There are a number of different approaches to the craft of teaching. While the goal of all of them is to impute knowledge and enable the learner to grow in understanding and the ability to put knowledge into practical use, they differ in approach and the degree to which the teacher and learner are involved. Inquiry based learning begins with the passions and interests of the learner and then proceeds through a series of guided steps until practical application of new knowledge is made. This practical application engenders new interests and the process continues. The role of the teacher is to act as a guide and a guard for the learner. The teacher helps to keep the student focused and prevents the student from traveling along unproductive paths.
Learning is enhanced greatly when the learner initiates the process along the lines of a passion or interest. There is possibly nothing more frustrating for the learning environment than when a student is involved in a learning experience for which he or she has no passion or interest. Teachers have the privilege of teaching those subjects for which he or she has a particular interest and the student should have the same opportunity. When a student and a teacher share a common interest, inquiry based learning can produce astounding results. The passion and expertise of the teacher can be freely passed along to the student who already has a predilection for the topic. Initial enthusiasm on the part of the teacher will encourage the student to move forward and engender questions that require answers.
The success of inquiry based learning is largely dependent on the teacher helping the student to develop good questions that arise from his or her interest. A good teacher will help the student to pare down a general interest into reasonably sized topics that can be investigated in a reasonable amount of time. The student should be encouraged to ask question for which quantifiable, reasonable answers can be given. The teacher needs to help the student understand that this is a repetitive process and that not every concern need be addressed in each particular iteration of the process. Most students tend to focus on the short term and therefore a good teacher will take the time to help the student see the benefit of narrowing initial queries to provide more focused answers that can then be put to practical use. A student’s confidence will grow as he or she sees the benefit of good, focused questions in practical reality. Once a few solid iterations have been performed, the process of developing good questions that arise from practical implementation should become second nature to the student.
Clear, focused questions will engender beliefs about the subject area. The teacher needs to help the student to see how creating such questions allows him or her to develop a set of potential truths regarding a subject area that can be investigated. While the student will be tempted to go immediately to the testing phase based on the questions, the development of a set of beliefs must be seen as absolutely necessary. The student must be challenged to clearly formulate what he or she already believes before entering into investigation. Preconceived notions must be addressed openly and honestly to avoid coloring the research process. Most people are not used to such self-investigation and time is necessary to distinguish between true beliefs and beliefs that have been taken in, but not truly accepted. The teacher needs to help the student to be confident enough to own his or her actual beliefs and make these a foundation for investigation. True learning only occurs when it rests on a foundation of truth. The validity of the student’s beliefs will be shown during the investigation process, but only when what is actually believed is honestly addressed and brought into the open to be assessed properly.
The investigation stage is where real growth in learning takes place. This is the step where the teacher has the responsibility to push the student to go beyond his or her comfort level. New knowledge can only come from a willingness to explore new territory and stretch the mind to places the student may never have previously thought to go. The teacher has the opportunity to draw on past experience in assisting the student in his or her journey of discovery. A student who truly buys into this stage of process will have his or her eyes opened to the opportunities that inquiry based learning provides. While a normal class room environment limits the scope of learning to that which is comfortable for the teacher, inquiry based learning allows each student to press forward in unique areas. Revolutionary change is only possible when the student enters into the process of learning, not as a means to an end, but as the end itself. When enthusiasm develops at this stage, a student can become a lifelong lover of learning.
Reflection is the path to proper implementation. The results of investigation need to be assessed, considered, and put into an ordered form. It takes time, focus, and clear direction in order to properly assess an investigation and to pull from these investigations new knowledge that matches reality and can be put into practical use. The teacher has the opportunity to slow the student down and lead him or her through the steps of good, proper reflection. By systematically stepping the student through a review of the investigative process it allows the student to gain better understanding of practical truths and of how to better assess potential beliefs in the future. True learning requires correct assessment, practical acquisition of knowledge, and a plan for future investigations to come. An experienced teacher should encourage the student to keep pressing forward in a systematic and thorough manner. Helping the student to avoid dangerous shortcuts and seeing how each stage feeds to the next will encourage the student to take the necessary time to allow the process to play itself out completely.
Applying new knowledge may seem straightforward, but as in other areas the teacher needs to lead the student in order to make this a true learning process. Proper application should engender questions that lead to a new round of the process. If application is not correctly done, good questions do not arise and the learning process is stunted. Perseverance is not a common trait of the student and the teacher must find creative ways to encourage continued investigation. Arousing the imagination of the student to seek new paths and search down lesser-traveled roads makes the teacher an essential component of gaining knowledge in inquiry based learning. By taking on the role of a mentor, director, and source of encouragement, the teacher has the opportunity to assist the student in working through the process that will produce new knowledge that can make the student’s life richer and in time the world a better place to live.