I remember once teaching a lesson when a student arrived at the computer lab keen to research the question “who invented the volcano?” Clearly this student had been allowed to go ahead with her inquiry without receiving much guidance! After this I started looking more closely at the type of inquiry being carried out by the students and realised that there is a continuum, from teacher directed inquiry, through teacher guided inquiry, through to independent student inquiry which all the Grade 5 students do as part of the PYP Exhibition. I observed that many of the inquiries going on were the first sort of inquiry: teacher directed, and I asked myself the question how could we move the students towards independent inquiry so that they were asking good questions and not just researching the impossible or the ridiculous when left to their own devices. The more I thought about this, and the more I observed what was going on, I came to realise that the type of inquiry going on was more to do with the teacher than it was to do with the age or maturity of the students. It wasn’t a case of younger children doing more teacher directed inquiry and older students doing more independent inquiry – it was all to do with the experience and confidence of the teacher using the inquiry process.
When I first started teaching using inquiry myself I was definitely the sort of teacher who did a lot of teacher guided inquiries. I felt that I was responsible for getting students to ask the “right” questions and helping them to find the “right” answers. As I became more experienced in using inquiry I started to be more open to students asking their own questions and then using those questions as part of the inquiry. I stopped thinking that my questions were the ones we had to end up answering and started letting the students’ interests and curiosities drive the direction the inquiries were going, but I think I still worked with students so that they understood what were good questions to ask. At this point I think the students were working more collaboratively together – because I was listening to their questions and responding better to them, they were listening and responding better to each other too. Finally I would say that I was able to stand back from the inquiries that were going on and encourage the students to investigate more independently – in many cases I would say I acted more as a mentor or perhaps a manager to groups of students.
Teacher Directed Inquiry - In our units of inquiry we come up with teacher questions that address the lines of inquiry for each unit. We do encourage student questions and give them many opportunities for asking questions and sharing their thoughts and wonderings. With teacher directed inquiry, however, if these student questions don’t match up with our learning outcomes what do we do with them? Often I have seen these posted on “Wonder Walls” where students can add post-it notes or even write their questions on large pieces of paper. During the course of the unit of inquiry some of these questions will naturally be discussed and answered, but the questions will not all be the focus of the unit.
Teacher Guided Inquiry - With this type of inquiry the students’ questions are more important and will be combined with the teacher questions to decide the direction of the inquiry. I’ve heard the student questions in this type of inquiry being likened to planets orbiting around the sun of the teacher questions. With this type of inquiry all the students questions are gathered together and then the ones that are similar are grouped together. Within the group the questions can be combined together into two or three broad questions and the students in the group can begin to see what is interesting and important to the group as a whole and what they want to investigate. The students can then start to discuss how they will go about answering the questions, time is provided for the students to conduct these inquiries perhaps through doing experiments or using the computers or library to research further. Often in teacher guided inquiries the students will also have input into how their understanding of the central idea will be assessed, perhaps by the students helping to create the rubric so that they understand what is important for them to know, understand and do. The summative assessment will be the same for all students but the way they demonstrate their understanding may be different for each group.
Independent Inquiry - While the central idea of the unit of inquiry may be the same for all students, in independent inquiry students may come up with an additional central idea for their own inquiry. Here the students are working collaboratively to generate their own questions, decide how to organise and carry out their investigations, how they will show their understandings and how these will be assessed. They will need to manage their own time and decide what resources they need. In the PYP Exhibitions the teachers who act as mentors meet each group about once a week to discuss their progress and how well they are working – the teachers are monitoring the process of inquiry (formative assessment) and may suggests modifications or improvements and the students are more involved in self- and peer- assessment.
I have not been a homeroom teacher for the bottom part of elementary school, so I have no idea how realistic it really is to expect independent inquiry from our youngest children. However from about 2nd or 3rd Grade up I would expect that it would be possible to use independent inquiry for 1 or 2 of the 6 units studied each year. Independent inquiry is hard for many teachers as it involves letting go and this is often completely the opposite of what teachers have been trained to do. It does involve less control but it also involves more management and it also involves embracing and celebrating the process of learning, rather than just the end product.