Inquiry learning: Where is the science? Where is the social studies?

I am concerned that too many children reach secondary school lacking flexibility in thinking and interest in ideas. My philosophy is for children to become intensely involved in learning based on the interaction between the cognitive and the affective (which is the holistic). That interaction is written or implied on nearly every page of The File. Teachers have long known, now confirmed by neuroscience, that the cognitive-affective interaction is fundamental to powerful learning, yet why is so much learning being undertaken without that preparation of children’s minds?

All curriculum activity should aim to provide an education experience of the sort that transforms (or is intended eventually to transform) children intellectually, aesthetically, ethically, and reflectively. Such experience takes children back to two fundamental cultural breakthroughs – the way things are, are not necessarily the way things are or should be; and an individual’s place in it is not predetermined, and from that, the realisation of ‘I am’ and the capacity to think, imagine, appreciate, and appraise. In a sense, the individual becomes of the world he or she lives in and a step beyond it. Leading to three questions continually to be asked, wrestled with, and answered, but never concluded, they are: Who am I? Why are we living this way? How can we make things better? It is this process that puts all curriculum areas, and the digital, into context, a democratic one – transforming the main purposes of everything that occurs to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it.

Does what happens in your classroom or, if a principal, your school, have such aspirations? My concern, in particular, is that science and social studies are being seriously hindered as vehicles for such aspirations by the vacuity of inquiry learning.

In the mid-90s, with the introduction of computers, and the realisation that inquiry learning in social studies and science was a near perfect fit for computer use, came the collapse of science and social studies. The test for whether that has occurred in a classroom programme, or a school, is to pose the question: Where is the science? Where is the social studies? For science to be science and social studies to be social studies there must be cohesion – cohesion that comes from a dynamic main aim for each of the curriculum areas; from the interaction of the cognitive with the affective; from the regularity of the curriculum areas being taken; from the class being set up, motivated, and guided by the teacher; and from the open-endedness of the practice. There is an even higher aim for social studies and science topics (as for all curriculum area topics), that of being transformational, in other words, seeing the world in a different and insightful way.

Science whether just as a study skill or as science has all but disappeared from primary schools. Social studies-type topics are everywhere but very rarely is there any social studies.

The structure, as a guide, for valid science:

The main aim: To establish scientific truth using the principles of scientific investigation.

The question (or hypothesis): The question used to guide the investigation.

What I know now: The child records all he or she knows about the question. If the child already knows the answer, then there is no point in investigating it further. The teacher can also at this stage make a judgement as to whether it is possible for the learner to investigate it in the time available. Many topics like volcanoes and dinosaurs lend themselves to general study-skills rather than investigation processes.

What I did: This is the vital stage and what differentiates science from point-of-view? It is a step-by-step record of what actually happened; it can be in diary or note-taking form. It records the observing, testing, and trying out of the question. The failures as well as the successes should be recorded.

My answer now: This should answer the question that guides the investigation. It is the conclusion reached on the basis of the evidence above. Are the conclusions reached validated by the evidence? Can the methods be replicated to reach the same or similar results?

The process can be varied but the values of open-endedness, curiosity, and research integrity should be a constant.

Take the school-wide science experience at Morrinsville School (Attack! 131) as another way to use those science investigation principles – Shay Noonan said:

What started out as a discussion at a board of trustees meeting on the topic of sugary drinks and healthy drinking, evolved into a range of diverse science experiences for our children.

At the subsequent staff meeting I asked teachers to give consideration to creating a set of activities to help children explore ideas about the school’s drinking fountains.

I knew there was a possibility that it would veer off to a language experience rather than a science one. But my catch cry in response, as ever, would be ‘show me the science’.

Teachers were asked to identify the science in children’s activities. To frame a viewpoint, teachers informally collaborated within their teams, or with colleagues, to identify science elements within potential activities the children might engage in. Teachers came up with ideas like children gathering information; sharing their ideas; interpreting what they were observing; surmising about things they observe, intuit, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

The expectation was that children would make their own suggestions about how to undertake their observations; make up stories about what they had observed; and work out ways of telling those to others.

And so it began.

Then there is: Show me the social studies.

The following is how I described social studies purposes and practice when I was teaching.

The main aim was: To develop in children a sympathetic and valid understanding of their own and other people’s way of life, both in New Zealand and elsewhere, in the present and in the past – the main purpose being to help children to be at ease with, to gain a feeling for, and to appreciate, individual and cultural difference.

And my overview of practice: Social studies learning is primarily about challenging children’s existing attitudes; challenging the stereotypes children build up about other people, other groups of people, and themselves. The way to challenge those stereotypes is to get children close to the lives of people – to illuminate those people’s lives – and their own. Social studies is not primarily about studying individual and cultural difference, it is about getting children to understand difference, to come to terms with it, to appreciate it – a very important distinction. It is not about value clarification, though that in any well-structured social studies will happen necessarily; it is not about big discussions about cultural difference and how the children should embrace it – it is about children developing a feeling for people based on knowledge gained from a series of open-ended activities leading to that key holistic happening – the interaction of the affective with the cognitive. The children come to understand through a process of gradual self-discovery that people in the past and present can be seen to have shared common needs at various levels of complexity, from basic to higher level ones, but with different ways of meeting them. This commonality in association with difference is the key way for children to understand, then come to terms with that difference. To avoid obstructing the open-endedness of the approach and robbing children of what could be a transformational learning experience, the teacher should only rarely make direct references to those deeper purposes of social studies. Such direct references delivered directly to the children are likely to impede children thinking deeper and tangentially about the matter. As well, if a teacher delivers those references directly to children, how, when children voice something like those references, does the teacher know whether they are merely repeating the teacher’s thinking? Not only has the child been robbed of a discovery opportunity, the teacher has also lost an opportunity to gauge the thinking of both the child and his or her teaching effectiveness.

