What is Inquiry?
At 12:08 Larry Rosenstock, principal of High Tech High discusses the nature of inquiry.
Making the shift from traditional approaches to education towards discipline-based inquiry first begins with a new formulation of the nature of knowledge. Whereas within traditional approaches to education knowledge is understood as a collection of facts, a body of content, or a list of processes or procedures to master, for those that create knowledge within a discipline, knowledge is understood as “organized in living, developing fields, changing and adapting in the presence of new circumstances, new evidence and new discoveries” (WNCP, 2011, p. 3). In this way, knowledge cannot be understood as something that is dead or inert. Instead, knowledge must be understood as existing within a discipline of study that is a living field.
Those who understand knowledge as situated in a dynamic always-evolving living field argue that students should not study facts or procedures outside the field that created them. Specifically, each discipline (e.g., science, mathematics, history) has its own particular ways of generating knowledge, verifying what counts as quality work, and communicating to others within their field of study. This disciplinary understanding of knowledge suggests that students learn best if they are given learning opportunities that have “an authenticity, [and a sense] that the work being done in classrooms is ‘real work’ that reflects the living realities of the discipline being taught” (WNCP, 2011, p. 3).
The job of educators thus becomes designing experiences where students can learn their way around a discipline by engaging in authentic intellectual tasks that provide opportunities for genuine knowledge creation. In this way discipline-based inquiry involves giving students the opportunity to, as Perkins (2009) frames it, “play the whole game” (p. 25) where they are offered developmentally appropriate junior versions of the ways professionals in a field create and verify knowledge in their discipline.
This understanding of knowledge and purpose of education calls for a redefinition of commonly used terms in educational discourse. For instance, demands in education for increased rigor often translate into calls to expose students to more information or more complex procedures. However, for Larry Rosenstock, principal of High Tech High –– a school devoted to authentic discipline-based inquiry – rigor involves “being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that discourse” (2011). This re-conceptualized of a teachers’ relationship to the subject area they teach, consequently shifts pedagogy in the classroom where the ideal is to have students “behaving like an actress, scientist, documentary filmmaker, like a journalist. Not just studying it, but being like it” (Rosenstock, 2011). Here, Rosenstock flags a key distinction, similarly made by Perkins (2009), necessary to understand the nature of discipline-based inquiry. That is, the difference between learning about a field of inquiry and actually taking on, and participating in, the ways of knowing and doing unique to a particular discipline or field of study.
When teachers pose guiding questions, problems, or tasks that professionals in the field think is important, students can work towards responses and performances of learning that are meaningful, sophisticated, and powerful. For instance, within a language arts classroom, as seen in this Grade 8 Magazine Project, I asked my students to use the tools of professional graphic artists to take on the role of independent writers in order to create and publish their own magazine. Similarly, in a grade 4 inquiry into wheels, levers, and devices that move, as seen in this How To Build an Awesome Car (Engineering Thinking in Grade 4) example, drawing inspiration from the discipline of engineering students have been invited to build and test their own mouse trap cars. As can be seen by the work students produced in these projects, we can judge student success by evaluating the sophistication of their final products and culminating work.
Asking students to do projects like this, however, does not involve a disorganized free-for-all where students are left to work largely on their own. Research has shown (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 16-18) that deeper understanding of engineering principles, for instance, does not come simply from asking students to build a bridge or design and test their own rocket. Specific instructional supports must be in place for students to have success taking part in a particular discipline or field of study.
First and foremost among these needed instructional supports is a particular focus on assessment. To help students create quality products and work that professionals in the field would recognize as reflecting work undertaken in their discipline, students need to be given the opportunity to learn from professional exemplars created within a particular field of study. As part of this process, teachers need to develop approaches to assessment that emphasize co-constructing assessment rubrics with their students that reflect the criteria for quality work within the particular discipline they are working within. In using this criteria, teachers can then provide ongoing formative assessment loops in the form of descriptive written and oral feedback, so that students can refine and improve their work as the inquiry unfolds.
Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). How can we teach for meaningful learning? Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding (pp. 11-70). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bailey, D. (2013). How to build an awesome car (engineering thinking in grade 4). Retrieved from http://calgaryscienceschool.blogspot.ca/2012/03/grade-8-magazine-project.html
Rosenstock, L. (2011). High Tech High. Retrieved from: https://vimeo.com/10000408
Scott, D. (2012). Grade 8 magazine project. Retrieved from http://calgaryscienceschool.blogspot.ca/2012/03/grade-8-magazine-project.html
Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP). (2011). Guiding Principles for WNCP curriculum framework project. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1oErc6n