early 2000s changed all that! Focus on Inquiry: A Teacher’s Guide for Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning (Alberta Learning, 2004) provides guidance for the work of teachers and librarians in developing students’ information literacies, specifically in relation to the process of inquiry or “inquiry-based learning,” and it takes into account process models of library instruction that have been developed in other parts of the world over the years. Dr. Jennifer Branch and I were fortunate to be asked by Alberta’s Ministry of Education to take the lead in developing the Focus on Inquiry model. Since its publication, almost two decades ago, we have continued to develop our understanding of inquiry learning and cultures of inquiry.
The steps in the development of Alberta’s three iterations of a model of inquiry demonstrate, I believe, three things that are important about instructional models: (1) a model gives educators an important starting point for engaging in any new pedagogy; (2) a model gives educators the concepts and language to be able to critique that model and to improve it; and (3) developing a model is a time-consuming project. The development of the model also reminds me the of importance of school-based educators being involved with researchers in the process of creating, implementing and improving process-based instructional models.
No matter the ages of the students that we work with, no matter the topics they investigate, there are some common themes related to how learners experience the inquiry process and related to how instruction in the classroom and in the library can best support learners as they work through the inquiry process. Beginning in 1983, Dr. Carol Kuhlthau (Rutgers University, USA) developed and validated a model of the information seeking process, using field studies to investigate the inquiry experiences of learners of many ages and stages of life. Her studies began with high school seniors (low-, middle-, and high-achieving), and extended to university students, public and academic library users, lawyers and security analysts.
Top of mind as the work on Focus on Inquiry began was the challenge of conveying the importance of developing metacognitive skills through inquiry. The second challenge was changing the way that teachers and librarians needed to think about time in the process of inquiry. The first was confirmed from local research done by our graduate students; the second arose from discussions with local teachers and librarians. I will share some thoughts about these two challenges, and I invite your thoughts in response to them.
Developing metacognitive knowledge and skills through inquiry
Attention to metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive skills is a benchmark for me when I am assessing the value of an inquiry model. In a recent email, Darryl commented about the importance of developing metacognitive knowledge for our students (and therefore for us as teachers and librarians) and shared this definition: “knowledge of one’s capacity to learn (person), knowledge about the nature of what is to be learned (task), and knowledge about the actions that one can take to aid one’s thinking (strategy).” Does this definition clearly indicate that metacognition has an affective dimension as well as a cognitive dimension? I argue that knowledge of person, task and strategy has an emotional dimension which teachers and librarians do not always recognize and that they may tend to leave out of their interactions with students.
Both the 1990 and the 2004 Alberta models emphasize the importance of giving explicit attention to metacognition through a core component, titled “Review the Process” in Focus on Research and “Reflecting on the Process” in Focus on Inquiry. This pedagogical element is meant to be included in every phase of the inquiry process, not only in a final evaluative phase. Teachers and librarians need to provide instructional guidance that is affective as well as cognitive in focus if we want students to have worthwhile inquiry experiences and to develop inquiry-related understandings. This kind of instructional guidance requires a deep understanding of how learners experience the inquiry process and about how librarians and teachers can facilitate learning.
Teachers and librarians need to understand where in the inquiry process that students are likely to experience confusion and frustration (and optimism and pride). They need to help students to see that waves of emotions are normal and are experienced at some time by all learners faced with challenging learning tasks. Once students understand that their feelings are not unique but shared by others, they are less likely to be overwhelmed by them and more likely to put into practice the coping strategies needed to address those feelings.
