Encouraging Inquiry Learning

In January, as I was filling up my “teaching folder”, I wrote down on a piece of paper my “goals and objectives”. Some of my goals were to:
  • Maximise learner involvement and class participation
  • Encourage learners to think of themselves as educators
  • Cultivate a positive and supportive learning environment and build confidence and self-efficacy
  • Encourage active learning that doesn’t begin and end in the classroom

While I feel that the goals were somewhat accomplished, I am now re-shaping and adding to them.

Once or twice, I posed questions to get learners to think about learning and perhaps explore metacognition, such as, “What are the characteristics of an active learner?” Unfortunately, in Malaysia, the “copy and memorise” way of learning still dominates. However, Malaysian learners, in general,  do have many positive qualities such as a good work ethic and “Confucian”-style respect for teachers.


Teachers face many problems. Learners can be physically present in a class but otherwise absent. Learners may need to be coaxed and encouraged to ask questions. Part of that could be related to the classroom environment – do learners feel safe, or are they afraid of being “wrong” and being judged? Is the peer environment conducive? Do learners feel like they can ask questions and question the ideas presented? Eliminating other factors can lead to better inquiry-based learning.

I have been prompted to revisit this book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, by Postman and Weingartner (1969), one of the first books about the “inquiry learning” method.

We often use the phrase “21st century learning”, but more principles are really nothing new. Fifty years ago, Postman and Weingartner wrote,

“Knowledge is produced in response to questions. And new knowledge results from the asking of new questions; quite often new questions about old questions.
Here is the point: once you have learned how to ask questions- relevant and appropriate and substantial questions- you have leaned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.
Let us remind you, for a moment, of the process that characterizes school environments: what students are restricted to (solely and even vengefully) is the process of memorizing (partially and temporarily) somebody else’s answers to somebody else’s questions. It is staggering to consider the implications of this fact. The most important and intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school! Moreover, it is not ‘taught’ in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the environment so that significant question asking is not valued.
Asking questions is behavior. If you don’t do it, you don’t learn it. It really is as simple as that”.
Furthermore, some of the suggestions by Postman and Weingartner for teachers include:
  • avoid telling students what they “ought to know”.
  • talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
  • do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
  • encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
  • do not summarize students’ discussion.
  •  pose problems to students in lessons
  • gauge teaching success by change in students’ inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of “good learners” as a goal)

These tips are quite apt and I hope to put some of them into practice. Teaching involves a cycle of research, action and reflection, and there’s always more to improve upon!


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