Inquiry-Based Learning Research Paper

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.


Changes to website

Up until now, I have been using a different website (weebly) for information specific to my classes, while using this one for other educational pursuits. Starting this summer, I will be moving my class site here to help keep everything together in one place. I will keep a similar layout with a page for each course I teach, which will have an announcements section and place for class documents (notes, study guides, and other relevant materials). Essentially, I will be adding a menu that allows access to a page for each course. This will be simpler for me to maintain and make sharing of resources and materials with students and other teachers easier as well.

WordPress is a powerful hosting site in terms of my own web-based needs, and since I already pay for this domain, it only makes sense to get the most out of it for all my education related postings. I will continue to blog periodically about my thoughts on education and inquiry-based learning (more on this later). I’ve also recently begun cycling, so who knows I may post a little bit about that from time to time.

Anyway, the course part of the site is very much under construction and really won’t be populated with course materials until late this summer as a new school year begins. Any thoughts or suggestions on this would be appreciated, so drop me an email or tweet if you feel so inclined.

Inquiry: UN Sustainable Development Goals

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

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.


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.

Liberals Make Cuts to Libraries

The recent provincial budget has caused quite a bit of concern for the province’s population. With cuts to the public sector and the controversial Deficit Reduction Levy, the ire of many citizen’s has been sparked. Recently there has been an announcement that NL will become the only province that has a “book tax”, but beyond this the latest details discussed in the media relate to access to books and libraries.

Earlier today, Dale Kirby, the province’s Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, stated that changes to the public library system is needed to remedy what is seen as an ineffective service. VOCM posted an article that explains the government’s rationale for closing more than half of all the province’s public libraries over the next two years:

Education Minister Dale Kirby says high adult illiteracy rates in this province are a reason to make changes to the library system, not maintain the status quo.

Some 57 per cent of people in this province have below a level three literacy level, meaning they’d struggle with most jobs due to a lower literacy. Minister Kirby says that’s exactly the point of the move to close libraries. He says if the system we have isn’t working, something has to happen to fix it. He says today’s announcement is a step towards a regionalized service model for libraries.

As an educator, author and book lover, I support initiatives that improve literacy and education for all people in Newfoundland and Labrador, but I do not understand how closing 54 libraries will improve the province’s literacy rate. Libraries provide books, magazines, internet access and other benefits that encourage and help enable reading for young and old alike; their absence can’t possibly encourage the opposite. It’s hard to see how these cuts are anything other than counter-productive in improving quality of life for the citizens of the province.

If, indeed, there is a plan in place to improve literacy, then should the government not present that plan alongside the cuts to libraries? This would give some context for the decision and allow people to understand what other measures are being put in place to improve the situation, otherwise people are left in the dark and questioning the government’s actions. I’m in support of responsible government spending and effective use of tax dollars, but such decisions must be accompanied by a reasoned, considered plan to improve upon the status quo that is available to the public eye.