Purposeful Inquiry

How is constructivist learning implemented?

Constructivist learning is implemented through a process of purposeful inquiry. Learning is most effective when a student is engaged, feels challenged and finds the work relevant (IBO, 2009a, p.7). When we take an interest in something (such as a hobby, culture or movie), we usually undertake our own personal inquiry. In order to find out more, we locate information and search for further meaning. It is a natural process, but not one that we are always conscious of doing or are we likely to do if it does not appeal to us.

This is the challenge faced by schools. Many students do not respond or perform well if they don’t feel involved with the subject matter (Barell, 2003, p.13). Schoolwork often feels imposed and arbitrary. Instead, we want students to be active and engaged in their learning. It is our desire that they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility.  Class time is dedicated to students pursuing inquiries. In this scenario we provide learning experiences and instructions that involve students and maintain their interest, prompt them to ask questions and then allow them to make assumptions that they can explore and test. Their findings can build on their previous understanding and/or provide an opportunity for further inquiry. Purposeful inquiry is usually seen in scientific testing, but it can be extended into other subject areas as well; i.e. problem solving in math and investigating different perspectives of an historical event.

There are different ways an inquiry can take place. It could be highly structured with a step-by-step procedure, guided by a teacher or even with a goal and a process to discover (Colburn, March 2000).

What role does the teacher have? What about textbooks?

In many cases the teacher will take the role of a facilitator and not the authoritative figure. That is, they will assist and provide guidance to students in their journey of learning. Students will have the opportunity to work individually or collaboratively in pairs or larger groups.

However, this does not mean that traditional methods of teaching and learning are neglected. Even in a process of inquiry, it still has a purpose. Because we focus on prior understanding, we employ direct instruction when it aids the inquiry process. This means that we tend to allow for students to test their ideas and make their own discoveries first. Direct instruction is usually provided during and at the end of the process, once students have developed their own connection.

Textbooks still have an importance in a purposeful inquiry.  However, we believe that a single textbook is not the basis for a syllabus. In many cases it provides only one point-of-view and it is not tailored to the needs of every student. Instead, each unit of study usually has a big idea that is investigated by inquiring about related concepts. A textbook may also be the springboard for an inquiry or simply one of many resources a student can use.  

What is the end result of purposeful inquiry?

Through a process of inquiry, students will develop an “appreciation of and control over their own learning process” (IBO, 2009a p.12). We believe understanding comes from using knowledge to find solutions, rather than something to memorize and recall. We are more concerned about how students can transfer this knowledge to find solutions and shape their understanding than just possessing information. The latter is a natural consequence of acquiring knowledge. This is all part of being a critical thinker. That is, “to be curious, to question, to connect, to search for alternative reasons or explanations, to challenge, to be able to stand back and take an objective view” (IBO, 2009a, p.15).