Russell A. Hunt

Inquiring into inquiry: Reflections on a symposium

[As published in Experiences with inquiry learning. Proceedings of a symposium held at McMaster University, October 1-3, 20004, ed. C. K. Knapper. Hamilton, Ontario: Centre for Leadership in Learning, McMaster University, 2007. 111-117.]


Encountering an established, extensive and institutionally-supported university program of inquiry-based learning is, for a fairly isolated practitioner of what I've been calling for 20 years "collaborative investigation," rather like M. Jourdain, in Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, discovering, with astonishment, that he's been speaking prose all his life.

It is also, of course, to discover that the prose you have been speaking is not quite the same as the language spoken on the Mother Ship. Further, you learn that your standpoint, that of someone who is at the same time both inside and outside what is called, on board, "inquiry learning," enables you, occasionally, to see things a bit differently. You get the idea that perhaps you can offer a viewpoint that may help those who are more thoroughly, shall we say, institutionalized to reflect in a slightly different, and perhaps helpful, way.

One of the things you notice early on in this situation is that there is a good deal of baggage connected with the word "inquiry" -- and that most of it is checked. That is, it's in the hold but not directly apparent, and is usually inaccessible during the voyage. Let me reflect on my experience of this remarkable symposium by considering some of the checked items I have become aware of in the course of attending to the many thought-provoking presentations.

We need to make it explicit, for example, that we're always talking about inquiry learning, not just inquiry, and, even more, that this learning nearly always occurs in connection with classrooms and curricula. One might say that this goes without saying (that itís okay that it's down in the hold), but in fact saying it -- bringing it up on deck -- foregrounds some things we tend to lose sight of. As we generalize about what defines inquiry, what constitutes good or bad inquiry, whether problem-based learning is (or includes) inquiry, and so forth, we need to remember that this phenomenon occurs in individual places with particular people, and is constrained by the nature of the places and the expectations and apprehensions of the learners and teachers involved. It is important, in other words, to give the concept of inquiry a local habitation and a name, and think about it in the most concrete possible terms.

Goals

In our concern with learning, for example, we must not lose sight of the fact that inquiry learning involves a kind of "bracketing" of the goal of the inquiry, an odd sort of packaging of the goal of an inquiry together with the goal of the process of inquiring. That is, inquiry is about finding out, but inquiry learning ultimately subordinates the finding out itself to the process of learning about finding out. It is not at all a trivial consideration, for example, that the fact that you're reinventing the wheel is not a problem for inquiry learning, but might well be devastating for an inquiry.

To illustrate: an inquiry into the sources of a patient's symptoms, if a genuine inquiry, would be instantly abrogated by finding that someone else had already conducted the inquiry and come up with the answer. You would not continue to look for alternative causes for acute pain in the lower right side of the groin if you found that it was well known that appendicitis was almost certainly the cause. But if this were an instance of inquiry learning, it would almost certainly not be a desirable outcome to find that an authority had already "solved" the problem and stop there. The point of the activity in such a case would be to have the learners experience and reflect on the process of hypothesis-forming and disconfirmation, of exploration and investigation, that underlies the solution.

Not only does this call into question whether what we're doing in such a case is really inquiry, it raises the interesting problem encountered regularly by practitioners in the classroom: is an inquiry designed to come to a foreordained conclusion actually an inquiry at all, and if there's an important difference here, what consequences does it have for inquiry learning? Does it make sense to insist that in order to qualify as inquiry learning, the inquiries we initiate must be authentic? And, equally, for whom can an inquiry be authentic? If in my class an inquiry into the social context of the Scopes trial arose, or one into the role of genetic variation in evolution, or the geological history of a local volcanic plug, and I already know pretty clearly what I expect the students engaged in the inquiry to "discover," what do we make of the difference between the students' view of what they're doing and mine? Does this make what's happening something different from, perhaps less than, inquiry learning?

In other words, one might say that the central challenge of structuring inquiry learning is to find a way to make it as real an inquiry as possible for the inquirers without losing sight of the fact that in an ultimate sense it's not real at all, that the point of it is the engagement in the process as though it were real. This is, of course, made more complex and ticklish by the context in which this whole enterprise occurs.