Inquiry learning, by its name alone, points to it being skill based. I have already written on inquiry learning (Attack! 68) in which I examine the kind of inquiry learning advocated by Kath Murdoch an Australian academic. It is an example of inquiry learning that has all sorts of interesting components that don’t quite come together and never could because there is no dynamic main aim. Kath Murdoch’s main aim for inquiry is to reflect on personal understanding which is inert and inward looking.

I know inquiry learning can be made to sound very switched on, but in practice, in classrooms, I find it dispiriting. A few years ago I visited a number of schools to get a handle on what was happening in the name of ‘inquiry’. In four schools, when children undertook inquiry learning, they chose the topic themselves, in two of those classes in different schools, the teacher gave the children a letter from the alphabet as a prompt for their choice of study. There was no main aim, no aims at all, no discussion – the children took out their laptops, turned to Google and were away. In three classes, the topics were successively New Zealand, Pacific Islands, and Communications. The teachers in those classes put up questions for the children to focus on, for example – What is your favourite part of New Zealand? What problems does New Zealand face? What is your favourite Pacific Island? The teacher informed the children they could do the studies collaboratively and, after a few further procedural points, the children went to their laptops. Another class did a science topic on Birds, with the teacher saying the children could choose their bird. This teacher began a brief discussion with the children on the characteristics of birds, but the children were already in the process of getting out their laptops. In the final classroom the topic was Travel. The teacher had undertaken a fairly thorough discussion because on large sheets of paper around room, the results of that discussion were recorded, including a consideration of travel through the ages. But, when I was there, the children were well into googling information to put under headings provided.

When I visited two schools last year, none of 18 teachers had ever taken the Treaty of Waitangi, nor did they know of any teacher who had. Matariki though had been taken by all of them and regularly. The problem with the Treaty of Waitangi is that it is so complex that, without teacher guidance, there is for children no meaningful way in and, even more, a deep insufficiency for anything close to intense involvement.

The interaction of the cognitive and the affective is the way motivation is aroused. To deliver this interaction of the cognitive and the affective, learning experiences need shape extending from an introduction, to gaining information, to using that information flexibly, to a conclusion. It is not enough to provide children with a brief introduction then, using their computer, children inquiring into a matter they have chosen, even if guided by suggestions, directions, and questions on a template or on the wall. The matters children inquire into need to be significant both to the children and the curriculum, made cohesive by a dynamic main (a main aim that is value based). The introduction should be challenging, varied, open-ended, and highly motivating; the gaining of information a series of open-ended activities provided by the teacher; the using of that information open-ended activities provided by the teacher or decided on by the children; the conclusion should allow the children to inquire into and express themselves in an even freer or more wide-ranging way. This shaping will vary for science, social studies, the arts, drama, reading, writing, technology, and mathematics, often quite considerably – but the semblance of that shape should be there if powerful and sometimes transformational learning is being striven for. In the case of science, the shaping is done by the investigation process, the principles of which should be carefully introduced by the teacher.

I was sitting in a classroom in Hamilton recently with a Treaty study in progress. The y. 6 teacher had used a number of activities, many of them based on pictures, also reading to children, as a way to take the children to gain the knowledge which interacts with the affective and, on that happening, the children are in.

I break in here to say, all children, as New Zealanders, should have multiple experiences in exploring the meanings and implications of the Treaty of Waitangi – achieving that, carried out holistically, would indeed be transformational and enable children to see the world in a different and insightful way. In the 1990s, I produced a picture kit, accompanying notes, and activities. I had gone up to Waitangi and taken photos of Waitangi in action, also pictures of significant places in the years building up to the Treaty signing, the places around the country where the Treaty was taken for further signing and, of course, places where battles had taken place in the bitter aftermath and the battles in action (some of them photographs, others historical artwork collected from art galleries).

The teacher was using that resource.

The teacher then read excerpts (included in the kit) from the speeches chiefs made, she did not push for emotion – she just let the knowledge do the work – but a good number of the children were weeping – not an outcome necessarily sought but a sure sign the children were in.

When I was watching the teacher take the Treaty of Waitangi topic the thought that kept going through my mind was that the teacher was taking the children where they had never been before –and they would never be the same.

The social studies had been shown.

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One Response to Inquiry learning: Where is the science? Where is the social studies?

  1. Ian Skipper says:

    Greetings Kelvin

    Hope you are enjoying Easter sunshine.

    All Good from my reading.

    Maybe the Warriors are on the up. As for the Blues – who knows? Black Caps need a few wickets quickly.




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