Saturday, March 31, 2007

Kath Murdoch and Inquiry Learning - Part One

My friend Paul at Ddraig Goch Pod was remarking recently that New Zealand is getting all the quality Professional Development lately, and I'm afraid he might be right. In the last few years I have had the privilege of attending workshops by Jason Ohler, Marc Prensky, Bernie Dodge, Tom Marsh, Ian Jukes, Tony Ryan, Jamie McKenzie, David Warlick and today I am sitting in a two day seminar run by Australian Educator Kath Murdoch.

This may be a long post as I am recording my notes while in the seminar.

Kath is the author of the book "Classroom Connections" and we follow her inquiry model in our classrooms in my ICT cluster in Dunedin. Kath has asked us to document our personal learning goal for the day... hmmm... I would like to consolidate my knowledge of Inquiry learning and the theory behind it to help in my role in supporting schools in my cluster. To achieve my goal I think I will record my questions here to help me think about them later and link my new knowledge to my previous thinking. As always, I think questions are the answer to learning!

To begin with inquiry in the classroom you need to help students understand that learning is something they do for themselves and not what is 'done' to them. By setting goals students take ownership of their own learning - "learning is something I do, not something done to me".

Why do you think it is worth using an Inquiry Learning approach? Inquiry is a teaching method that comes naturally to me and just makes sense. Think about your own learning style. Do you learn because people tell you to? Or because you have a burning question you would like answered? I hold to a social constructivist model of teaching and learning, (see my previous post) and Inquiry fits with this theory.

Kath states: Why inquiry?

  • Vehicle for integration of the curriculum
  • fosters connected rather than episodic teaching and learning
  • Caters for range of learning styles
  • Transferable process
  • Taps into students' curiosity

To illustrate this point Kath uses a great text for teaching about questioning and how children learn, Stella, star of the sea written by Marie-Louise Gay, published by Allen & Unwin, 1999.

Kath asked, are you more like the character Sam or Stella?

What view of the child does this text portray?

In this text I see Sam as the questioning inquiring child, and Stella as the creative child who has an answer that constantly changes, her answer is constructed through her world view. Students all have theories about how the world works. We need to be able to draw these theories from the students and then gently shape these theories by allowing them to question and make more connections. This book also highlights the different learning styles students may have.

What view of the child does an inquiry approach assume?

Kath states: In an inquiry approach, we must firmly believe in students as:

  • curious
  • searching for meaning
  • intelligent in a range of ways
  • experienced - something to offer
  • thinkers
  • collaborators
  • active
  • risk takers
  • co-learners
  • co-teachers

Kath has developed an inquiry approach that takes you through certain steps. She is, in this workshop, taking us through the inquiry model to investigate the inquiry model.

The first step is 'Tuning In'. This is where you engage students in the topic at hand. This begins the 'wonderings', students begin to think of questions they might have. But it is not essential for students to have questions at this stage, these questions will continue to be asked during the next stages.

The next step is 'Finding Out' where students gather in information about the topic. This step is followed closely by 'Sorting Out' where students use this information in a certain way.

Finding out: We were asked to consider these questions:

  • What is the difference between themes and inquiry?
  • List two advantages of using inquiry
  • List two challenges in using inquiry
  • List three skills students will need to carry out an inquiry
  • List three skills teachers will need to carry out an inquiry
  • List two questions you have about inquiry.

Sorting out:

After sorting through all the data we had gathered something occurred to me. Inquiry takes more time than traditional direct instruction, but wow! it is so much more powerful. When the students have to engage with the data rather than the teacher interpreting it for them powerful learning occurs. As teachers we really need to stop doing things for our students just to make sure we cover enough 'content'. If I think about sorting data, the question of what is more important, content or process comes to mind. The students are engaging with the data in a meaningful way and they are internalising it as they have to sort it. But the process of sorting it is a skill they will be able to transfer to many other situations. In inquiry - what you learn about makes a difference to the skills you use and vice versa. The content has to be worth learning about, be of value and interest to the students and to the wider world.

My first day of the workshop is now finished. I am exhausted because I have been thinking so hard. I am brought back to the question that always haunts me. If we know this approach is of such value how can we get it into more classrooms?

I have been reading an article by Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark entitled Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Others have critiqued this article here. I found myself arguing out loud as I read this article. And this article represents why a lot of teachers do not adopt Inquiry Based Learning in their classrooms. There is a misconception that Inquiry means letting the kids loose on learning with 'minimal instruction'. Inquiry is not an either / or dichotomy. It does not mean that you either teach them or let them teach themselves. It is a rigorously framed and supported structure that relies on the elements in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development to guide students through their learning. In Kath's model, Inquiry means engaging students in deeper more meaningful learning than direct instruction alone can offer.

If you have not yet looked into Inquiry Based Learning I encourage you to do so. It suits the way that digital natives learn, it fits with the idea of 'clickability' that today's kids hold. Learning is finding the answers to the questions I have. A talented teacher helps students to find and focus those questions to find out about their world and their place in it.

Can't wait for part two.

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Anonymous said...

Wow Jane! How inspirational it was reading your post. I'll have to stay posted for the next installment.
I am a primary school teacher in Sydney and have the ever so fortunate role of Coordinating the Integrated Curriculum within my school of 500 students (yes a big Primary school for Sydney). All throughout our school we follow Cath Murdoch's Inquiry Model of learning and in my 7 years of teaching I have never come across something that just gels, works so well and totally makes sense. Don't think I'll ever look back...even though I know teaching is a teacher in itself and we're constantly learning new things to implement in the classroom, this is one Learning that I'll find hard to change in my beliefs and practises of teaching. As I previously just all makes so much sense this way!

conversingwiththebuddha said...

this is amazing! You are indeed so lucky! I am Abhi and am a Coordinator at a recently authorised PYP school near New Delhi, India, called Pathways World School. We too follow Kath's model and bumped into your blog while researching. I have myself initiated a lot of integration projects between ICT and English, by participating myself and with the students in the Cyber Text iNet online conferences. I also won a project in a national level competition for a unit of inquiry which integrated a lot of ICT. I would really love to interact further and you can reach me at and find me on facebook too!

northstar said...

wow I'm a student teacher, I'm just trying to do my assignment on planning a unit for a classroom. I have just read what you have written wow is all I can say.
Cheers Deb

Jane Nicholls said...

Thank you all so much for your positive comments and I'm glad you got something out of my learning. This is what makes blogging so worthwhile, when you can share and learn from each other.

Paul from Japan said...

Enjoyed reading your run-down of your thinking. Am well aware of kath's approcah and wondered what it might be like to be in one of her workshops.

Totally agree on inquiry not being letting loose but rather guided inquiry - when they students begin to mature with their inquriy routes - you can let them experience greater freedom. This is the same with anything - instill good inquiry habits and they will be able to succeed with less guidance later on.

Hang in there and keep questioning everything - even the experts!

Mita said...

Hi Jane, I am ICT teacher in Singapore. It is really inspirational to read your post. I have heard a lot about kathy Murdoch. But I never met her. You are really lcuky to attend the session.