Trevor Mackenzie on Inquiry-Based Learning

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If you’ve poked around my website, you’ve probably noticed a section dedicated to Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) that was linked to a major paper I wrote while completing my M. Ed. in education. The details of IBL are presented there, but in short this approach to teaching is about formulating driving or “essential” questions and building research and analytical skills through student investigation of knowledge. This is very different from the teacher at the front of the room lecturing all class long while students take notes. IBL has students actively engaged in uncovering or discovering information and using it for a specified purpose. The key point here is that students are not passive, but very much present and participate in the learning they do.

Trevor Mackenzie has been a recent lead teacher in this area, promoting greater use of IBL in classrooms. I recently read an article of his posted on the Edutopia website (the link is here if you want to check it out). A common issue that he tries to address is that students and teachers, especially from more traditional education backgrounds, are not used to this switch in teaching and learning. Teachers who attempt to jump in head first and give their students full freedom to conduct their own inquiries from start to finish are likely to be met with a lot of uncertainty and stress. Trevor advocates for scaffolding (starting at an entry level and building IBL gradually gradually to eventually gain greater independence), which he believes is necessary for the teacher and the student if IBL is to work. This is the same approach I suggest in the paper mentioned above.

Trevor has written a book about just this topic, called Dive into Inquiry: amplify learning and empower student voice, which I’ve picked up and and working my way through at present. It’s definitely worth a read if you think this kind of instructional approach could be for you. Inquiry is becoming a central part of the Social Studies curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador, so it’s something I’ve already been bringing into my classroom, a little bit at a time.

Inquiry is most successful when strongly scaffolded. The Types of Student Inquiry act as a scope and sequence to support learners in their journey toward Free Inquiry. In my classroom, we begin in a Structured Inquiry model, transition to a Controlled Inquiry unit, move on to Guided Inquiry, and if all goes well, conclude in Free Inquiry. These four types of inquiry make up our time together in the course.

This structure allows us to successfully address the curriculum and the “must know” content and skills of each discipline, grade level, and course. In the Structured, Controlled, and Guided units, I plan to achieve specific learning objectives and unpack particular resources in order to best prepare my learners for whatever summative assessment they will see at the end of our time together. Whether it’s a provincial, state, or governing body exam or the SAT, I ensure that this material is learned during the types of student inquiry I have more control over.

Students should feel connected to their learning, certain about how to plan their inquiry, and comfortable with its responsibility. The Types of Student Inquiry structure our coursework and learning in a gradual release of control model, one where students learn essential inquiry skills throughout the year rather than being thrown into the deep end of the inquiry pool right away.

Here’s a quick video from Trevor’s website that introduces some of these concepts.

 

Inquiry-Based Learning Research Paper

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As the final piece of my graduate work in education at Memorial University, I had to complete a major research paper on a topic of my choice. Being a teacher interested in student exploration of knowledge, I chose to focus on Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) in high school social studies. The research work sought to explore the nature of IBL and its implementation in classrooms or schools where standardized methods have a considerable foothold (some elements of this can easily be seen many schools in Newfoundland and Labrador), and to provide some framework or strategies that may help teachers increase the amount of inquiry their students do.

In order to help disseminate the research, I’ve added a section to this website (under the menu) that deals with this topic – it includes a short introduction to the paper and some summary points on the research (characteristics of Standardized Education and IBL, benefits of IBL, the roles of teacher and student in this learning model, as well as a section dealing with incorporating IBL work in the classroom). You can also find a PDF of the paper at the end, for those interested in reading it. If you’re super keen, you can go right to the paper here.

Inquiry: UN Sustainable Development Goals

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In World Geography 3202, my class recently covered a section on development of nations that includes discussion of measures used to determine relative levels of development around the world.

Development Outcomes

Source: World Geography 3202 Curriculum Guide (2004)

As can be seen from the unit outcome above, most of the emphasis here is on economic indicators of development, with five out of seven delineations specifically involving this content. It is important to realize, however, that while economic development is certainly important social development indicators are vital as well. What’s more, there is nothing in the outcome here that has students explore how a country may work towards improving its level of development and assessing challenges that may exist in doing so. I feel that, though it’s technically not in the outcomes, it’s important for students to explore this in order to gain a better understanding of the topic as a whole.

un_sdg_logoOne activity I had my class try was to do a little research on what goals have been set internationally to address socio-economic problems and, therefore, increase quality of life globally. To do this, students engaged in a controlled inquiry of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for the purpose of discovering what challenges the UN has identified as needing immediate attention and what is actually involved in doing so (it’s easy to say poverty should be wiped out, but what is involved in making that happen?). The activity sheet looked as follows (click to download):

5.7 UN Sustainable Development Goals

Due to time restraints and the fact that I didn’t want to stray too far from the outcomes for this course, this isn’t as indepth an exploration as I would like. I would also like to expand it to include assessment of significance and student judgement of which issues they would consider the most important to tackle by developing criteria to do so. What it does provide, however, is an opportunity for students to research content related to course material that is much more updated than what is provided in the student resource (before this activity, there would be mention of the UN Millennium Goals, the timeframe for which elapsed last year).

The activity is open enough to allow students to collect information on the Sustainable Development Goals, while picking and choosing details that they feel to be the most interesting to them. In column two, they must provide at least two details for each goal (most goals have at least six or seven), so there is some choice on their part and they must question and use their own judgement, informally, to determine which they will focus on.

In a course that desperately needs updating (it places far too much importance on knowledge and memorization over higher level competencies) and a shift of focus to increase relevancy, this kind of short activity can add a little bit more to how students experience the curriculum. It’s a small example of how the teacher can bring the inquiry model into the classroom. Most students enjoyed the activity and were quite engaged during the inquiry process.

Student Inquiry: Illustrated

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I hope to move this site more towards education and social studies more generally, and inquiry-based learning more specifically (more on this in future posts). For now, I’d like to share a great visual by Trevor MacKenzie (twitter: @trev_mackenzie), an educator from Victoria, who has summarized the four types of inquiry activities students engage in during learning.

InquiryEd

As you can see, there is a dichotomy between the role of the teacher and student, which changes from one category to another. First, the teacher can lead whole group discovery by immersing herself in the activity and serving as a leader and model in that discovery. Second, the teacher may create a less structured inquiry by providing some choice among specific content pieces to be used, but students do the bulk of exploration themselves. Third, the teacher provides inquiry guidance, but allows for greater student control of the task by opening up the options for task product, question formulation, and even the scope and focus of the inquiry. Finally, free inquiry gives students the greatest freedom in their choice of learning by removing restrictions around topic, task, and stated knowledge outcomes. In a sense, they learn based on their own interests and abilities, employing their strengths and developing competencies.

Such a model for learning is powerful in how it can engage students of a range of backgrounds and academic levels, but these four categories should not be considered a ranking system. There are times when each type can be beneficial – students new to inquiry may not benefit fully from guided or free inquiry if skills and understanding of what is involved have not been learned. It is important for the teacher to know her students and what will work best in their education. I view these as strategies the teacher can use to structure learning depending on the background of her students and the learning outcomes being taught. What teacher doesn’t want more options available when teaching students?

I believe Trevor is planning a larger publication on inquiry-based learning in the near future, so I’d recommend a follow on twitter. You can also check out his blog.