The Four Levels of Inquiry Learning

The Four Levels of Inquiry Learning

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An Apprenticeship to Creative Thinking

In the 19th century, scholars and students were fascinated with Aristotle and the ancient philosophers. They used Aristotle as proofs for arguments, and used Aristotle’s facts to back up those arguments. They used to say, only half-jokingly, that “if you wanted to know how many teeth a horse had, you didn’t look in the horse’s mouth. You looked up what Aristotle had to say about it.”

A number of scientists and thinkers came along to get a more practical approach to scholarship. Among the greatest of the them was the naturalist Louis Agassiz. He said that if you want to understand nature, then “study nature, not books.” He organized many trips and centers where students could study with their own eyes, with their own ears, with their own hands. They rolled up their sleeves and put their boots on and got dirty. That was how you learned about nature. It was said that we need an apprenticeship to nature, as if nature was the teacher, and we sit at it’s feet and learn from it.

Perhaps that idea seems like common sense to us today.

But today we are in a similar rut as the 19th century students who overfocused on Aristotle. Today, we want students to learn critical thinking skills, but we try to teach it to them by talking at them. We want to teach students to think with higher-order thinking skills, but we expect them to do that by making them read books they don’t want to read and then filling out worksheets. We try to teach students problem-solving by making students perform an experiment where there is only one possible outcome. Businesses are crying for graduates who understand innovation, but we think that our creative students will just kinda, sorta learn innovation (of course, that won’t happen, because we took our creative students and put them on Ritalin).

So today, perhaps we need an apprenticeship to creative thinking. Or to problem solving skills. Or to independent thinking. This cannot be learned from books very effectively. It is done by letting creative thinking happen. We must sit and watch creative thinking take place, and then guide it where we need to guide and support where we need to support.

Below are a few thoughts about inquiry learning, and how we might teach discovery more successfully.

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Learning is an Emergent Phenomenon

Education scientist Sugata Mitra put a computer in a rural Indian village, and told the children that they could use it. It had voice recognition software, but the children in the village spoke a dialect that the computer couldn’t recognize. Mitra told them “Make the computer understand you.” The children asked, “How do we do that?” Mitra replied, “I don’t know, but I’ll come back in a few weeks.”

He came back in a few weeks and found that the children had indeed made the computer understand them. They changed their dialect, so that the computer could recognize their words. This, says Mitra, is an emergent phenomenon. Education is emergent when it does something that the system was not designed to do.

All education needs to push for emergence—in fact, we could question whether learning happened at all if emergence did not happen.

Our problem is that we think we have to control learning tightly—we have to follow the curriculum closely, and make kids learn standards, so that they’ll score well on tests. The problem is that systems that are controlled too tightly can never be emergent. When education is tightly controlled, learners cannot anything outside the boundaries.

Real, authentic learning is a long, messy process. Authentic learning isn’t about knowing how many molecules are in a polypeptide chain—real learning is about a struggling, challenging process that leads to permanent learning and strengthens curiosity. We need to watch it carefully, observe it astutely, and figure out how to insert ourselves into the process so that learning is maximized.

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Four Levels of Inquiry Learning

It seems that there are at least four levels of inquiry learning. As we go deeper into the levels, students learn more, remember more deeply, and become more motivated and self-confident.

In inquiry learning, there has to be a problem. Then there is time to work at the problem, and then afterwards there is time to debrief about the problem and the solutions. Playing with hands-on manipulatibles is a great learning tool, but if they are only playing to reinforce the concepts that have been taught, then it isn’t what we are calling “inquiry learning.”

In Level 1 inquiry, the teacher provides a well-structured problem, and there is one correct solution. For example, a teacher might ask the students whether hot water or cold water boils faster, and sends the students to check it out. She tells them to have one beaker full of cold water, one full of hot water, and apply the same amount of heat to both. All the students will get the same answer. In Level 1 inquiry, the teacher has formulated the plan, set the boundaries, given the directions, and tells the students to carry it out.