Contexts

For the processes of inquiry are shaped, as well, not just by the intentions and plans of an instructor, but by the sheer fact that she is an instructor, and equally by whether the institution is one where students will ever have encountered such a method. It's shaped by whether the instructor and students think of what they're doing as pretty normal (perhaps, even, the default mode) or as an abnormal and risky excursion into educational experimentation, or maybe a heedless wandering into la-la land. Class sessions, or courses, or curricula driven by similar ideas may not only look, but be very different when conducted as part of a first year cross-disciplinary introductory program from how they would appear when an isolated history or commerce professor introduces them into her course as a result of reading a book or talking with a colleague or attending a conference.

Similarly, if university and departmental curricular structures are built around expectations of content coverage, factual knowledge, and dissemination of specific information in prescribed forms, instances of inquiry learning will look, and be, radically different from what one might encounter in an institutional context where the active and thus unpredictable nature of constructive learning is recognized. Requirements of "contact hours" are only one minor instance of the ways in which such curricular assumptions can have powerful consequences for classroom practice; more important is the pressure of explicit "coverage" requirements that are often built into undergraduate curricula. One of the most difficult challenges we've faced in the program in which I teach, for example, was a departmental requirement that the different sections of an introductory sociology course introduce students to a defined set of four "perspectives," or sociological approaches, that were attached to particular writers and particular texts. To incorporate a section of that introductory sociology course into a larger project of inquiry learning required a particular focus and approach that constrained the inquiry in radical ways. And the constraints were as evident in student expectations ("will I be prepared for second-year sociology?") as in faculty or administrative requirements -- which, in fact, can usually be negotiated.

It is also worth noticing, as we poke around in the checked baggage, that disciplinary contexts themselves have profound influences on what can be implemented and how it will look. In a discipline where it is clear from the outset that the primary focus is practice -- the health sciences, obviously, are the prime example here -- inquiry learning will not only be more likely to be seen as an alternative, it will be shaped in a context where arenas of practice are everywhere at hand. Not only in the health sciences, but in such practical fields as social work or journalism or theatre, it is clear from the outset that the learning is as much or more about how as about what. In a field like literature or history, however, it is not nearly as obvious that practice is what anyone is focused on. And in spite of the rare publication of a book like J. H. Hexter's Doing History, the customary ways of characterizing the discipline are in terms of the acquisition and storing of knowledge and the development of understanding. Hence arenas of practice are not nearly as easy to imagine, nor is it as easy to argue that the changes the curriculum is intended to foster and measure are achievable by the methods traditionally embraced by inquiry learning.

Physical constraints are almost as important. They often seem trivial, but not only class size and the physical classroom, but timetabling and resources can make profound differences. In fact -- this is part of the reason inquiry learning is so rarely found in institutions that have not officially embraced it -- it is virtually impossible to introduce even rudimentary forms of inquiry learning into a class that meets in a tiered lecture room three times a week for 50 minutes.

The variation imposed by circumstances is to be welcomed in practice, of course (it's as necessary to the health of the species as genetic variation in biology) but it can make generalizing very difficult. The attempt to define inquiry learning in terms that allow for the way it might look in a curricularly constrained introductory philosophy course and how it might look across campus in a pharmacology lab can lead in two equally unfortunate directions. On the one hand we can drift toward a kind of schismatic narrowness ("no, what you're doing isn't really inquiry") or on the other to a fuzzy, warm inclusiveness ("ah, fundamentally, aren't we all doing inquiry?"). Both can have difficult consequences if you believe that the changes, in individuals and in institutions, that this form of learning brings with it, and requires, are salutary ones.

Collaboration

Another item of checked baggage that we might want to pull out of the hold and inspect is the often unspoken assumption that inquiry learning is almost invariably collaborative (and I don't mean in the obvious sense that everything we do is collaborative). In virtually every case where I hear or read people describing inquiry learning, they're talking about activities undertaken by groups of people working somehow, but explicitly, in collaboration. You can test this assumption when people raise questions like, well, isn't a thesis a sort of inquiry learning? Can a term paper count as inquiry learning? We all feel a kind of discomfort with that: um, yes, technically, it is inquiry, but it's not quite what most people mean by inquiry learning.

