Tuesday, 12 November 2013

What is Inquiry Based Learning - really?

I was involved in a project a few years ago to create a framework for Inquiry-based learning in my university. The idea was to create degree opportunities for those students who didn't fit the traditional academic route. Instead of studying a 'subject', students could study their work - whatever their work happened to be.

It's a long story, but basically - despite similar programmes being successful in one or two other universities - it didn't catch on in my own. Ever since there's been a degree of wailing and gnashing of teeth among the team as we try to work out what went wrong. This has been aggravated by the fact that most of us still think that basically it was the right thing to do, and we shouldn't give up. However, one of the fundamental questions which we never addressed is "what is inquiry?"

Strangely, I find myself returning to this topic as I go deeper into the study of information and redundancy. The relation between information and redundancy is analogous to the relationship between routine and innovation. Redundancies shape the conditions for information to be transferred in the same way that routine shapes the conditions for people to be innovative. Most assessment criteria, most educational programmes are concerned with innovation - the things that stand out, the achievements of the past, the achievements of student assignments, etc. Rarely are we interested in the routine - in the habits that are repeated day-in day-out.

Even those interventions that try to capture the process of learning like e-portfolio actually insist on some kind of innovative practice through the articulation of 'insights' and 'reflections'. This I think is probably why e-portfolio is so unsatisfactory: few of us can match up to the expectation that we should be continually insightful! But any insight - even an insight in an e-portfolio - is situated against a ground of routine.

Our form of inquiry-based learning, in asking learners to study their work, demanded that learners look to their routines. The routine became foreground rather than background. At least that was the idea. However, within the idea that this would be a valuable thing for learners to do, there was I think a category mistake. The inner life of individuals wherein their passions and enthusiasms lie (i.e. the stuff which drives meaningful learning) is situated against a backdrop of routine. For many people, work plays this role: it's function is not to be studied but to be managed in relation to the deeper inner life of individuals. Work may be dull and unpleasant, but its regularity and rhythm create the conditions for imaginative escape. To shine the spotlight on the routine may therefore not be welcome. To do so is to shake the inner life as the order of routine and innovation is disrupted.

Of course, this is not to say that it is a bad thing to have this kind of disruption! But it does indicate that the idea of studying work might not make as much sense as it might at first appear. Any educational process is fundamentally about changing the expectations of individuals.That process begins with learners identifying something that's missing, the search for it creating the necessary passion for personal transformation. In this way, academic learning and work-based learning are no different. For some workers, what's missing might simply be a qualification - and therefore they will submit to any valid means of filling that void. But for many, it is not that simple. What's missing? is a question about personal identity and meaning. To deal with this sensitively we may need more finely tuned educational instruments than either the traditional 'course' or even work-based inquiry.

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