Chapters 5-11 of Focus on Inquiry gives practical strategies for teaching students about the six phases and one core component of the model. Focus on Inquiry is an instructional model, supporting teaching and learning, and based on a theoretical model, Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process. Chapters 5-11 each present one element of the Inquiry Model through a variety of lenses:
- Key learnings
- Building student skills for …
- Teaching … including Tips for teachers
- Assessing …
- Thinking about …
- Sample activity for …
Chapter 5 begins “Reflecting on the Process is the core component [my emphasis] of the Inquiry Model and part of every phase.” It continues with Key learnings, stating that
Students will learn to:
- understand that inquiry is a personal learning process
- understand the inquiry process is transferable to other learning situations
- develop their metacognitive and reflecting skills – thinking about their thinking and thinking about their feelings
- develop strategies for monitoring and enhancing their thinking and feelings. (Alberta Learning, 2004, p. 35)
Throughout the Inquiry Model, metacognition is presented in terms of thinking and feelings. Looking back, “Thinking about Reflecting on the Process” is one place where I might want to add content around the concept of transferability. The idea of making connections between previous and new knowledge would be enhanced by exploring the concepts of “near transfer” and “far transfer.”
Thinking about time in the process of inquiry
The process approach to inquiry highlights the complexity of learning from information. Complexity generally increases time demands, from planning through to reviewing of outcomes. Without a deep understanding of the process approach to inquiry-based learning, teachers and librarians are unlikely to invest the time needed to collaborate and to establish a shared understanding of the purpose of the inquiry project, the students’ background knowledge, the concepts and skills that will need to be taught, the desired outcome of the project, and the roles to be played by teachers and librarians. Without careful and thoughtful preparation, it is easy continue practices which limit students learning opportunities, some of which push learners to “get to work” too early and prevent them from developing a personal perspective on their topic and motivation for learning through investigation.
The problem-solving emphasis of the process approach means a shift in the way we think about and use time. More time is needed in early stages of the process for exploration, for building content knowledge, for developing a personal interpretation or focus. This is time well-invested in developing students’ interest in and commitment to the topic or question being researched. Even very young researchers, given the opportunity for lengthy and rich exploration of a topic, can develop a clear understanding of the inquiry process as well as producing unique and original research products. Older students can become more motivated if they have solid background knowledge in the topic area and can see the purpose of the research and its connection to their other school work.
How long should an inquiry project take? Longer, rather than shorter, is generally better. It is easy to be tempted by such shortcuts as giving students a list of topic questions from which to choose, rather than having them develop their own questions on a general topic, but doing so prevents students from developing a personal perspective on the topic and it also limits opportunities for peer learning and support.
Most curricula are organized by topic and “big ideas” or essential questions and in a particular recommended time frame. In Canada, for example, a year’s work in social studies or history will be divided up into four to six units of study. In my experience, spreading the work of an inquiry projects over most of the time devoted to a unit of study results in the most satisfactory outcomes for the students and also for the teacher and the librarian.
Prior to beginning a library-based inquiry project that will culminate a unit of study, the librarian and the teacher should have worked together to discover what previous experience the students have had with inquiry projects, and they have identified classroom and/or activities that can fill in some of the skill gaps. At the beginning of the unit of study, the classroom teacher should introduce the students to the idea that an inquiry project will be part of the students’ work in the unit of study and that there will be time in class to discuss and develop possible topics or questions for inquiry that deal with or are related to the subject of the unit of study. Ideally, the librarian would be part of this discussion and should assure the students that he/she will be available to them if they want to talk with someone about the topics or questions they are considering. At this early phase of the project, students should be introduced to or reminded of the phases in the inquiry model that they will be experiencing (e.g., Planning, Retrieving, Processing, Creating, Sharing, Evaluating, and the core component Reflecting on the Process).
Over the next weeks, the classroom teacher should keep a list of the topics or questions that are developing so that both the teacher and teacher can give feedback on the potential of those, given the available time and resources. The teacher and librarian should encourage students to access sources in the library, online, and elsewhere in the weeks before the “strategic searching” begins in the library. From the beginning of the inquiry process, the teacher and/or librarian should provide opportunities for students to “reflect on the process” that they are experiencing. Questions such as “What are the phases in the inquiry process, and where am I now? What sources have been most useful to me? How am I feeling about this phase of my inquiry?” will help students to understand and manage their own learning processes. When teachers and librarians talk with students about their learning, they can help the students to move forward, see things from new perspectives, make connections between previous and new knowledge, and see the patterns of their learning.
I invite your thoughts and questions on these and other issues related to inquiry-based teaching and learning.
Professor Emerita, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada ([email protected])