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“We can only guess what life will be like in the years 2050 or beyond. One likely prediction is that many of today’s young adults will be working at jobs that currently don’t exist and dealing with technologies that dwarf the imagination of present-day science fiction writers. What do they need to learn during their first two decades of life that will prepare them for their remaining years?” (Harada, V. 2002)

Traditionally learning occurred in a teacher centred, rote learning classroom.  It focused on the notion that children where empty vessels waiting to be filled up (Piaget cited in Bernstein 2005).  Today’s constructivist approach however acknowledges that in this fast changing world both teacher and student bring their prior knowledge to a learning experience.  This constructivist teaching encourages critical thinking and requires students to conduct their own inquiries to acquire information.  By allowing children be involved in their learning journey this in turn will (hopefully) create motivated and independent learners.   Kuhlthau (2007, p.2) defines Inquiry Learning as ‘an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic or issue.’

Why teach inquiry learning

A submission from theAustralian Library and Information Association to ACARA in regards to consultation about the Australian Curriculum explains the importance of empowering students with inquiring learning skills.  It states that the ‘ability to process and use information effectively is a basic survival skill for those who wish to be successful learners in the 21st Century’.   Inquiry Learning also known as a project based learning , web dilemmas , service learning and  information seeking projects allows students to develop an in-depth understanding of a problem rather than shallow exposure to isolated bits of information (Newmann 1996, cited in Harada).  Kuhlthau (2007) explains that students not only gain a better understanding of topics with this type of learning by also develop reading comprehension, language development, writing ability, cooperative learning and social skills  which are essential life skills.

How to teach inquiry learning skills

I am currently working with a group of grade 6 students who are conducting inquiries about the different nationalities in Australian. The end task for their inquiry is produce a visual representation which highlights the positive impact their chosen country has had on Australian’s multicultural identity.  When asked, at the beginning of their project, what they find difficult about research there was a common theme in their answers.

  • Trying to find the right website
  • To find relevant information
  • To know if the information on the internet is correct
  • Knowing what words to type into Google to search

The widespread use of the internet in education means that inquiry skills are vital.  Students must be able to formulate questions, brainstorm, skim read, use search engines and databases and to evaluate online resources.  Probert (2008) explains that unfortunately the lack of these skills is widespread therefore scaffolding is required to develop these abilities.  ‘Scaffolding is designed to bridge the gap between what students can do on their own and what they can do with the help of a more capable other’ (Vygotsky 1978 cited in Belland 2011).  This combined with an inquiry processing model to guide research has been vital, to not only my studies, but also the grade 6 student’s. It has been proven that the use of an inquiry processing model makes a positive difference to student learning outcomes (Probert 2008).

Inquiry learning is centered on student participation in the planning, development and evaluation of projects and activities, therefore pre planning and brainstorming are essential to establishing what prior knowledge they have.  Dr. Cornelia Brunner of the Center for Children and Technology breaks The Inquiry Process into four main parts: Posing Real Questions, Finding Relevant Resources, Interpreting Information and Reporting Findings.

This is the model that the grade 6 class I am working with are currently using to guide their inquiries.

The Higher order thinking requirements of this learning activity have both challenged and engaged the students.  Although this ILA is not yet finished I have witnessed the students experiencing many of the phases outlined in Kuhlthau’s Model of the Information Search Process (or rather the ‘Never-Ending Circle of Creative Woe’ as we have now renamed it). 

For most students there was a high level of uncertainty at the beginning of the activity when their classroom teacher announced what the SOSE unit of study would be.  At the same time they were excited to be given the opportunity to guide their own inquiry rather than being given a rigid research task.  Students were apprehensive as they began the Exploration stage and many were overwhelmed by the large amounts of information available on the internet.  With guidance and assistance they formed a focus for their inquiry and the majority of the class is currently in the Collection stage of this Information Search Process.  The classroom teacher’s goal is that the students will go beyond simple fact finding and use the information they find about their chosen country to develop a deeper understanding and new appreciation of what these people have contributed to Australia.   

Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process.

Reference list

Australian Library and Information Association (2010), ACARA consultation on the draft K-10 Australian Curriculum, accessed 12 September 2012 http://www.alia.org.au/advocacy/submissions/ALIA.submission.on.the.Australian.curriculum.draft.K-10.pdf

Belland, B (2011), Distributed Cognition as a Lens to Understand the Effects of Scaffolds: The Role of Transfer of Responsibility, Education Psychology Reviewv 23.4, accessed 29 August 2012 http://www.springerlink.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/content/5778457733027110/fulltext.pdf

Bernstein, L. (2005) Jean Piaget—Hypermedia Biography, accessed 17 September http://www.tc.umn.edu/~berns065/ci5331/jean_piaget_bio.html

Brunner, C (2012)   Youth Learn.  Asking Questions, accessed 10 August

Harada, V.   Empowered Learning: Fostering Thinking Across the Curriculum, accessed 16 August 2012. http://www2.hawaii.edu/~vharada/Empowered.pdf

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, K. & Caspari K. (2007) Guided Inquiry. Learning in the 21st Century.  Westport, Libraries Unlimited.

Probert, E (2008) Information literacy skills: Teacher understandings and practice, accessed 16 August 2012 http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/science/article/pii/S0360131508002200