Starting the search

What do I know about inquiry learning?:

My understanding of the inquiry process is it begins with questions and problems – students will often ask their own questions that they want to answer. By first determining what they already know and then what they want to know, they can determine the questions that challenge them and that they are curious in finding out answers to. These questions are often situated in real-world and contemporary issues, providing relevance and authenticity to the inquiry process.

A high-level inquiry process should begin without facts or an ‘end’ resolution in mind – students undertake their own fact-finding process to find their own answers to their own questions

There is also no obvious or easy path to knowledge – students are required to investigate, collect, and synthesize the information that they have gathered in order to gain understanding and knowledge about the topic and answers to the research/inquiry questions posed at the beginning.

My context:

My role in coming to this investigation is as a Teacher-Librarian, who plays a small role in assisting inquiry-learning projects in various subject areas in Years 7 & 8. This assistance amounts to only helping in the selection of books for subject-specific bulk book tubs that have been identified as required by learning areas. The investigation occurs in the classroom and I am unaware as to what level of inquiry learning occurs – we only provide the books. The other inquiry-based learning that occurs in the school that I am aware of is at Year 9 in a specially built collaborative learning space. Students use the Internet to investigate Local, National, and Global issues. It is a thorough process of inquiry that the library does not help to facilitate. Furthermore, as a beginning teacher with a Year 7 English class negotiating a very descriptive and pre-planned curriculum, I am limited in the amount of inquiry-based activities I can include in my lessons. Even if I found the space, I would feel unsure of how to effectively incorporate inquiry-based activities into English that would result in authentic and rigorous learning.

What do I want to know?:

  • As a teacher and a teacher-librarian, how can I best support students in their investigation, and what are the different roles for each teacher?
  • What level of support should I provide at both the beginning and throughout the process?
  • How do I learn to navigate the fine line between ensuring that students remain on the right track, versus interfering in their pursuit of knowledge and understanding?

How do I find out?:

  • Explore the options for differentiating the inquiry process for different learning needs and abilities
  • Commence my own inquiry process through scouring the published literature, blogs, and websites that explore the inquiry process
  • Engage in professional conversations with colleagues who may have experience in including inquiry-based activities in English.

What does Google tell me?:

Google search
Figure 1: My initial Google search presented me with 207,000,000 results, the first one being a definition from Wikipedia.

An initial Google search of ‘inquiry learning’ comes up with a bold Wikipedia entry, confirming my beliefs on the topic (Fig. 1). Wikipedia has always been constantly-criticised by academics and teachers as not being a trustworthy source of information. For everyday information and answers to questions, I consider Wikipedia to be a useful tool for providing basic understanding and background knowledge on a topic. However, it should not be used as the sole source of information, and the researcher should be critical of anything they read on Wikipedia. When searching for verified information, Wikipedia can be a useful springboard into research using substantiated and reliable sources, which should always be the next step in developing understanding on a topic.

Another potential criticism of Wikipedia is that rather than being unreliable, it directs understanding down a particular path, which can be counter-productive to the purpose of inquiry-based learning. My understanding of inquiry learning is that the researcher conducts an investigation to the questions that they have posed, leading to their own findings and answers. Wikipedia interfers in this process, due to its straightforward and directed nature, by providing answers to already established questions.

Google image search
Figure 2: Searching “Inquiry Learning” in Google Images achieves a different visual explanation, which is actually more helpful in explaining the cyclic nature of the inquiry process than the standard Google Search.

Google Images sees a swarm of mind maps demonstrating the inquiry process as involving five steps: Ask, then Investigate, followed by Create, then Discuss, Reflect, and back to Ask (Fig. 2). This simple image provides a different yet still equally simple an understanding as Wikipedia, but involving more of the process than just the initial stages. The mind map also demonstrates that inquiry is a constant process, and that the end-result of any proper investigation should be even more questions.

What new questions do I have? – Post 3 questions about inquiry learning that you have as an outcome of your search. These are the following questions that will guide my search from this point:

  • What level of support and scaffolding should students be provided with at the beginning of the project? How much is too much that will interfere with the authenticity of their inquiry (their research and end-result will be governed by a set of expectations that the teacher has inadvertently or consciously outlined) and conversely, how much is too little (the students are left unsupported and floundering in a huge body of information with no direction).
  • How can inquiry learning be included in the English classroom? The 7-10 English curriculum is often very content heavy, and English is a learning area which does not appear to easily accommodate the inquiry process in the way Humanities and Sciences do.
  • What role does the library and librarians play in facilitating inquiry-based tasks across the entire curriculum?