Inquiry-based learning fosters creative and critical thinking skills

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am


My child has just started a new school where they say they do the inquiry approach to learning. This all seems a bit vague to me. I would prefer proper subjects to be taught like in my day.

Curriculum changes in schools nowadays build on the wisdom of generations but take account of the latest research in brain development and a deep understanding of how learning develops. As the rate of knowledge available for us all increases, it is no longer possible to compartmentalise learning as easily into separate, discrete subjects as may have been the case in the past.

An inquiry approach taught and managed well enables students to learn how to learn and how to ask appropriate questions while using creative and critical thinking skills to follow useful and relevant lines of inquiry. This is something they can carry through life to become genuine lifelong learners as learning in the modern world doesn't end when students leave formal education.

Though I can see how you might be concerned, you can be sure that there is nothing vague about this. Inquiry curriculum models have all the rigour of their predecessors and are structured to ensure continuity and progression where skills are built upon and revisited. The approach focuses on the interaction of different areas of learning and how they fit together in a transdisciplinary way that better reflects reality.

Although there is some similarity, this is far from the old topic approach. Links are made across subjects in a natural and meaningful way and in context.

It is also more personalised and student-driven, giving students more freedom and flexibility to direct their own inquiries by asking innovative questions and researching areas of interest. This, however, is not a random free-for-all process. Under the guidance of the teacher, students will often work with a common central idea that will link the inquiries and provide opportunities to work together and co-operate where necessary.

Skills are not taught in isolation and tied to specific subject areas as in the past, but are explicitly transdisciplinary and will often be linked to key concepts such as form, function and change to lead students to increasingly deeper understandings of crucial ideas and issues. The need for students to effectively communicate the thinking behind their findings promotes their confidence to use a range of media to interact with a range of audiences

Equally important are attitudes to learning. These are also attitudes for life. Typical is the IB Primary Years Programme, which is becoming increasingly used in Hong Kong international schools and whose list includes directing and encouraging students to show commitment, creativity and independence.

Learner profile attributes are seen to be equally important, such as encouraging children to be thinkers, reflective and knowledgeable as well as being risk-takers so that they approach future unfamiliar situations with the confidence and independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies.

These lofty aims include arming students with the fundamental skills they need. Literacy and numeracy are taught explicitly to provide the foundation for additional skills and content that students need to be efficient writers, readers and mathematicians.

As with any curriculum, the role of the teacher is crucial. Their ability to empathise with students and to guide them to the next steps remains as important as ever. A good teacher will employ any approach to advantage, but an inquiry approach gives them many more opportunities to make learning real, relevant and meaningful to students' current context.

It equips them with a diverse tool kit to take their thinking and the application of skills way beyond their experience and the answering of limited questions on a worksheet or exam paper.

Julie McGuire teaches at an international school.