Instructional strategies acquire names, labels that describe what the strategy involves—active learning, problem-based learning, cooperative learning. Sometimes the strategies gain popularity. They become widely used, and so do the terms that describe them. After a while teachers stop describing what they are doing in class. They simply refer to it by the label: “Yes, I have students work in groups. I use cooperative learning.”
The problem is that we think we're talking about the same thing, and we aren't, as is eloquently illustrated in the article referenced below. The authors were interested in what tasks faculty described as inquiry-based approaches. They also wondered what kind of educational objectives teachers associated with inquiry-based instruction. They asked questions like these and received 224 responses from faculty in a range of disciplines at three Australian universities.
Those who responded submitted a wide variety of inquiry-based tasks that ranged from scholarly research projects to literature reviews to discussions (online and face-to-face) to applied research to role playing. The researchers conclude the obvious: “we . . . find qualitatively different tasks that are regarded as being inquiry-based.” (p. 1254) There were only a couple of features that all these various tasks shared. They involved active learning as opposed to students listening to lectures or receiving direct instruction, and most of the tasks were problem or question driven as opposed to being topic driven.
The range of objectives teachers were using these tasks to accomplish was equally broad. Most commonly, these tasks were being used to develop content knowledge, followed by professional skills, research skills, professional insights, teamwork skills, self-regulated learning skills, and communication skills, and that's not even the full list.
It is important to note that the scholars who study and write about inquiry-based learning don't all define it the same way, and they too offer a range of tasks and assignments to illustrate the approach. So the objective here is not one fixed, immutable definition with a set of “officially approved” activities. Rather, the concern is more with the other end of the continuum, where the assumption is that any user can define any instructional strategy as he or she sees fit. Just because you call what you're using “active learning” doesn't mean that it is. Some faculty call a question-answer exchange with one student “active learning.” It may be for the student who's talking, but it probably isn't for the rest of the class.
What we should be after is a place in the middle that balances the need to know that we are in fact talking about the same things against the need to shape strategies so that they meet our goals and objectives. Instructional strategies do have features and characteristics that distinguish them from other strategies. They can still be adapted, modified, and changed, but not to the point that their unique features are no longer present.
The place to start is by not assuming that we're all talking about the same thing when we say we use inquiry-based tasks and assignments, or cooperative learning, or learner-centered approaches, problem-based learning, or any other instructional method. We should inquire further and find out what's actually happening in the classroom. If we're using one of these approaches, it would behoove us to discover its defining features and see whether they are present in the way we're using the approach. What we call what we're doing does matter.
Aditomo, A., Goodyear, P., Bliue, A., and Ellis, R.A. (2013). Inquiry-based learning in higher education: Principal forms, educational objectives, and disciplinary variations. Studies in Higher Education, 38 (9), 1239-1258.