Thursday, October 24, 2013

What is inquiry-based learning and how can use this philosophy to guide our practice

There are two educational thinkers that I think are particularly helpful in understanding the nature of inquiry and the corresponding shift that occurs when you do 'authentic' work with young people. The first of these is David Perkins who wrote a book named Making Learning Whole (2009). In this book Perkins argues that most traditional approaches to teaching any complex idea or skill, from historical inquiry to mathematical thinking, meant that most students have experienced learning in one of two ways:

1. Elements first. Ramp into complexity gradually by learning elements now and putting them together later.
2. Learning about. Learn about something to start with, rather than learning to do it. (pp. 3-4)
Perkins uses the metaphor of baseball to argue that the experience of most students in school is one where they either learn isolated skills like throwing the ball or they learn about baseball by studying statistics or the history of the game.
In what Perkins called elementis, students learn the elements of a discipline in isolation, usually in the form of a prescribed set of rules and operations. For example, in math students learn addition, then subtraction, followed by multiplication and division. Although students are promised that eventually they will be able to put these operations together to solve meaningful problems, often they are never given this opportunity. Similarly, students study grammar with the “idea that the knowledge will later coalesce into comprehensive, compelling, and of course correct written and oral communications” (p. 4). However, students are not given the opportunity to produce powerful pieces of writing intended for a real audience. Divorced from the context in which a subject like math or writing lives in the world, students gain an incomplete and fragmented understanding of these disciplines. Students often leave school unable to perform tasks representative of the work undertaken by professionals in the field.

History and science are most often taught using what Perkins (2009) termed aboutis, where students learn about a topic or concept rather than learning how to take part in the process of creating that knowledge. For example, in history students are generally presented with an authoritative authorless series of facts about an era in the form of a long list of names, dates, and developments. Students rarely have an opportunity to take part in actual historical inquiry to learn how historians construct knowledge about the past. This also occurs in science where students learn about, for example, Newton’s laws or the steps involved in mitosis. However, Perkins notes, “a huge body of research on science understanding demonstrates that learners show very limited understanding, bedevilled by a range of misconceptions about what the ideas really mean” (p. 6).
In the past it was thought that students could not work within a living discipline until they had learned all the facts, definitions, and procedures about the field. Only once they reached the university level might they have opportunities to engage in historical inquiry, mathematical thinking, or genuine scientific exploration. Today, learning the way around a discipline is no longer for the few who move on in their studies; it is also open to the young. For example, educators traditionally believed that students needed to have a basic foundation of historical knowledge before they could take part in genuine historical inquiry. Because of this belief, studying history for most students involved passively and uncritically absorbing other people’s facts about the past. In the present, students can work within the discipline of history from an early age where they are given developmentally appropriate opportunities to understand how historians make sense of the past. This includes working with primary sources, and using methods of historical analysis and argumentation (The Historical Thinking Society). Rather than learning about history, students are actually given the opportunity to do history. Perkins (2008) calls this approach to education “playing the whole game” (p. 25) where students are apprenticed into developmentally appropriate junior versions of the ways professionals in a field engage, create knowledge, and communicate in their discipline.

Another educator who well articulates this philosophy is Larry Rosenstock from a school called High Tech High in San Diego devoted to doing 'authentic' work with young people.

Larry Rosenstock - High Tech High from James Cross on Vimeo.

After 12:18 in the video above, Larry Rosenstock articulates a key shift in thinking about the nature and purpose of education. Specifically, he calls for a redefinition of commonly used terms in educational discourse. For instance, rigour is most often understood as imparting more sophisticated information to students. However, for Rosenstock (2011), principal of High Tech High, a school devoted to authentic discipline-based inquiry, rigour involves “being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that discourse” (2011). The key distinction is between learning about a field of inquiry and taking on the ways of knowing of the field of inquiry. Rosenstock wants kids “behaving like an actress, scientist, documentary filmmaker, like a journalist. Not just studying it but being like it” (2011).


Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenstock, L. (2011). High Tech High. Retrieved from: