Last week at a regional education conference in Jakarta (remember, I used to live in Asia), a workshop participant asked me an almost identical question as a neo-homeschooler-to-be recently posed - “What is inquiry really about?” While the participant understood the value of inquiry-based learning, in philosophy, he didn’t quite get how to implement the practice within his classroom. The homeschooler knew the catch-phrase, but the meaning she admitted escaped her.
I could, and might write a book about inquiry-based teaching and learning, but in the meantime, let me clarify a few things. The participant continued, “Does this mean the students can do what they want and follow their own direction?” Before I could respond, I saw that look many teachers and parents get when they imagine their child running willy-nilly, looking at a book one minute and in the next instance wanting to paint, soon after the allure of mixing colors wears off, they turn to dramatic play, tinkering in the garden, etc… Inquiry-based learning done right digs deeper and requires a dialogue - a Q and A, then more Q’a and more A’s. Inquiry lends itself to disciplined search, investigation and problem-solving. Curiosity, which is not synonymous with inquiry is great, yet a child who possesses or is working toward developing the creativity and skill to pose relevant questions and make connections between what they are studying and real life examples is ideal, fantastic and inspiring.
Inquiry when authentic is hard work and leaves children hungry for more. From a home-teaching perspective, while inquiry learning appears free and flexible, there's prep work and follow-up, organization, recording and assessment. Like I said, it's hard work. The rewards are however super huge and totally worth it. Most students, even those with less engaged profiles cannot be satisfied by pursuing superficial interests, nor be quieted by easily provided answers. A real inquirer or inquirer-in-training, is also an explorer of ideas and challenger of the obvious and status quo. To some who are fans of children running wild with curiosity, exploring every interest with equal amounts of attention, there’s a tendency to indulge children with the right to ask any and all questions and to receive the answers ASAP. The lack of boundary and structure will weaken their social and communication skills especially in situations where they are not the only one’s with questions. Additionally, being given the answers, resources and solutions upon request, will not support a life-long commitment to learning or ownership over their own educational path.
Indulging a child’s every curiosity is like allowing him to drink juice instead of peeling the fruit - it’s good but not great. An orange is the real thing - its universal and never ending. Which brings me to another question that comes up again and again about inquiry-based learning - “How do you merge inquiry with the standards?” Translation - how do you keep student learning on track? Good Inquiry practice always brings the student back to core facts and knowledge. It’s really as easy as that. Most of the time.
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