Teaching Methods: Inquiry with Kath Murdoch

Hello, and welcome to Teacher's final instalment in our Teaching Methods series. I'm Danielle Meloney. Today, I'm here with author, university lecturer and consultant, Kath Murdoch. Kath has worked for many years in schools throughout Australia, New Zealand, Asia, America and Europe, and for over 20 years has taught, researched and published in the field of inquiry based learning.

Danielle Meloney: Kath Murdoch, welcome to Teacher.

Kath Murdoch: Thank you so much

DM: First of all, could you give us a run down on what the inquiry teaching method involves and how long it has been around for?

KM: Inquiry involves, I guess, learning how to take on a question, or an issue, or a tension, a problem or a challenge and learning how to work through a process where, through that investigation, you come to a deeper understanding, or a mastery of skills, or a resolution of the problem. So it's, in essence, a process that really gets the learner doing the heavy lifting of working through that process of investigation, much like a researcher does. In many ways, I think inquiry mimics what researchers do every day. Inquiry involves kids being really active. I don't just mean physically active, although there is a bit of that too, but very cognitively active. The teacher kind of helps them [build a toolkit of strategies] that they can use to identify, gather and analyse information and then later on apply it and come to deeper understanding.

In terms of how long it has been around, in some ways I guess you could say inquiry has been around for as long as humans have. It's our natural way of learning. We make sense of the world, don't we, through a process of inquiry. We have to test out theories, we have to solve problems, satisfy curiosity, or meet goals. But I guess in terms of articulating inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning in schools, again it's been around forever. If you think about ancient philosophers like Socrates. [It] also has its roots in the seminal work of people like John Dewey, or Jerome Bruner, so it's certainly not new.

But there's a huge difference I think in the way that contemporary teachers go about using inquiry. Now even when I look back over 30 years of teaching – what I did as an inquiry teacher 30 years ago, very different to the way I would work now. We know a lot more about learning and teaching now and quality inquiry classrooms I think, really reflect that.

I think sometimes when we think of inquiry it still has [a reputation] of being a bit of a ‘loosey-goosey' approach. You know, when teachers use inquiry they say things like ‘Wow, what do you want to find out? Off you go and find it out and I'll be your guide on the side,' and actually, while that might be true in some very poor classrooms, it's generally far from what it actually looks like in reality. And it's difficult in a way to paint a generic picture of what inquiry looks like compared to a traditional classroom because inquiry itself manifests in different ways. For example you might see one moment teachers and students working together to explore a compelling question, teachers really guiding the process quite carefully, showing the students how to go about the process of investigation and research, building that understanding it over time. You might also, in the same classroom, but at a different time, be seeing kids working on much more individualised, or personal investigations into something that they need to work on, or something that they have a strong interest in. Here the teacher's role might shift into one that is more around being that guide beside the student.

But, having said that, that it looks different at different times and in different classrooms, there probably are some fundamental shifts from what we might call ‘a more traditional setting'. In an inquiry classroom, regardless of the type of inquiry, the main difference is probably the role of the teacher and the role of the learner. I think in an inquiry classroom ... the learner has, what Peter Johnson calls agency. They have a lot more voice and choice, they participate in decisions that are made about their learning, they learn how to self-manage, they learn how to learn. In a traditional classroom, the teacher's role is generally to kind of to ‘dispense information', provide learning activities, assess learning usually at the end, and it's kind of all secret teacher's business. But in an inquiry classroom it's less about the teacher having all the answers that the children have to come to, and more about working through the process of learning itself. It actually requires much more of the teacher, and for the teacher to work in more sophisticated ways.

DM: So, what role does data and assessment play in inquiry?

KM: Well I think the role of data is huge in inquiry, but I guess I want to be clear about what I mean by data. And, I'm thinking of data here as information that we gather, that those teachers and children actually gather about the learning that is taking place in relation to the goals that are set. In an inquiry classroom the teacher in fact is an inquirer. So in relation to assessment the teacher positions themselves as an inquirer into the student's learning. So we're observing, we're analysing, we're questioning. So we too are inquiring, but the bulk of what we are inquiring into is ‘What are the students revealing to me?' and ‘How do I need to respond to this? Where to next?' And then that data being used in a largely formative way. So the best inquiry teachers I see use that kind of data to inform their subsequent planning.

I think in an inquiry classroom assessment and instruction are kind of two sides of the same coin, really.

DM: My final question focuses on student outcomes. Could you elaborate on how this approach has actually influenced student outcomes?

KM: Well there's lots of wonderful studies to show the impact on student learning, when they are engaged in investigations and really participate in that process. From my own work with my own cohort of schools, we've noticed significant growth – particularly in relation to what Guy Claxton calls ‘their ability to speak learnish'. That when we really bring this lovely learning layer, this research disposition to our learning, we get kids that can, not only talk about themselves as learners, but can then transfer and apply what they know about learning to new challenges, to new questions. So we've interviewed children both early on and then later in our work in this area and noticed a growth in their language, in their confidence to talk about learning, in being able to give examples of how they might use what they've learned in other contexts. And this is what we're looking for in a 21st Century classroom ... what skills are we really giving these kids to be able to make their way through this complex world, where there are volumes of information available at the click of a button? Are they self-managing, researching, collaborating, communicating? And, most importantly, are they thinking and do they understand the way their thinking helps them learn? We've certainly noticed, in terms of that aspect, those generic, if you like 21st Century skills or general capabilities, we see great strengths coming through an inquiry approach.

DM: Kath Murdoch, thanks for taking the time to speak to Teacher.

KM: It is my pleasure.

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To learn more about the work that Kath does and to enquire about her workshops, visit www.kathmurdoch.com.au. Or, check out her blog at http://justwonderingblog.com/