What is Inquiry?

Let’s dive into inquiry by looking at some of our Free Inquiry Resources as well as some excerpts from our book Teaching & Assessing 21st Century Competencies.

Misconceptions About Inquiry:

Often when we think of inquiry, we think of posing questions to and with students and then “letting them go.” As teachers, we often feel like if we engage with students during an inquiry process, then we are “cheating on inquiry” because inquiry means that students must figure everything out on their own. To the contrary, these commonly held beliefs about inquiry are not true. They are misconceptions. Inquiry does not mean “just letting students go” or “figuring out everything on your own.” That would be abandonment, not inquiry. And as we all fear, that would result in ineffective learning for most students and could also result in disorganization, even chaos, time wasted and the perpetuation of the false notion that inquiry means “hands off.”

What is Inquiry?

After reviewing dozens of different, and sometime overly complex or oversimplified definitions of inquiry, and after reviewing dozens of different methods of inquiry, it is clear that each method of inquiry is unique and distinct from the others. Yet, the methods also have much in common with one another. In the face of these distinctions and similarities, how can we capture the essence of inquiry?

Inquiry Defined:

Attempting to resolve that which is unresolved, using a process.

Why Inquiry?

I couldn’t imagine a more vital set of tools to equip any human being with than the tools of inquiry. At its core, inquiry is purposeful learning and purposeful creation, production and doing with what is learned. This is a core essence of living and doing. Life is full of novelty, ambiguity, surprises, uncertainty, and problems - everything that is “unresolved.”

Inquiry as a Toolbox:

Inquiry can be seen as a toolbox - a toolbox is full of tools that help us resolve that which is unresolved. Different toolboxes are useful in the face of different jobs. How would an underwater welder be able to “resolve” his underwater welding task with, say, a carpenter’s toolbox? Not well. The opposite would also be true, a carpenter would struggle to craft a table - a resolution - with the toolbox of an underwater welder. This is one of the reasons why there are so many methods of inquiry. It turns out nearly every discipline has crafted and refined its own unique method, or version, of inquiry which then becomes the process used to help individuals attempt to resolve that which is unresolved in that discipline. Different methods of inquiry are toolboxes, each is uniquely tweaked to better suit attempts at addressing the unresolved in the various disciplines, contexts and domains.

Most Disciplines Use Their Own Version of Inquiry:

The method of inquiry with which we are most familiar is the Scientific Method. This would be the method, or version, of inquiry that becomes the process used by scientists to attempt to resolve that which is unresolved. What are scientists attempting to resolve? The purpose of the Scientific Method is to discover new truths about the natural world. Thus “new truths” would be the resolution of that which is unresolved for scientists. In other words, scientists make observations about our natural world and when they cannot yet explain what they observe, they inquire using the Scientific Method as a process to explain unknowns. This is just one, of many unique and distinct methods of inquiry, each suited to be useful as the key process used by practitioners in each respective discipline. There are many more methods of inquiry. Linguists have their own unique method. Anthropologists have their own unique method, and so on and so forth.

Inquiry in the Medical Field:

Doctors use inquiry in their day-to-day practice. A patient arrives with an issue - something that is unresolved. The doctor attempts to resolve it using a process of inquiry. They gather information sensorily, through tests, through dialog with the patient and more. Depending on the complexity of the unresolved issue, they may be able to interpret the information in conjunction with their knowledge base in order to reach resolution easily. Resolution would include a diagnosis, a prognosis and a treatment plan for the patient. For more nuanced issues, rarer maladies or atypical presentations, a great doctor would continue gathering and interpreting information from a variety of sources. They might confer and collaborate with other doctors and specialists to discuss comparable cases and more. Doctors didn’t always practice medicine in this way. There was once a time, really not so long ago, during which doctors approached the practice of medicine with a much more standardized approach. Practices around disease treatment, medication usage, child birth and more were highly standardized. Not only were these standardized practices often inhumane, but they were also often ineffective and led to many poor health outcomes for patients. Now, standardization in medicine wasn’t the result of poor or malicious practitioners, rather it was the result of medicine being taught in a standardized, rote fashion, in medical schools. This realization between the link between pedagogy and style of practice led to a change in how medicine was taught to students in universities medical schools in the 60s and 70s. Two universities led the charge to start using PBL - problem-based learning, which is widely held to be an inquiry-based method - to teach medical students. Their goal was to empower students to learn how to learn, using a case study approach. Medical students were presented with a case study - a patient with an unresolved issue. Medical students then had to determine what they already knew that was relevant, what they needed to know, how they’d find out and how they’d interpret all of that information to achieve resolution - a diagnosis, a prognosis and a treatment plan. At the time, this approach was revolutionary and, as you can imagine, widely and vehemently contested.

PBL Is Now Common In Higher Education:

Flash forward fifty years to today - many, if not most, university medical and dental schools have adopted this approach to teaching and doctor preparation. The practice of medicine has become increasingly adaptive and patient-centered to the extent that we are on a precipice of personalizing medicine to a degree that would have been considered science-fiction not long ago. The same shift is happening in schools and the field of education. We are moving from a standardized model to a personalized model. We are moving from standard practices, based on the “statistics” of a child - age, gender, performance data, etc. - to a flexible, learner-centric model. Importantly, we have realized that “covering content” - teaching a scope of knowledge and facts without opportunities to authentically apply, do, produce and create does not work to promote real, deep learning. Even most students who are “successful” playing this superficial game have no idea why they are learning what it is that they are learning. Overwhelmingly, this “coverage” approach leads to ill-prepared youngsters with a host of problems - lack of confidence, rigidness, superficial knowledge, lack of passion and more.

