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How do I get started using inquiry-based learning?
What are some challenges I might face?
How do I assess students' progress?
How can inquiry-based learning involve parents and the community?
How can technology be used with inquiry-based learning?

What are some challenges I might face?

There are lots of challenges to attempts to change education from an institution focused on "what we know" to one focused on "how we come to know."


Jane Morton, a teacher at Ardmore Elementary School in Bellevue,Washington, talks about one challenge in doing inquiry.
Many, if not most, of these challenges are systemic in nature. Among the systemic elements in a school/community are: the administrative leadership and support, the instructional resources, the preparation of teachers, the application of new and emerging technologies, the design of facilities, and the support and involvement of parents.

If these elements are not aligned and supportive of inquiry learning, then the teacher may have difficulty implementing inquiry learning in the classroom.

The issue of student assessment, and how students are generally assessed in the traditional approach, is a crucial challenge to inquiry learning. In spite of all the good intentions of educators, there is no question that what is tested is the key factor in determining what is taught and learned. In spite of lots of good efforts to the contrary, student assessment, in the final analysis, is heavily oriented toward content mastery -- mastery of "what we know." While this is important, other outcomes of inquiry learning include conceptual understandings, skills development, and nurtured habits of mind -- things that are difficult to assess by traditional paper-pencil type instruments. Portfolio assessment, which can evaluate learning in progress, is one way of assessing the success of inquiry learning and skills. For more on assessment techniques, see our workshop Assessment, Evaluation, and Curriculum Redesign.

imageUnless the teacher can pinpoint these missing attributes, it will be very difficult to really help the learner. Tools are not readily available to help with this type of situation, because the focus has been on "what we know" rather than a focus on "how we come to know."

The appropriate use of new and emerging technologies would appear to offer much assistance in this area of student assessment. Generally, though, schools have not moved very far in using technology to measure skills development or to determine to what degree students have nurtured their own habits of mind. Fortunately, some good effort is going forth in the private sector to begin to address this issue. The work done by Videodiscovery, Inc. in student assessment looks promising for inquiry learning.

Another challenge to inquiry learning is the attitudes of many parents, community leaders, and educators. Many parents feel that students should memorize and know content, do lots of homework (even though it might lack relevance), and do well on the statewide tests. They also think that focus on skills development is "fluff." Part of the work of implementing inquiry learning is to make community stakeholders aware of its importance.

Too many school administrators don't view a school or a school district as a complex system that needs to be coordinated at every level. As a result, new and worthy goals are set in the context of a school/community system that has resisted, and continues to resist, change. Wonderfully high standards are imposed -- but teachers are often not given the guidance they need, or the techniques of teaching, which are required to ensure that students meet them.

If the focus is to be placed on learning through inquiry, teachers cannot be educated in the old ways. Parents must be informed to understand and support inquiry learning. New and emerging technologies must be used to enhance and manage learning. Administrators and community leaders must also develop the necessary support system, and appropriate instructional resources must be made available. All of the important systemic elements must become aligned with the learning outcomes.

To implement these changes we must ask the following, sometimes difficult, questions relating to inquiry learning:

Learning Outcomes:

Are student outcomes in alignment with the needs of modern society?
What kinds of student outcomes are expected from an inquiry experience?
What are the student success indicators from such an experience (how can we know)?
How do we effectively and appropriately assess student outcomes of an inquiry experience and use this assessment to ensure continued student success?

Systemic Outcomes:

How must the education of teachers change in order to support inquiry learning?
How can parents be made aware of, understand and offer support for inquiry learning?
How can administrators and community leaders understand and develop the support structure for inquiry learning?
How can technology be applied to better enhance and manage inquiry learning?
How must instructional and learning resources change in order to support inquiry learning?
How must the design of the fixed facilities change in order to support inquiry learning?

Systemic alignment requires some changes to traditional approaches in order to improve program implementation. The following are some of the changes needed:

1. There must be an appropriate understanding of the difference between the destination (learner outcomes) and how the destination is achieved (the systemic elements).

2. There must be an appropriate understanding that the model calls for assessing the learner outcomes and evaluating the status, alignment, and change in each systemic element.

3. There must be an appropriate understanding that the work of improving outcomes in education in large part takes place in improving the systemic elements.

4. There must be an appropriate understanding that learner outcomes will improve to the degree that there is better alignment and real improvement in the systemic elements -- as in "a rising tide raises all boats."

Education has been focused, almost solely, on measuring student outcomes rather than using methods to determine objectively the quality of the school/community delivery system. When students do poorly on statewide or standardized tests, these results are most often indicators of a nonfunctioning system rather than there being something wrong with the learners. Even if learner motivation is the problem, it can often be ameliorated by systemic improvement.

Significant changes in learner outcomes will follow upon appropriate alignment and significant improvement in systemic elements. Therefore, it is crucial in education that learner outcomes considered worthy and appropriate be of long duration, and, thus, provide time to bring the system into alignment with these outcomes. Rewriting standards or learning outcomes every few years does not lead to significant and relevant educational improvement.

To meet these challenges and to use inquiry-based learning, teachers must first educate themselves about the process and then help convince others of its value. As you learn more about inquiry, and as society becomes more complex, the need for lifelong learning becomes ever more urgent. These larger social changes can help push school systems toward inquiry, if only because they may force them to recognize that existing methods aren't meeting the needs of society.

If your school system is not particularly supportive of inquiry, you can still incorporate inquiry-based methods into your teaching by helping your students to question, to learn about their own learning processes, and to understand habits of mind particular to the discipline being taught.

Workshop: Inquiry-based Learning
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