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Why Inquiry?

created Oct 04, 2018 02:18 PM

by Nancy McTygue, Executive Director

"Why Inquiry?"  As one of the Primary Writers of California’s History-Social Science Framework, I get asked this question often.  This morning, I was honored to be on a panel convened by the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE), focused on the benefits of inquiry in history-social science, as part of the CLIC (Content, Literacy, Inquiry, and Citizenship) Community of Practice meeting.  Moderated by Tom Adams, Deputy Superintendent at the California Department of Education, the panel also featured Janet Mann, HSS Education Programs Consultant at the CDE, Linda Reed, a former teacher and founder of the Civitas Academy at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, and Marley Fortin, a very wise-beyond-her-years high school senior at Rio Americano. 

The panel was organized by Frank Pisi, Director of History/Social Studies for SCOE.  Before the panel, Frank asked us to consider two related questions - what are the benefits of inquiry and what if your administrator doesn't see the value? 

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As the panel opened, I was struck by the fact that I really couldn’t add much to the thoughtful comments made by my fellow panelists.  Janet (a former high school teacher) talked about how it helped her engage all of her students and deepen their understanding of the content at hand.  Linda seconded that and gave some terrific examples about how her students customized their study based upon their interests and what the inquiry process taught them.  And Marley, well, she was just remarkable.  Thoughtful, articulate, and not intimidated by a room full of adults, she both charmed and impressed me with her understanding of pedagogy, her ability to understand how disciplines can both intersect and diverge, and her own self-reflection.  

For folks who couldn’t be there today, I thought I might share the following points I put together this week, in the hopes of supporting more conversations like this panel and to offer some language that might perhaps describe a process that good teachers have been using for years:

  • One of my favorite inquiry definitions:  “Inquiry is a process of learning driven by questioning, thoughtful investigations, making sense of information, and developing new understandings.”  (For more from Barbara Stripling, former President of the American Association of School Librarians, check out this great summary and graphic from the Library of Congress).
  • Inquiry is a coherent instructional model.  It works across disciplines.  It teaches students a process they will use throughout their adult lives – in advanced study at college, in the workplace, and in life in general.  We have questions.  We investigate those questions using relevant sources.  We reach an interpretation.  And then it often leads to more questions. 
  • Throughout it all, we seek significance – what does this process and our findings tell us not only about our original question, but about the world in which we live?
  • Inquiry also offers practical advantages.  It addresses one of the fundamental challenges teachers face – student engagement.  Helping students investigate the past (or a scientific phenomena or a statistical anomaly), is inherently engaging and breaks the cycle of route memorization of seemingly unconnected facts.  With inquiry, a student’s path is not pre-determined.  Investigation of the past is guided by the evidence and a student’s analysis of that evidence.  This unpredictability, as well as the control the student exerts over the process, fundamentally transform the traditional paradigm of teacher giving information to students.
  • Inquiry teaches students how to think critically and it improves their ability to remember content.  The traditional paradigm of teacher dispensing information to students limits children’s ability to understand the connections between content, thus severely restricting their ability to remember seemingly disparate pieces of information.  By having students investigate the relationships between historical events and actors, for example, they are much more likely to remember what happened and to whom and to understand why the event was important.
 
Categories: HSS Education
Tags: inquiry
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