Inquiry is life, life is learning and learning is inquiry:

Life isn’t full of neatly packaged right answers. Most of the time, there is not a clear “right answer.” Even where there is a “right answer,” determining how, when and to what we apply that right answer isn’t clear, obvious or easy. It would be challenging to find a job where you show up, memorize information, take a test and clock-out. Either that job doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s probably pretty lame and nothing I’d want my students or my own child to aspire to. Furthermore, that job will likely become automated in the near future. As a teacher and as a parent, I’d rather focus my efforts on teaching youngsters how to think, in lieu of what to think. Inquiry is a structure for thinking, learning and dealing with life’s inherent open-endedness. While I don’t know what students will specifically face in their post-secondary lives and in their futures, I am absolutely certain that they will face novelty. They will face ambiguity. They will face unpredictable and complex problems. Having a set of facts and right answers alone will not serve them. What will serve them is extensive practice learning through a variety of methods of inquiry, in the face of ill-structured problems and open-ended questions. What will serve them is the mindset of a curious learner, equipped with the toolboxes of inquiry, who possesses practice using the tools in each toolbox. Think back to the toolbox metaphor. While carpenters each use a carpenter’s toolbox, each individual carpenter’s toolbox is unique and distinct. Over time, a carpenter adds new tools, learns to use tools better and even fails, at times, to achieve resolution on a project with an existing set of tools. The same is true of inquiry. Those new to the Scientific Method, or any other method of inquiry, will need practice with that toolbox to become increasingly adept at using it to achieve resolutions in the face of that which is unresolved. This is why university medical schools shifted their approach to teaching medicine. They recognized that pre-med students needed this authentic practice, before they launched into the profession. Why prepare students for life and careers in a way that is different than the way they would actually need to be, do, act and think well in life? Why prepare students for life, by learning to memorize and regurgitate facts? That is not what they will do in their lives. So, let’s do real work now.

Inquiry must be practiced:

Though different methods can be learned and practiced, even they unravel differently in the face of different unresolved issues, problems, questions and unknowns. My good friend and colleague once told me that, “every process eventually breaks down once you’re deep enough into the work.” She’s a high school science teacher at an internationally-renowned school that practices PBL. And she’s absolutely right.

Getting Started:

First, a few words of encouragement. Perhaps you are concerned that you, yourself, lack experience with the toolboxes of inquiry. That’s ok, start by starting. You can learn and practice alongside students. If we want students to embrace learning and become lifelong-learners, then we must model that spirit ourselves. How could we ask them to do something that is new and possibly uncomfortable, if we are unwilling to do it ourselves?

Inquiry Basics:

Even though there are a variety of different inquiry methods, each method shares the same fundamental components - attempting to resolve that which is unresolved by using what you know, determining what you need to know, learning new information and interpreting everything in an effort to resolve. Typically, you bounce around the various phases, as much as needed, until resolution is achieved. Sometimes resolving one thing, leads to the realization that you now recognize a dozen new (new-to-you, at least) unresolved things. That which is unresolved could be any of the following: a design challenge, an engineering design challenge, a threat, a problem (no not a simple math problem, an ill-structured and ideally authentic problem to which there is not a clear right answer), a decision to-be-made, a request for services, a need, a controversial issue, unexplained observations about the natural world, a dilemma, and more. As you may have already considered, there is a powerful opportunity to inspire the “unresolved” starting point from our students themselves! We can co-construct open-ended questions, relevant problems and other “unresolved” springboards with our students. Certainly there is plenty of known information and there is indeed value in learning existing knowledge. Inquiry does not exclude the act of learning existing knowledge. In fact, that’s the second phase - use what you already know, determine what you need to know and learn that. So, learning existing knowledge is important, is allowed and is fundamentally a part of inquiry. However, in inquiry, learning existing knowledge is not an end in itself but rather a means to a new end - a resolution of that which was unresolved. An inquiry process may lead to student-created resolutions that could be any of the following: new scientific findings, new conclusions, new accounts of the past, original theories, proofs, solutions, designs, engineered devices, decisions, plans of action, campaigns, positions and more. The key with resolutions is that they are NEW. They didn’t exist before. So, if the end result of “inquiry” is that a student learns a set of facts or existing knowledge, then it’s actually not inquiry. That’s actually just rote learning masquerading as inquiry. Inquiry must result in attempts at NEW, original resolutions.

You Can Help Students Where They’ll Struggle:

Because students are often so used to learning and repeating what they learned, they may struggle with moving from the second phase of inquiry that focuses on learning, to the third phase of interpreting what has been learned in order to resolve. This is where they’ll likely need the most support from the teacher.

We offer engaging professional development (you will actually be creating, collaborating and actively learning!!!...rather than being given boring passive lecture style PD) on Teaching & Assessing 21st Century Skills, Creativity & Innovation, Deeper Learning, PBL, Trauma Informed Practices, Implicit Bias and many more worthwhile workshops. Feel free to contact us with any questions or great ideas you have! We'd love to talk with you about how to incorporate deep and meaningful learning opportunities in your classroom, school or district!