Like the institutional context, this is not a trivial consideration. There's something crucial here about collaboration, and it's something intimately connected with what we expect from inquiry learning. Exploring why it is that collaboration seems an integral part of inquiry learning may well be part of what seems to me is the next important task for those who'd like to see it spread. Figuring out just why it works is in my view a more important task than establishing whether it works (which I think is beyond serious question), and it seems clear that a central part of the way in which learning through inquiry helps individuals learn is by making them part of a group, which requires that they explicitly formulate what they're doing, define their questions, state their arguments, and thus reflect on the process in more than a superficial sense.

Beyond this, if it's true that inquiry learning almost by definition involves some kind of formal, structured reflection, it seems that we need to be more conscious of how we make sure this happens. For this reason I was disappointed that I didn't hear much about the role of writing at the conference.

Language

Let's haul this up out of the hold, too. Down there I think there's quite a substantial amount of unexamined baggage which contains assumptions about the way in which converting practice into reflection by means of language might make learning (to use a term I heard a couple of times at the conference) "unforgettable." There's a great deal to be unpacked here, I think, and a bit of rummaging around in this particular sea trunk might help us to think about how inquiry learning actually works, and how it might be structured so as to make its effects even stronger and more consistent.

When Ron Sheese raises the question about the relation between dialogue and inquiry, as he did at this conference, the clear implication -- besides the one that says inquiry should be collaborative (and afford dialogue) to be most effective -- is that dialogue is good for inquiry, that it makes it somehow better. I come to inquiry learning from a central concern for the ways in which deepening and expanding literacy fosters learning. Hence my first response is to begin thinking about the technology of writing, and about the more recent technologies that make writing more directly social -- beginning, of course with print, and ending (as far as we can see now) with the electronic text displayed on an LCD screen. These technologies have the potential for making dialogue even more likely to afford the sort of learning that changes who we are, and thus becomes unforgettable.

For many years I've been engaged in studying the ways in which writing and reading are different when take place in socially authentic situations. My shorthand for this is to say that when people are reading and writing to get things done that they care about, and not focused on generating writing that proves they can write (or reading in order to demonstrate understanding of texts), the activity is richer, and has the power to change attitudes. Further, it is clear that written text has been rendered dramatically more immediate by technologies. First, of course, was the technology of printing, but more recently, and equally powerfully, our ways of handling, exchanging, and using text have been transformed by photocopying, and then by the advent of computer-mediated text, including e-mail, the web, the on-line journal, the discussion board, the blog, instant messaging, and so forth. If we agree, as I think we must, that a central component of inquiry learning entails reflection on the activities we engaged in, we also need to think more deeply than we usually do about ways in which to use text -- and especially electronically mediated, immediate text -- as a central medium for conducting such inquiries, and for discussing them before, during, and after the actual inquiry.

Learning

A central component of inquiry learning, and yet another item that's often left down near the ballast, is that it should change or deepen people's ideas about what learning itself is -- the ideas of students, of course, but also those held by the people teaching in such programs and engaging in such practices. We need to be far more explicit about this than we usually are. The most common place for this to begin, and where it's hardest to forget about, is in situations where curricular goals and structures need to be negotiated -- for example departments with coverage requirements, universities with schedules and mandated obligations about contact hours and examinations, other institutions with expectations about explicit evaluations of course credits, and so forth. Inquiry learning by its very nature calls into question what has been dismissed (sometimes unfairly) as the "banking model" of education, and focuses its interest on the processes by which learners construct and solidify their learning.

