The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry-Based Learning

| July 3, 2013 | 16 Comments
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By Thom Markham

Teachers in a rural southeast Michigan high school were recently discussing the odd behavior of the senior class. It seems the 12th graders were acting more civilly toward the junior class in the hallways. The prom was also quieter and more well-mannered than in previous years. More perplexing, prom was over, it was mid-May, and the seniors were still engaged in learning.

The teachers’ explanation: Project-based learning.

Here’s the back story. All seniors at this school spend one half of their day hard at work on interdisciplinary projects, in an expansive new space designed to encourage relationships, collaboration, self-management, deeper inquiry, and an easy interface between students and teachers. A year in this environment matured the seniors beyond the usual. Acting out was no longer required.

Stories like this are about to become more important to educators. As education continues the march toward a student-driven, project-oriented approach that values intelligent solutions to open-ended problems, it won’t be sufficient to focus on the wonderful discoveries and authentic work that result from an inquiry-based system. Instead, a far more difficult issue will come to the fore: How will we know if inquiry-based learning is successful, and what non-standardized measures of achievement, like better attitude, apply?

This is a steep challenge because it forces education to cross a philosophic divide. Inquiry-based learning is disruptive to test-based standards and, by extension, the industrialized system itself. Tests reward the right answer, and even brief essays are expected to abide by the perimeters of known knowledge and standardized terms. But open-ended problems result in idiosyncratic solutions, derived from a process of exploration in which students practice evidence-finding, thoughtful exchange, and creative design. During that process, they change and grow as people, not just as test-takers. It will take thoughtful development of new metrics, some strange to education, to develop an assessment system that captures the richness of inquiry-based education.

Standardizing Valuable Skills

To put a new system in place, a first key step is to disseminate and train every teacher on a clear set of performance standards to assess skills required for effective inquiry, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Replacing one set of standards with these 4C’s may not sound progressive, but right now rubrics are generally created by individual classroom teachers, rarely shared school-wide, and often poorly written. The goal is to adopt world class rubrics for use at every grade level, in every class, in every district. This sends a message to students that inquiry is a standards-based process. Plus, rubrics are an essential training tool. Students graded against good performance rubrics will perform better over time as they assimilate the new requirements for skills-based learning.

The challenge: Right now, a standards-based environment forces teachers to straddle the inquiry process. Most projects employ performance assessment tools, but a majority of projects end up designed more for academic coverage than exploration and invention, which means they lack power and depth. And a more difficult issue looms: It is likely to prove impossible to objectively measure the more subterranean aspects of inquiry, such as creativity and critical thinking.

Assessing Collaborative Learning

The iconic model of the individual scholar has been replaced by team-based inquiry. In industry, team members are assessed for individual accountability and performance, as well as overall team productivity. Teachers will need to learn to easily navigate between teams and team member performance, engage high end students accustomed to book work, use effective coaching for reluctant students, and take greater care to assess individual mastery during presentations.

The challenge: Effective collaborative inquiry requires that students learn how to perform in a team, not a “group.” New scaffolds include listening, brainstorming, and appropriate body language. But the skills issue is secondary. Teams depend on positive relationships fostered through communication, openness, and shared values. Team building will have to be built into the curriculum.

Making Depth of Thinking Evident

Thinking is very difficult to evaluate, but key signs include use of appropriate vocabulary, the ability to exchange ideas in a protocol-based format, and the ultimate skill of delivering a cogent solution supported by explanation, insight, and evidence. In inquiry-based education, all of these become assessable items. But each requires well thought out criteria that education has only begun to identify.

The challenge: In inquiry, process is as critical as the product. This shifts the grading process. Formative assessments will take on new meaning as teachers look for ways to give targeted feedback as students move through a problem, and to credit students with insights as they grapple with potential solutions.

How will we know if inquiry-based learning is successful, and what non-standardized measures of achievement, like better attitude, apply?

Turning Engagement from Metaphor to Metric

The traditional model of information management stresses knowledge, skills, and attitude as the qualities required to perform in a job. A relationship-driven, information-based world turns the formula around: Performance begins with attitude and manifests as skills and achievement, a lesson evident in the behavior of the 12th graders in the Michigan high school, whose year began with two weeks of teamwork and ‘attitude adjustment’ exercises. Over the year, their attitude shift resulted in noticeable engagement and deeper learning. Education will need to develop consistent methods for assessing engagement, using qualitative tools such as reflection tools, problem logs, Socratic discussion, and regular school climate surveys.

The challenge: Since attitude is self-referenced and personal, this is highly disruptive to schools, which are used to defining how students ‘should’ feel about their education. But inquiry shifts the terrain. Inescapably, schools will have to move toward pleasing the customer rather than directing the show.

Overcoming Reductive Notions of Cognition

The engagement issue is really a buoy marking deeper waters. The old proxies for educational management—IQ, the ‘high level’ kids, standardized tests, academic intervention strategies—will come under increasing assault from the values and personal strengths that fuel good inquiry, such as perseverance, self-management, flexibility, resilience, and creativity. These qualities are not the exclusive domain of cognition and, in fact, will be delayed by continuing the reductive approach to learning. This requires not only a personalized learning environment but a personalized assessment system. A portfolio system is the prototype for this kind of assessment, but portfolios that stick to academic and career basics won’t be sufficient.

The challenge: Inquiry is intimately connected to character, social meaning, and aspects of emotional intelligence associated with personality. None of these are well understood, even by neuroscientists. It is likely, in fact, that inquiry will be accompanied by dramatic shifts in our explanation of intelligence itself.

Figuring Out Knowledge

This is the elephant in the room. Both brain research and common sense tells us that powerful inquiry requires a foundation of facts, concepts, and a knowledge base. This means that the standardized curriculum and conventional teaching methods will not disappear, nor should they. But the already heated arguments over the Common Core State Standards point to intense discussion over the next few years about the scope and nature of standards. How much do we teach young people, and what do we leave to inquiry?

The challenge: The inquiry approach is nested in the more transformational issue of the changing nature of global knowledge itself. At some point, it will be difficult to pinpoint exactly what an ‘educated’ person should know. Where inquiry will lead us then, it’s hard to predict. But it would be best to have inquiry-based assessments in place before that time arrives.

Thom Markham is a psychologist, author, speaker, educator, and consultant to schools and districts focused on project based learning, 21st century skills, and school redesign. Reach him through www.thommarkham.com or tweet him @thommarkham.

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