What then is the inquiry method?

In my previous posting I began reflecting on Postman & Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I pointed out that P&W argue for adopting the inquiry method of teaching and learning. What is the inquiry method and how does it differ from more traditional pedagogy?

Let’s start with what it’s not. The inquiry method is not what Postman & Weingartner term the seductive method of teaching: “a set of questions posed by the teacher, text or machine, which is intended to lead the student to produce the right answers.” This describes one of my long time teaching strategies. Ouch!

Rather than generating answers, the inquiry method is fundamentally about asking and refining questions. The implication is that by thinking about questioning, learning will occur at a higher cognitive level than merely memorizing content. The objective is not to determine the answer to a problem, but to teach students to think critically and independently.

Indeed, Postman and Weingartner emphasize what they call the “power of pluralizing:” The class seeks answers, not the answer, or reasons, not the reason. “[G]ood learners do not need to have an absolute, final irrevocable resolution to every problem.” All answers are provisional and conditional on new information.

Moreover, there is no expectation that each student’s answers will be the same, since “[W]e do not ‘get’ meanings from our environment. We assign meanings.” Because “what we perceive is largely a function of our previous experiences, … each individual will perceive what is ‘out there’ in a unique way.” And that is perfectly acceptable.

As P&W observe:

[T]he meaning-maker metaphor … makes both possible and acceptable a plurality of meanings, for the environment does not exist only to impose standardized meanings but rather to help students improve their unique meaning-making capabilities.

A key element of the inquiry approach is engaging the students, getting them to take their learning seriously. How is this accomplished? By focusing on questions of interest to the students, questions that they genuinely care about. An inquiry course is not about covering the content; indeed, there is no static syllabus of topics to be covered. Rather, course content is dynamically driven by the questions posed and answers discovered by the students. Postman & Weingartner emphasize “unless an inquiry is perceived as relevant by the learner, no significant learning will take place.” While this sounds like academic anarchy, the authors present evidence that “the curriculum that emerge[s] in the classes ha[s] a curious but compelling unity.”

Another element of the inquiry approach is to minimize the role of grades. The objective is not so much to evaluate what students know or what they have learned but to improve their reasoning skills. Summative evaluation, they argue, gets in the way of the goal.

Negative judgments are, not surprisingly, impediments to good learning, particularly if they have the effect of causing the learner to judge himself negatively.

What we need to do then, if we are seriously interested in helping students to become good learners, is to suspend or delay judgments about them.

If you think that doing away with grades is impossible, consider this:

If you are thinking that students, given such conditions, will not do any work, you are wrong. Most will. But, of course, not all. There are always a few who will view the situation as an opportunity to ‘goof off.’ So what? It is a small price to pay for providing the others with perhaps the only decent intellectual experience they will ever have in school.

Postman & Weingartner raise many serious issues worth thinking about:

• Doesn’t content matter? Aren’t there some things students need to know just because they are necessary for understanding subsequent, perhaps more relevant concepts? For example, in my first year seminar, I will need to teach some basic principles of economics, whether the students want that or not, prior to discussing more interesting topics in globalization. To paraphrase P&W, before you can think like an economist, you need to learn the basic concepts.

• What about factual courses, like French 101, or Calculus? Surely courses such as these are necessary for a university education, even if students would prefer to avoid them. Is the answer that the inquiry method simply isn’t applicable to these?

• Are students always the best judge of what they should be learning? Should we teach only what students know they want to learn?

• Does “learning a subject” then mean that one’s perceptions merely match the teacher’s? Or that one’s perceptions match a consensus of practitioners in the discipline? Is grading merely evaluating how closely student interpretations match “expert” interpretations?

• Can we realistically teach without assigning grades?

Is the inquiry approach to teaching and learning the “silver bullet” for what ails U.S. higher education? I doubt it, but I do think this could be an important part of the reform effort.

I fear I haven’t done justice to this powerful book. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who cares about their teaching. Read it and make up your own mind.

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1 Response to What then is the inquiry method?

  1. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » For the Love of Ballou

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