I used to think that the real value of inquiry was to create autonomous learners, but now I think that it is to expose gaps in knowledge and skill that used to be covered up through direct instruction. Direct instruction is a singular story that moves at the pace of the storyteller. Students are instructed to complete activities that are loosely applied to that day’s learning and are in a sense answering questions that no one has asked or often cares about. Direct instruction, because of its A-> B-> C-> D-> E-> etc. structure lays out the path for students but doesn’t expose if they’re missing B and D. Because they’re on C or E, it is often assumed they’ve landed where teachers want them to or that teachers have removed crucial elements required for building skill or awareness of knowledge.
Inquiry exposes those gaps and brings them to the foreground so that teachers can shore up the missing elements. In my school district, we created an inquiry-learning pilot program. A teacher in the pilot said:”Students should know this, but they don’t.” She was frustrated that when students were given more autonomy they didn’t jump at the chance to take control or that they were lazy and apathetic. In fact, they were students who were used to direct instruction. They didn’t know how to move forward with their own learning. They had few experiences with asking questions, digging into sources, or creating conclusions because those are not the demands of direct instruction. What this teacher revealed is that all the direct instruction in the world can’t prepare students on their own. When students attempted to learn on their own, or with their peers, they were lost. However, the areas where they are lost is where the classroom must live—but we don’t know that until inquiry exposes it.
Conversely, inquiry reveals gaps in teacher instruction as well. If direct instruction is like a concert where a band plays a set of their own music, then inquiry-based teaching is a jazz scene with constant improvisation based on the ecology of the group and the feel of the night. The former is rewarded when they play the groups’ top songs, the latter is rewarded when they fit into the groove of the environment by moving into unchartered waters. The former places the audience in a moment that is comfortable because they know the words. The latter takes the audience to never-before-heard sounds. This is all to say that when a teacher engages consistently in inquiry, that inquiry will expose gaps in their instructional ability (in knowledge and skill). I contend, based on what I’ve seen with my district’s inquiry pilot and with my own practice, that inquiry-based learning enables districts to move their entire staff to improved practices because these gaps are exposed in an authentic way–noticed by not just the teacher, but by both administrators and teachers. Inquiry creates a pattern of continuous professional learning and growth on the part of all those involved.
In short, inquiry exposes gaps in knowledge and skill for both students and teachers. This is where the real value of inquiry is revealed. It acknowledges and rewards the process of education instead of prescribing a common path. Itrewards creative, thoughtful, collaborative paths, partnering teachers and students. They become a team, moving together. I’ve learned more from my students by listening. We are approaching a genuine teacher-student, student-teacher feel with my classroom. This has occurred precisely because inquiry has leveled each of us, exposing what we know and don’t so that we can work together for our intended aim–answering compelling questions.