What does inquiry learning look like?

Our PYP evaluation went really well and it was gratifying to hear the evaluators’ positive observations of our school.

They talked about our dynamic learning spaces, the energy of our teachers and learners and the respect that is evident between staff and students. They were impressed by how articulate our students are and the openness of our teachers. It was clear to them that the entire school community has a deep understanding of the PYP philosophy and that we have a strong culture of learning.

Almost all their recommendations are things on which we are either working already or have identified for action through the self study.

There’s only one thing I found jarring in their feedback and it relates to my beliefs about inquiry learning. They noted that neither students nor teachers seem able to identify what particular inquiry cycles we follow. They said the children to whom they spoke didn’t seem to be aware of the specific ‘stages’ of inquiry and that most teachers couldn’t articulate how an inquiry cycle directs our planning.

To be honest, I’m glad.

If it’s something we need to clarify, we will, of course, and perhaps it will be helpful for newer teachers to be aware of some of the inquiry cycles we have visited along the way. Over time, we have worked with both Kath Murdoch’s and Kathy Short’s inquiry cycles and examined some others. But I’m proud of the fact that most of us no longer need to use a specific inquiry model to guide our planning for inquiry – our planning looks more like this and this.

We’ve worked hard to develop an understanding that inquiry learning is messy and NOT limited to a step by step approach. True inquiry learning is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather moves back and forth between the different stages identified by most of the inquiry models.

Kath Murdoch herself, whose inquiry cycle is slavishly followed in many schools writes this – ‘ It’s hard to do justice to the complexities and nuances of inquiry in writing. So much gets lost. Something that is rich, layered and multidimensional can come across as flat, linear and recipe-like. Over the years, I have published several books that share a ‘cycle of inquiry’ and the kinds of learning engagements that we might design within a cycle. I have seen hundreds of interpretations of this idea in classrooms. Many have been gratifying and exciting. Teachers who really ‘get’ the intention, understand the complexity and invite their students into the learning have blown me away with what they have done. And I have also seen (and heard) many bewildering versions or iterations of the cycle that are such a long way off the original conceptualization and intent! Ironically, I have seen slavish adherence to a cycle actually impede rather than enhance inquiry.’ (Read the whole post here.)

Interestingly, I remember that educators who did the IB workshop leader training with me, when engaging in our own inquiries, all noticed that our learning journeys did not follow the inquiry models on which we were supposed to base our inquiries. Participants realised that the inquiry process moves back and forth between asking, investigating, reflecting, connecting and constructing meaning. Some groups found they even shifted between more than one ‘model’. I recall that some of the high school teachers in particular, less familiar with this kind of learning, admitted to feeling a degree of discomfort. But it’s the kind of positive tension that leads to authentic learning.

If anything, I rather like the star shaped model, based on the work of Barbara Stripling, which Dave Truss of the Inquiry Hub wrote about a while ago. I like the idea of ‘inquiry points’ much more than the more common models of ‘inquiry cycles’. Inquiry can start at any of the points and bounce between them, rather than moving in a defined order. Too often in (so called) inquiry learning contexts, teaching and learning follow a prescribed order, as per one or another inquiry model.

I’m proud to work in a school where inquiry is a natural, non-linear process and teachers are encouraged to listen to the children’s learning and plan responsively, rather than follow a prescribed path that has been set in advance. This is true inquiry. It has no map, no set pattern and it can be messy…