In Level 2 inquiry, there is a well-structured problem, with one or more solutions hidden by variables. The teacher still frames the question, but the students have to sort through a variety of variables—some that affect the outcome and others that don’t. For example, the teacher might be teaching a class on different forces, such as gravity. The teacher might give the students model car tracks and little model cars, and say “play with these however you like, but watch for pushing and pulling and the different kinds of forces.” The students make hills and loops and ramps, all the time watching what forces apply to the cars. Afterward, the teacher discusses it with them and hears what they found. The teacher might want to give vocabulary to a phenomenon that the students found.

In Level 3 inquiry, there is an ill-structured problem. An ill structured problem means that the exact nature of the problem is unclear, and the goals are unclear, and so different people may actually define the problem differently. Virtually all the problems we face in real life are ill-structured. Students have to define the problem, and then look for solutions. In level 3 inquiry, there is one, and maybe more solutions. For example, a school is near a dammed river where fish are dying. Biologists realize that the dam will have to be removed. Students could make models of the river and dam, to determine the best way to remove the dam—a way that will cause the least amount of environmental damage.

In Level 4 inquiry, there is an ill-structured problem, but there are many solutions, each with own advantages and disadvantages. The students job is not only to define the problem, but create the solutions but then evaluate the efficacy of the solutions. For example, the teacher tells the students to build a base on the moon. Students have to come up with the best way to structure the base, how to get the components there, and how to put in safety systems to prevent catastrophe. Deciding the functions of the base will affect the design. Students have to think through the challenges—no atmosphere, the long distance, the lack of food and supplies, etc., and come up with solutions for each. In this case, there are many solutions, and many different scenarios, and every solution scenario will have advantages and disadvantages.

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The Role of the Teacher

What does the teacher do when the kids are poring over a problem? Unfortunately, many teachers think their role is to give out the problem, and then go back to their desk and work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sometimes you just leave them alone. Sometimes you pose a question to guide them in a better direction. Sometimes you have to give them a hint. Sometimes you push. Sometimes you reassure them. But no matter what, the role of the teacher is never to go back and sit at your desk.

The teacher is as involved as ever, just differently involved. The teacher needs to watch and observe, in order to diagnose learning obstacles. When the learning obstacle is diagnosed, the teacher must enter the situation with an intervention. Like all teaching, it’s more of an art than a science.

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Redefining Teacher Training

What if almost all the school’s time was spent with Level 4 inquiry learning? Students would be engaged and motivated, with schools taking advantage of their innate natural curiosity. This kind of education would require a different way to teacher training.

Teachers would have to be trained to think in terms of process, not output. Currently, the output is a test or some form of assessment that gauges “whether or not they have learned the material.” A more useful assessment would be to gauge the process, to see whether or not they are on their way to learning the material.  Today, teachers are trained in assessment; they are not trained to follow the messy, meandering path of learning.

Today, most teachers trained are trained to control the curriculum, to control learning, and to control the outcome. Teachers would have to be trained to delight in the uncertainty of learning. Control is always an illusion anyway. We never had control over their learning. It’s possible to goad students into scoring well on tests, but that leaves huge questions for the long term. Research suggests that students who have been drilled on test answers will not only forget the material soon after, but they will grow up hating the discipline and never again spending time learning in it.

Teachers would have to be trained to understand creativity and curiosity. They’d have to know how to nurture it, support it, and help it to grow. They’d have to know the difference between creativity and randomness, between curiosity and distraction. A student who graduates from the school with a well developed sense of creativity and a high degree of learning self-confidence will be a powerful force for the future.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle, is that teachers would have to let go of the myth that there are average kids, below average kids, and gifted kids. This is a powerful paradigm today, and has been an unintended consequence of our preoccupation with testing. Good performance on testing is rarely an issue of intellect. It has much more to do with motivation, self-confidence, and whether or not they care about the material. Preparing a school where students could learn in a environment that supports and develops their natural curiosity could make all kids gifted.

–Jim Ollhoff, PhD

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