Is inquiry-based learning simply the latest buzz-word or is it a lasting educational reform? The Ontario Ministry of Education (2013) published an article in their Capacity Building Series entitled Inquiry Based Learning. Within the article, the authors acknowledged that “There is no one recipe for success” however proceeded to describe “the key characteristics of inquiry-based learning that offer promise in supporting students to become thoughtful, motivated, collaborative and innovative learners capable of engaging in their own inquiries and thriving in a world of constant change” (p. 1). To answer my initial question, I reflect on the application of Senge’s (1990) description of how organizations operate based on a “reinforcing feedback system” and “balancing process” (p. 79).
Let’s first examine how reinforcing processes will influence the lasting impact of this recently proposed pedagogical approach. As Senge (1990) describes reinforcing processes can operate as a “‘vicious cycles,’ in which things start off badly and grow worse” or as “‘virtuous cycles’ processes that reinforce in desired directions” (p. 81). Now, through conversations with various teachers there is currently mixed consensus about the experiences of implementing inquiry-based learning. Some teachers describe a vicious cycle whereas others describe a virtuous cycle of improved student learning and engagement. In order for inquiry-based learning to be a lasting educational reform the system must operate within a virtuous cycle.
However, despite being in what I would describe its infancy of implementation there are many resisters to inquiry-based learning. Why might there already be resistance to inquiry-based learning? Resistance towards inquiry-based learning is reflective of a balancing process which “almost always arises from threats to traditional norms and ways of doings things” (Senge, 1990, p. 88). Inquiry-based learning challenges many traditional norms and assumptions about how the education system operates.
First, the role of the educator changes within inquiry-based learning, teachers “play the role of ‘provocateur,’ finding creative ways to introduce students to ideas and to subject matter that is of interest to them and offers ‘inquiry potential’ or promise in terms of opportunities for students to engage in sustained inquiry of their own” (Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 2). Such an approach contrasts the scientific management approach to the role of the educator because as Taylor (2007) described “It is one of the principles of scientific management to ask men to do things in the right way, to learn something new, to change their ways in accordance with the science” (p. 295). Inquiry-based learning suggests that there is no right way of doing things as students’ learning is centralized around their interests instead of around the knowledge perceived as important by teachers and administrators. Some teachers feel threatened by this idea as their sense of identity as an educator is placed in question. As a result, some educators will resist the changes because as Boone & Bowen (1980) described “[i]f a communication is believed to involve a burden that destroys the net advantage of connection with the organization, there no longer would remain a net inducement to the individual to contribute to it”(p. 77). Thus, teachers who feel threatened by the implementation of inquiry-based learning are unlikely to accept the authority of the Ministry of Education and will continue with their current pedagogical approaches.
Second, the role of student changes as they engage in “planning, monitoring and reflecting” and thus become active participants within their education (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 6). As a result of inquiry-based learning, students may have as Freire (1970) described “[t]he awakening of critical consciousness [which] leads the way to the expression of social discontents precisely because these discontents are real components of an oppressive situation” (p. 20). Students are now engaged in their learning to actively question the status quo through inquiry which could jeopardize the organization of the traditional school system through the development of critical consciousness. The critical consciousness whereby students are active knowledge-seekers and developers marks a distinct difference between the traditional role of a student as a passive recipient of knowledge.
In conclusion, I believe that it is too early within the implementation of inquiry-based learning to tell whether this new pedagogical approach will last. However I would argue that the potential of inquiry-based learning will only be achieved if we transition the education system away from the basis of structural theory to a systems or network theories. I would argue that the successful integration of inquiry-based learning requires teachers to utilize situational leadership. Hersey and Blanchard (1982) described how unstructured programs similar to inquiry-based learning can be problematic if “used universally for all students in a school” (p. 166). As such, teachers need to be aware of the diverse needs of students in their classrooms specifically in regards to their maturity levels as defined by Hersey and Blanchard (1982) “as the ability and willingness of people to take responsibility for directing their own behavior” (p. 151). I strongly believe that inquiry-based learning can be an effective pedagogical approach if teachers can “understand that they may have to behave differently one-on-one with members of their group from the way they do with the group as a whole” (Hersey and Blanchard, 1982, p. 151). In order for teachers to be able to do this administrators will need to provide continuous professional development to support teachers learning throughout the process.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury.
Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1982). Management of organizational behaviour: Utilizing human resources (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013, May). Inquiry-based learning. Capacity Building Series, 32.
Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Taylor, F. W. (2007). Scientific management. In D. S. Pugh (Ed.), Organization theory: Selected classic readings (5th ed.) (pp. 275-295). London, UK: Penguin. (Original work published 1912)