If you believe people need to have information first in order to think (a position which has much to recommend it), you are very likely to see a collaborative model of inquiry learning as what a colleague of mine once dismissed as "the blind leading the blind." On the other hand, if you think that in order for learning to be unforgettable it needs to be constructed by the learner, in situations where it's meaningful, you are likely to see the indiscriminate bestowal of information on unreflecting audiences as a waste of time. In many ways the question about this way of learning comes down to whether you think we can have -- or even whether we might need -- a top to come down from before we have a bottom to build up on. This poses serious difficulties for measuring learning, since it proposes that what ought to be measured is the ability to do something rather than the possession of knowledge (perhaps translated into the ability to write examinations).

One of the consequences of this case of paradigm incommensurability is that an instance of inquiry learning in the usual institutional context is under constant and unremitting pressure to compromise its core values and adjust its central practices. This arises both because of the expectations of "coverage" from students and because of the pressures of common institutional structures and customs. Classes are called "lectures," examinations are expected (and often accompanied by explicit rules about weighting in final evaluations), schedules and logistics make collaboration outside class meeting times difficult. The list goes on endlessly, and we need to be aware that every course and every program that makes inquiry central is working against such pressures, even when, as is commonly the case, the institution itself formally accepts or is even enthusiastic about the concept.

Change

In another of the obscure suitcases in the hold is the unanswered -- and often unasked -- question of whether widespread and structural institutional change is required in order to make inquiry learning a viable alternative in the long run. We do not usually make a distinction between inquiry learning as a program and inquiry learning as a teaching strategy. As a teaching strategy it's a matter of individual choice, rather like choosing to use term papers or examinations or class discussion. If we think of it as being implemented merely as an individual decision by an isolated teacher, the questions that arise concern such issues as whether there is room in the institution for the individual changes, are there colleagues to work and talk with, are curricular constraints avoidable, is the culture of the institution (for instance the expectations of students or of promotion and tenure committees) hospitable, or at least tolerant?

But once we begin talking about institutional change -- of the kind one can see happening at an institution like McMaster -- we move into a different area, where entirely new problems have to be faced. This is not the place to delve into them at length, but it's worth raising a couple of questions about fostering institutional change to support this sort of initiative. One concerns the age-old dilemma of whether this sort of change (like any large-scale change) is best pursued as a bottom-up or top-down process. And the answer, of course, is that it's going to need, like learning, to be both at once. If there's not institutional leadership the inertia of the structures we all live with will eventually erode the initiative: I think of it as entropy having its way with us). But no administrator has ever succeeded in changing something this fundamental unless the people at the chalk face are open to change -- indeed, already engaged in it.

This raises the obvious next question: in order for the practices of inquiry learning to spread and grow in institutions of learning, does there need to be a visible presence of a "movement" -- publications, organizations, etc.? Even more, what are the dangers of this? We've all seen the rise and fall of trendy movements, especially (in my experience, at least) in education. Once we've formed the International Association for the Advancement of Inquiry Learning, and have our annual conference with papers and seminars and keynotes, and a quarterly journal, what could we expect but that the process would meet the fate of so many others, declining into academic irrelevance and careerism? Of course that doesn't have to happen, but I always remember Alice's musing about the bread-and-butter fly: if it doesn't get any bread and butter, it would die.

"But that must happen very often," Alice remarked thoughtfully.
"It always happens," said the gnat.
A more promising strategy for the future, I think, is offered by this symposium and by its context: a successful program in an existing institution, offering itself, and offered by others, as an example of what can be done. The Aquinas Program at St. Thomas University, fragile as it is, exists, I would argue, in large part because those of us who wanted to try something new were able to point to other programs where similar practices had been tried and were demonstrably successful. In our case, one of the central models we could adduce in suggesting that we weren't simply crazy was the problem-based curriculum already in existence at the McMaster medical school. To document and publicize the successes of large scale programs, and to hold symposia like this one, seems to me the most effective possible strategy for ensuring that the ideas at the heart of inquiry learning don't go the way of the bread-and-butter fly.

To invite and conduct external reviews of programs where -- at McMaster and elsewhere -- inquiry learning is being implemented, and to publish and publicize the results, seems to me the most powerful way in which we can support those, like me, who need the voyages of the various Mother Ships to be documented and validated.