This is a topic I’ve explored on this blog, both in terms of specific strategies to support inquiry, and a more conceptual conversation on inquiry with David Slykhuis. However, if we hope to encourage our students to thrive in this area, we must first be clear on what we mean by inquiry and how we might “level up” our efforts.
What exactly do we mean by inquiry?
When one peruses definitions of inquiry, we find many different words and phrases, including:
- a systematic investigation
- an examination into facts or principles
- the act of asking questions
Levels of Inquiry
Of the many models available, the one that resonates most with me is the Levels of Inquiry framework introduced by Tafoya, Sunal, & Knecht (1980). They organize their framework according to level of student autonomy in the process, summarized below:
- Level 1: Confirmation or Verification – at this level, students confirm or verify a concept or principle through an instructor-designed activity in which the results are known in advance
- Level 2: Structured Inquiry – in structured inquiry, the instructor poses a question and structures as a process; the results may not be known in advance
- Level 3: Guided Inquiry – with guided inquiry, the instructor poses the question, but the students devise a process to answer the question; results are not known in advance
- Level 4: Open Inquiry – with open inquiry, the students have autonomy for all phases of the process
I think this framework provides a helpful way to think through the appropriate level of inquiry for a particular course project, experience or assignment. While it may seem that open inquiry is the “best” form of inquiry, it may not always be appropriate for your topic, your students, or the context of a course. For example, open inquiry is most appropriate (and essential) for a doctoral student embarking on her dissertation. A student in an introductory course may not even know what kinds of questions to ask. In this case, a confirmation or structured experience would be most appropriate.
What can we do, though, if when we evaluate the level of inquiry in a particular project we want to “level up?” There are several different simple strategies you can use to change your game plan.
Leveling Up Inquiry
- Provide more autonomy – While some students may not be prepared to create a structure for how they explore a particular concept or question, you might provide them with choice in a number of different ways that would increase their autonomy. For example, they might choose the topic or specific focus for their inquiry. You might provide different pathways to guide the process from which they can choose. You might also provide choice for how they present their results. All these choices relate directly to Universal Design for Learning and provide higher levels of student autonomy.
- Provide access to authentic tools – Whatever level of inquiry you opt for, you can greatly increase the authenticity of the work when you provide access to rich tools and datasets. For example, in a data-based exploration, setting students up with high yield data visualization tools can create a rich experience for students.
- Provide access to rich resources - Similarly, when we expand the data sources, students can interrogate their way through a variety of Web-based resources, thus increasing the authenticity of the experience. When we open up research material in a case-based learning experience beyond what is included in the textbook, we enable a higher level of inquiry.
- Consider hard scaffolds when removing the structure – In a previous post, I explored the idea of hard scaffolds – the learning supports that you design in advance to facilitate challenging work. When we shift from a level 1 or 2 activity to a level 3 guided inquiry approach, we may need to consider the kinds of scaffolds that students will need to successfully structure their work. We don’t need to provide them with the steps, but we may need to provide prompts for them to consider important variables or different approaches.
- Provide mentoring at higher levels – When we strive to provide students with an open inquiry experience, we may need to coordinate mentors for our students. When students explore a concept or data source outside your particular area of expertise, it can be important (and perhaps essential) to connect them with a mentor to support them in the work. This can take the form of a face-to-face mentor on your campus, or a virtual mentor via Skype from the other side of the globe.
How do you support inquiry in your courses?
Please post your comments below.