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The Inquiry, Inquiry: Constructivism & Cycles

Most aspects of inquiry learning I encounter I tend to agree with, but a few interpretations and methods leave me feeling confused or unconvinced. I've been pondering inquiry learning trying to get my head around it.

​In this blog post I share some personal 'A-ha!' moments I have made about inquiry learning, which really helped me to make sense of it.   I also critique some practices I feel are misguided, misinterpreted or just not practical. This post represents where I currently stand. ​So here goes...

A-ha! 'Inquiry' and 'constructivism' are not the same thing

Inquiry and constructivism are terms which are often mixed up; I mixed them up in my own mind for years. 

Constructivism is a theory of how we learn, while inquiry is pedagogy - how we teach. Constructivism goes on inside our heads, while inquiry is what we observe happening on the outside. 

A-ha! 'Inquiry learning' and 'constructivist approaches' are the same thing!

Reputable authors such as the IB  and Jaqueline Grennon Brooks confused the issue for me by using terms such as 'constructivist classrooms' and 'constructivist approaches'. What they are really referring to are inquiry classrooms and inquiry approaches.

A-ha! Inquiry is the best methodology for facilitating constructivist learning!

Art Costa defines inquiry as  "the methodology of constructivism" and it's true that ​Inquiry approaches facilitate the construction of meaning. Constructivism put really simply is, active thinking and reflection building on prior knowledge. Inquiry learning is any pedagogy which promotes this.

A-ha! Inquiry is not the only methodology for constructivism!

Experts explain that it is a common misconception to think that only inquiry approaches allow for constructivist learning. We have all constructed meaning in a lecture. Despite our bodies appearing passive, our minds are often very active. As such, even chalk 'n' talk methods enable constructivist learning. The point being they just don't do it as well. 

A-ha! Organizing a whole unit of inquiry around an inquiry 'cycle' doesn't make sense!

Many of us have inquiry cycles on our walls. Schools tend to use them to illustrate and/or plan how a unit of inquiry unfolds; usually over a number of weeks. If inquiry is all about promoting constructivist learning, ​I don't see how cycles help.

Constructivism itself is cyclical.  In a messy, lava lamp kind of way we connect new knowledge with our prior knowledge to build understanding as we critique, question and reflect. But a constructivism happens constantly and quickly - not once over the course of a unit nor stage by stage, week by week.

Educationalists have published books containing inquiry models with consecutive stages. These are often set in a cycle. They sometimes depict how a whole unit unfolds. These same experts sometimes explain that inquiry doesn't manifest itself in this predictable, sequential way.  

The fact of the matter is, it has been translated as such in schools. And it is little wonder that we get confused, by looking at inquiry cycles in a Google image search you couldn't be blamed for assuming inquiry learning is sequential and cyclical.

John Dewey described a Pattern of Inquiry occurring in a series of predictable steps. Perhaps Dewey's thinking was the impetus for some of these these inquiry cycles? Dewey describes a thought processes not pedagogy; to me it does not  translate to how a unit of inquiry unfolds over the course of several weeks.

A-ha!An inquiry teaching cycle can guide us to teach a lesson

When it comes to teaching most of us use a familiar repeating pattern or cycle, but this pattern usually lasts a lesson or two. Depending on the framework we are used to there's something we usually do first e.g.  hook the students, share the learning intention, or maybe recap what we did last lesson. There's usually a predictable pattern in which we teach.  Here's the one I use: 

Pose or elicit a question: Share the learning intention with our students. I take our curriculum (or student interest) and phrase it as a question. E.g. How can we find the length of these objects?

Activate and assess prior knowledge: I do something which promotes the students to think about their prior knowledge  and at the same time I assess what they already think they know. E.g. 'Well, how can we find the length of these objects - turn and talk while I listen in and jot down your ideas!" 

Agree what successful learning might look like: I set the students success criteria. E.g. By the end of this lesson you should be able to 1. Show me a non standard measure in this classroom, 2. Show a friend how to measure an object using a non standard measure, 3. Compare the length of two objects using a non standard measure.

Plan and investigate: After some prompting and teaching I set the children off to investigate. E.g. students find their own object as a measure, choose objects to measure and get measuring.

Sort out discoveries: I encourage the students to sort out what they have discovered. E.g. "Sandra can you show the class what you used as a non standard measure? Joel can you do the same?"

Reflect on the intended learning: I have the students look back at the question and or success criteria and the students self assess their learning. E.g. "Did you use a non standard measure today? Turn to a friend and tell them what you used as a non standard measure."

Take action: If I am really lucky I might see or hear about students spontaneously applying their learning E.g. "Guess what, I just saw Joel measuring the hop scotch court in the playground with his foot!" 

The "Frost Learning Loop" (just a bit tacky) is not really mine to own,  nor is it original, nor necessarily the best way to teach. In fact doing it every day would get likely get boring. My point is that, so long as the things we do in our predictable way of teaching promote constructivism, then we are already using inquiry cycles - including 'my' leaning loop!  

What do you think?

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