Inquiry or research?

In the past several years, I have adopted an inquiry based approach to teaching. In connecting and conversing with colleagues, I have observed that there is as much disagreement about what inquiry based learning and teaching is as there are approaches to inquiry itself.

From my perspective, there is one driving question that can summarize inquiry based education as a whole:

How can we all become better inquirers?

If this is the basis for discourse and conversation, then the possibilities for learning are endless.

The tweet below sparked my interest to inquire into the difference between inquiry and research:


Both inquiry and research are processes which aim to acquire new understandings. In the context of education, especially elementary education, I would assert that research is an inquiry tool. Learners use research to increase knowledge and understanding. However, inquiry learning is not limited to research. In an inquiry learning environment, discussion, speculation, artistic expression, fantasy, kinesthetic representation, etc, all have equal value in relation to data oriented research. Inquiry places just as much importance on the various stages (or lack thereof) of the process, whereas research is generally more information and product oriented.

Research seeks answers. Inquiry seeks questions.

For my own inquiry, I would like to share a few of my favorite visualization models and how they inform my understanding of the distinction between inquiry and research.

I believe that the How to Science! graphic represents an approach to research. First, it is linear. It also implies that everyone will go through the same ‘ups & downs’ along their journey through curiosity and learning. Linearity is more characteristic of research than inquiry.

In the ‘Ask, Try, Do’ graphic, from the Macromedia University for Media and Communication ‘Design Thinking’ MOOC, a model for inquiry is reduced to as few stages as possible. It seems to me that a model like this would be ideal for young learners who might often find themselves engrossed in ‘trying’ without considering what questions would help them to learn and proceed or who may need prompting to reflect on when a certain inquiry is ‘done’.

The above graphic, attributed to Kath Murdoch, expands upon the more simple model in a way that emphasizes research strategy. By emphasizing research as an inquiry tool, an effective balance is achieved. This model also has a certain linearity, based on the numbering of the inquiry stages, although its circular shape seems to welcome improvisation within the model.

The expanded model from International School of Tianjin is a favorite among my students, as it provides specific questions that can inform the inquiry process. However, if the goal of inquiry is to seek questions, is it counter productive to include them in the model?

The Creative Learning Spiral from the MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten is my personal favorite and best appeals to my Constructionist sensibilities because it places ‘create’ early in the process and, unlike the previous inquiry process, it constantly builds upon itself as reflection leads to new imagining.

We create our own models

The inquiry cycle models here are useful as a reference for planning or as shared mental models to facilitate discussion and collaboration. However, shouldn’t each inquiry be unique? As learners engage with different learning models and utilize them in different ways, they will naturally begin to synthesize and enhance them. If research is neat, inquiry is messy. Often, research follows a specified methodology because it is necessary for scientific credibility. Inquiry doesn’t need to be credible. Shouldn’t learning be incredible?
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Bart Miller

Father, Teacher, Composer, Philosopher

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