Inquiry Learning: getting kids out of the box (Jill Hammonds)

Inquiry CycleImage by istlibrary via FlickrIf you are interested in inquiry learning, and finding out strategies for trying the approach with students…or maybe you are already using inquiry learning but would like to find out more – then this session by Jill Hammonds would be a useful starting point.

Jill Hammonds facilitated a Webinar session this afternoon (21st Sept 2011) entitled “Inquiry Learning: getting kids out of the box” (recording can be accessed here, and you can download the PowerPoint from the session here). Jill started by opening with a view of how schools sometimes implement inquiry learning, which is about discovering and understanding. So who drives? The student or the teacher, or is it a partnership? It is worth thinking of it as a continuum where, when students first start out with enquiry it is the teacher that does most of the driving. As students develop their inquiry skills, the learning becomes much more student directed.

Jill talked compared teaching to lighting a fire – if you build a pile of sticks and chuck a match on, nothing much is likely to happen other than the match dies. Inquiry, Jill asserts is a disposition, and teachers need to adjust their teaching to enable inquiry to happen.

Participants were invited to advise what they felt inquiry to be, and some of the suggestions included:

  • ‘allowing opportunities to discover, collaborate, bounce off others, apply the new learning..”
  • “Student directed interest”
  • “a process of trial and reflection”
  • “questioning and thinking and reflecting on information to be sure it answers the questions”

Jill also showed a Wordle where the key words that popped out were: students, hypotheses, investigate and learning. The importance of being a life-long learner is critical in this day and age, and Jill stressed that this is a reason that might shape the focus on inquiry and how it is implemented in schools.

tap mechanismImage via WikipediaThe picture of a tap with a droplet with the world in it was used as a catalyst for conversation, as well as to demonstrate how to encourage people to think and work out what is happening based on prior knowledge. The next image was of several taps, along with questions of how they function, and illustrates how to put new challenges in front of learners. The scenario was expanded out to include wells, then oil wells, and finally notions of electricity and power.

animation of proof of pythagorean theorem by r...Image via WikipediaJill mentioned about her own experience of learning a language which was mainly rote, and missed the main purpose of language which was to communicate. Inquiry is providing opportunities for students to communicate with each other and to develop meaningful conversations – within language learning, but also in other disciplines. Inquiry in mathematics for example, might be based on a wide question “Suppose you want to climb on the roof of your treehouse….” and using a number of strategies such as Pythagoras’s theorem to work out a solution to a ‘real life’, accessible problem that means experimenting with things, refining approaches, and working out a workable solution.

Literacy is not just about reading and writing and we have a lot more to think about today, and all of these aspects are opportunities for using … and presenting inquiry. It’s finding out about how things work, and how they work and link together.

question markImage via WikipediaIf we don’t have a model, how can we structure the learning in our class? It is about the way we plan, but how much planning can, or should, we do? Jill presented a sample, and also has an inquiry template to help scaffold the planning process, which is available for anyone to download and use. One of the participants asked if the plan is co-constructed with students – a good question…and maybe, again, it depends on how familiar with inquiry learning the students are.

Wizard HatImage via WikipediaA key point Jill made was that the best questions often happen at the end of the enquiry process, and she mentioned thinking tools in general, and De Bono’s thinking hats specifically. The thinking tools can be one way of helping students to work though and develop questions – to challenge themselves to take things further and to move away from narrow statements, and to come to a wide variety of understandings. Margaret McPherson also suggested the parallel curriculum (Carol Ann Tomlinson), which. The core strand is where the main focus of teaching is, and then the other strands are more flexible and student shaped and directed. It is about co-construction and enabling differentiation.

Jill emphasised that the deliberate acts of teaching were essential to scaffold the inquiry process, and students could not be dropped into an inquiry approach and expected to work with it meaningfully. Likewise, the inquiry has to stretch the students, so that it actually develops the ability to think things through. Jill also cautioned against over-structuring the inquiry process, or following a model rigidly because learning is messy, and it is important to remain agile and responsive. A participant also pointed out that “inquiry needs to be inclusive throughout all curriculum and linking the learning makes it more meaningful – not just at TOPIC time!”

About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ ( I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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