It’s the Knowledge Economy, Stupid!

What parents need to know about inquiry learning
Sora Shimazaki, Pexels

Schools are under huge pressure to differentiate their offerings to meet endless learning needs and familial preferences – even public schools where some schools are oversubscribed, leaving neighboring classrooms empty. Inquiry learning rears its head as a differentiator with increasing frequency, with more and more schools embedding multi-domain and problem-based approaches into their curriculum.

As a parent, it can be difficult to see what could possibly be wrong with an offering that promises ‘authentic’ tasks, ‘real world’ projects, and preparation for the ‘jobs of the future.’ But the surface appeal of inquiry learning is built on a foundation of false assumptions. Having survived ‘guiding from the side’ for several years, I thought it was time to use my experience – and everything I have learned since abandoning this model – to empower parents to make informed decisions about their child’s education. Here are three assumptions parents should avoid when considering a school that dedicates instructional time to inquiry learning.

Assumption 1: My child will be taught by a domain specialist.

Inquiry learning is often delivered by teams of teachers who may be out of their field of expertise. In the spirit of inquiry, being taught about product development by someone with a Bachelor of Arts in History might not be all that productive. Teachers are not known for their entrepreneurialism on the whole. Sure, schools can partner with subject matter experts (or SME’s as they call them in the biz) but it’s an extremely savvy school that would have these kinds of connections and knowledge of agile processes.

Worse than this, if the school claims to embed literacy and numeracy instruction into their projects (unlikely, but ok), on a team of four, there is only a 25% chance at best that when your child asks for one-to-one help, an English teacher will be on hand. I am ashamed to admit that I have taught physics as part of Project-Based Learning. All I remember is a diagram of an elephant and an anvil.

Assumption 2: The teaching of knowledge and skills will be embedded into the project.

In defense of inquiry models, proponents typically jump to explain how much explicit instruction they do as part of their model. But if we know explicit instruction to be so much more efficient than inquiry learning, this does beg the question of where, how, and why inquiry can be argued to be superior. Some students are able and ready to learn. No amount of plastic straws and rubber bands would hold them back. But this is nowhere near the majority. Teaching is a zero-sum game. Half an hour exploring how to market a food-van on the internet can come at the cost of learning participial phrases.

Assumption 3: My child will learn critical thinking.

Real-world projects seem like the perfect platform to stimulate thinking from a number of angles, drawing from many fields of expertise. But therein lies the problem with 13, 14, 15-year-olds. Daniel Willingham talks about open-ended problems requiring not superficial but “extensive stores of knowledge,” italics mine. This, coming from multiple fields, sometimes taught by non-experts to students who possibly haven’t had the benefit of an instructional model that takes human cognitive architecture into account? It’s a high-risk approach.

But is critical thinking even offered by traditional models? Isn’t it more authentic to offer workplace practices? The advantage of the Science of Learning is that all students start out as novices. The only assumption is that they don’t know much and need instruction – even gifted students. The end goal – and this also aids long-term memory – is that students apply their knowledge and skills to novel problems. Critical thinking comes into play only when students have something to think with.

It’s currently recruitment season in Australia and the job-boards are awash with innovation strategists, project managers and agile coaches, but not in corporate – in schools! Whole departments and campuses are recruiting for the ostensibly entrepreneurial teachers that will prepare students for the future of work. This is one area where parents are unlikely to get a clear window into schools, without a few key and pointed questions in their arsenal from an insider’s perspective. So, if parents are worried about their child’s preparedness for the ubiquitous but also elusive ‘future,’ just remember, as Bill Clinton may or may not have said, it’s the knowledge economy, stupid!

Rebecca Birch
Rebecca Birch is an English teacher and Head of Humanities at an independent school.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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