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Advice for Teachers and Group Facilitators

9 June, 2015 - 16:01
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Because many of the people who use these resources are individuals learning on their own, I have tried to design this course so that it can be used by individuals without assistance. However, most of the literature on inquiry strongly suggests that group inquiries are preferable whenever they are feasible, because people learn more naturally and easily in working with others. The modules that are part of this course should be easily adaptable to a classroom, performance ensemble, or other group learning situation. (If you do have difficulties using the course to guide group inquiries, please let me know.)

Guiding inquiries is a skill that must be learned and practiced, like any other skill. If you are accustomed to more traditional teaching methods, inquiry-based learning may feel very unnatural at first. Learners who are accustomed to being told what to do and what they should know may also be uncomfortable with the inquiry process at first, although they are likely to become enthusiastic once they have had some practice (Knowles, 1975, p.33). It may be particularly difficult for you to give them support and structure without insisting on directing them to the questions and answers that you believe they should learn. It is useful to approach the project with the expectation that you will also be learning (about the learners, as well as about the subject area).

On the positive side, inquiry-based learning releases you from the requirement to be the expert source of everything the learner needs to know. Since inquiries can take unexpected directions, it would be unreasonable to expect that you would know the answers to all of the questions, and if you did, that might interfere with the investigation step of the inquiry, in which the learner is expected to deal with multiple sources of information. Malcolm Knowles has suggested that the main functions of the inquiry facilitator are to design and manage the inquiry process and to direct learners towards resources that might be useful to their inquiries (Knowles, 1984, p. 14). If you take this approach, then your most useful assets will be familiarity with the inquiry process, familiarity with many resources, and the ability to help learners locate even more resources if necessary.

You can find a great deal of useful advice on guiding inquiries in the sources suggested in the Resources section below. Meanwhile, as you plan the structure and process for the inquiry that you will lead, you may find it useful to ask whether your plan adheres to the following guidelines.

A good inquiry will:

  • Begin with a question or problem that the learner is naturally curious about. For example, a lesson for young children might be about how to share something fairly, a question that is of natural interest to most children, and which can easily lead to exploration of important math concepts such as division, fractions or keeping track of time. Students who are accustomed to inquiry may be able to develop good questions themselves; others may need a teacher or facilitator to help construct a question that is relevant to their interests and will lead to useful learning. However, the facilitator should be careful not to impose an inquiry that holds no real interest for the learners; for example, children who have just visited a zoo may be very curious about what they noticed, which could lead to some good inquiries into science, but they may have little interest in pursuing science questions that the teacher prepared before the trip.
  • Involve the learner in the discovery of the answer. Giving learners the facts or answers does not require that they think deeply about the information or the problem. It does not give them space to make sense of the facts or to discover connections between a specific problem-and-solution, and the more general, abstract principles that make it relevant to other questions and problems that they will encounter. Involving them in activities, discussions, and creative projects helps them actually connect with and think through the problem.
  • Allow room for exploration and alternative solutions. The lesson intended for the "sharing" problem may have been fractions or telling time; but the solution that is attractive to the students might be writing a classroom code of conduct, or constructing an hourglass-type timer. In inquiry, the learning happens when the student makes the connection between the question/problem and the answer/solution. It can be sorely tempting to try to impose the "correct" solution, but if the solution has to be imposed by the teacher, the students are not likely to understand where it came from or be able to apply it to similar problems.
  • Not be satisfied with answers that do not involve learning. For example, curiosity about "pirates" could lead to a superficial lesson that simply reinforces popular imagery and stereotypes, or it could lead to an educational inquiry into a specific historical period, or current events, or the relationship between law and international spaces such as the ocean and the Internet. One important role of the facilitator is to ensure that students are not satisfied with easy, superficial answers.
  • Encourage critical thinking, questioning, and awareness of perspective. This includes students asking questions that are not on the syllabus, challenging standard answers, and developing their own perspective on the subject. For example, "is downloading music from the Internet really piracy?" is a reasonable question, and it is ultimately more useful for the student to be aware of the complexity of debates and laws in this area; to form and be able to defend an informed opinion on the subject; and to understand why others may have different opinions, than it is to memorize an official answer to the question.
  • As much as possible, mimic, teach, and model the way knowledgeable people answer such questions "in the real world." For example, real historians and reporters don't rely on a single source; they check multiple sources to develop a more well-rounded and nuanced view of "what happened." When an experiment produces an unexpected result, real scientists do not assume they got the "wrong" answer; instead they investigate the causes of the surprise. Students can learn a great deal about "how to do" and "how to be" in the real world from the example you set in dealing with unexpected problems, consulting and checking sources, and searching for explanations for surprising results.
  • Lead to another question that the learner is naturally curious about, thus continuing the learning process indefinitely.