On inquiry in education: a caution

An excerpt from a previous post:


Never in the history of teaching has anybody ever suggested that teachers should just lecture students about the world while they sit passively. No learning can take place without inquiry. From our first breath as human beings, we learn about the world through inquiry – through the cycle of questioning, hypothesizing, testing, revising and integrating. Any parent knows this from watching her child in the bathtub. The child will become curious about something, begin playing, and discover new things (for example, how to make a big splash!).

Even in the most drear of lectures, learning can take place if the audience member listens, anticipates and predicts what is coming next. Inquiry is at the heart of learning.

But these days, it’s as if we’ve discovered for the first time that inquiry is important. So we’re coming up with hair-brained notions that students should choose for themselves what is interesting (see “flexibility”), and that they should learn through inquiry projects on their chosen topics.

Even the most competent student will not likely be able to discover on his own some of the knowledge that he will need to have in order to become sufficiently expert in his field of inquiry. Take a physics lesson, for example. Students could do an open-ended inquiry on simple machines, but in doing so they may never arrive at the most important idea behind the topic (indeed the very reason we teach it), which is that machines produce a calculable mechanical advantage. We teach this concept because it is a rudiment for further understanding – a stepping stone for students to develop enough expertise that they can eventually form their own inquiries into the applications of this concept.

To teach this idea in the traditional way, the teacher directs learning toward the goal of this understanding. He uses readings, exercises and lab experiments to provide an inquiry pathway for students to discover this concept. Always the teacher is mindful of Blooms Taxonomy, combined with his understandings of age-related levels of intellectual development to “push” learning. So “inquiry” is at the heart of his teaching.

The notion that students can direct their own learning is absurd. Students “go to school” and in doing so the “go to” the body of knowledge that exists in the “university” (the one truth) that we must show them. School does not “go to students” for them to select what they would like to learn. This form of inquiry is directionless, and it will only ensure that our society as a whole will become stupider.


Note: Comments must focus on issues. Any comments containing derisive tone or insulting language will be deleted. You may disagree vociferously, but you must be respectful. For example, no sarcasm is allowed.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s