For many of us, learning to teach in a different way is a long and not always easy journey. Old habits die hard. Moreover, most of us are not particularly well-prepared to confront the task. We have copious amounts of content knowledge but lack great storehouses of information on teaching or learning. Most of us haven't read a lot about teaching and learning and aren't particularly well-versed in relevant research findings. We don't always know what we should do, but we do know we aren't happy with the way things are.
“I had a problem. I saw it in my students every day. Their faces, their postures, and their incessant checking of electronic devices all told me that they wanted to be somewhere other than in my class. ... No matter how high my standards, or how polished my lectures, most of my students engaged with my courses only when required to do so—for an exam or paper, for example.” (p. 33)
A lot of teachers have trouble admitting that to themselves, let alone to others, let alone in print for the world to read. But that's how Joseph Gonzalez, a history professor, opens his paper titled, “My Journey With Inquiry-Based Learning.” Why did he decide to go public? “I am … a practitioner, and my purpose here is to help other practitioners, providing them with the article I wish I had read before I experimented with my students.” (p. 34)
Inquiry-based approaches are popular right now. They are being used in a variety of disciplines and are defined in different ways. In fact, Gonzalez's understanding of the approach changed as he read more and accumulated experience implementing it. For him it means that “students behave like scholars, using accepted methods of inquiry to answer questions they or their faculty design.” (p. 34) It is not, as some critics call it, “unguided” instruction. Students are not roaming where they will in the content domain, teaching themselves and learning as they see fit. In Gonzalez's classroom the environment is one where “students work within carefully prescribed parameters.” (p. 46) References that define and explore inquiry-based approaches are cited throughout the article.
What is most amazing about this article is Gonzalez's willingness to talk about the mistakes he made as he tried to make his teaching more inquiry-based. He discusses scaffolding—the technique by which students are gradually introduced, in this case, to a new way of learning. Complex tasks are broken into steps that students work through systematically with teacher guidance. “I initially failed to appreciate the value of scaffolding. In fact, in my very first experiment, I employed almost no scaffolding at all. When the ‘inquiry' portion of the course arrived, I allowed the students to form themselves into groups ..., told them to design questions, and then turned them loose with the deadline for essays and presentations some weeks hence.” (p. 38) As might be expected, the results were disappointing. “Though the questions held promise, the research was shallow, the arguments obvious, and the presentations weak—full of the kinds of elementary errors that say to an audience, ‘We know this is a careless last-minute job, but please don't point out that fact.'” (p. 38) Gonzalez's mistake: He assumed his students could function like scholars, never thinking that he might have to teach them how scholars function.
He writes with the same brutal honesty about his first attempts to use group work. Here, too, he made a series of beginner mistakes. Like most of us, he discovered the error of his ways when he saw what happened in the groups. But unlike many of us, he didn't blame the students, didn't decide group work was a bad pedagogical approach, and didn't unduly criticize himself. He looked for solutions in the literature and found many. He cites those references and explains what he took from them and how he implemented ways of using group work that he considers highly effective.
This is one of those truly amazing articles. We so need more scholarship like this. Read an article like this and you'll see how much we can learn not only from our own experience, but from the experience of others. This is so much more than one of those articles where someone reports on trying something new that worked flawlessly and on that basis recommends that everyone else in the higher education world try it. We tell our students that learning can happen when they make a mistake. The same is true for teaching. Here's an author who admits to and describes his mistakes. He opted to learn from them using the kind of inquiry and scholarly analysis he now teaches his students. This is an article not to miss.
Gonzalez, J. J. (2013). My journey with inquiry-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24 (2), 33-50.
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