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What is inquiry-based learning?
How does it differ from the traditional approach?
What does it have to do with my classroom?
What are the benefits of inquiry-based learning?
How has inquiry-based learning developed since it first became popular?
Another perspective
What are some critical perspectives?
How can I use inquiry-based learning in conjunction with other educational techniques?

What are some critical perspectives?

imageEducation is not preparing students for a world that is static and fixed. Rather, education must prepare learners to cope with changes that will increase in complexity throughout their lives and many of which cannot be foreseen at this time. Most learners will probably deal with several job changes, move to several different locations, be involved in complex social changes, and other such issues. Education cannot give learners all the information that they need to know, but rather it must provide the tools for continuing to learn.

In a society in which education has focused on transmitting "what we know," it is a challenge to develop a widespread view that "how we come to know" is very important in modern society.

There is a very deeply held view on the part of many educators, parents, and other members of society that inquiry learning takes too much time and that it is much more efficient for students simply to be given the information they need to know. This point of view is strongly reinforced by the kinds of things students are expected to know to pass the majority of tests they are given. There are those educators and discipline experts who feel they have known and continue to know what knowledge is most important.

There are also those who feel strongly that there is a "core knowledge," or elements of cultural literacy, that should be the emphasis of education. E. D. Hirsch, a noted literary analyst and educator, strongly advocates a sequenced K-12 curriculum in which students cover a larger number of specific topics and concepts for each year of school. Howard Gardner 1 describes this approach in THE DISCIPLINED MIND: "At other schools, often in the same neighborhood as efforts like the Key School, students work on a core curriculum, perhaps one inspired by E. D. Hirsch or the privately funded Edison Project. At each age and grade level, there are prescribed lists of concepts, words, and spheres of knowledge that children should know or acquire. Youngsters are regularly tested on this information, rewarded when it has been acquired, and encouraged to study harder when their familiarity with it proves spotty."


Many, especially older, people have not mentally moved past the time when our country was an industrial, or even an agrarian, place. Those were times that moved more slowly and did not require workers and companies to constantly "work smarter" to stay ahead of global competitors. Older members of society learned that it was important to study hard -- which often meant the memorization of content -- to get good grades, graduate, get a job, work hard, and move up a relatively stable career ladder to achieve success. This general approach has much merit still today, but the focus on what to "work harder" on has shifted.

Most people -- those graduating from high school and from colleges and those who will not graduate -- eventually will enter the world of work. Even for the small number who do not enter the workforce, all will have to resolve ever increasingly complex problems throughout life. The business world is fast recognizing that to be successful in modern society it is essential to work smarter. The attributes, described earlier, that are essential for life-long learning have to be the emphasis in education.

Surveys of business communities regarding workforce skills reveal interesting findings. Workforce skills are not specific job skills but rather more broad understandings that provide one the abilities to quickly adapt to new job-skill demands. Some examples of skills essential for the modern workforce are:

  • The work requires one to research possible causes of problems.

  • The work requires one to isolate factors that are possible causes of problems.

  • The work requires one to arrive at resolutions to problems by brainstorming with other people.

  • The work requires one to search for information stored in computer files by using electronic data research skills.

  • The work requires one to write clearly to convey complex information to other people to describe situations or events and to make recommendations.

  • The work requires one to interpret correlations by comparing two sets of data.
Several dozen more examples could be stated. You will notice there is very little stress on knowing specific kinds of content information. This omission is probably influenced by the fact that content knowledge is changing very rapidly, and little content knowledge is retained if it is not constantly used. However, the workforce skills competencies deal with attributes that permit one to continue to learn.


Workshop: Inquiry-based Learning
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