Children are born with an innate desire to explore, form hypotheses, experiment, observe, and develop conclusions. Research and data prove that children’s learning through their senses has a strong connection to thinking and understanding in science and discovery. A few decades ago, the idea that toddlers think like scientists would have been considered preposterous. Jean Piaget, the pioneer of cognitive thinking, believed that children are illogical, irrational, and “pre-causal”, and this idea informed curriculum design for many years. But it has been proved wrong by scientific evidence which shows children are competent, coherent, structured, and intentional in their approach.
Children are also capable of abstract thinking and causal representations. This brings us to the question of whether the old pedagogical approach of content﹣and skills-based teaching is indeed in alignment with the way children think and learn. Does it really encourage the scientific thinking skills that children are born with, or does it systematically diminish them during the child’s educational journey in pre-school and beyond? It also leads us to reflect on the “knowledge society” we live in today, where the meaning of “knowing” has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information, to being able to find and use it.
The 21st-century skills are a set of abilities and dispositions that students need to develop in order to succeed in the information age. These include learning, literacy, and life skills that encompass critical and creative thinking, collaboration, communication, flexibility, initiative, leadership, information, and technical literacy.
Inquiry-based thinking and learning is an approach that meaningfully embraces the context of learning in the modern world, and derives from research about the way children think. It was developed during the discovery learning movement of the 1960s in response to traditional forms of instruction that required learners to memorise information. It is closely connected with the natural way in which children learn.
The traditional approach to learning was limited in its approach and effectiveness in developing the new age skills and competencies, primarily because it emphasised facts and the acquisition of facts. The focus of learning was therefore on the teacher, who transmitted these facts, and the emphasis was on the “right answer”. In an inquiry-based model, the focus is on the learner and his or her interaction with peers, adults, the environment, and the overall context of learning. The teacher is a facilitator who offers opportunities and “provocations” for students to pose questions, undertake projects, and find answers and solutions based on data and experimentation.
For example, a teacher might talk to a group of children about dinosaurs. She will read them books, do different kinds of arts and crafts to create little dinosaurs, and even bake dinosaur cookies. This is a very traditional thematic approach to learning. In an inquiry-based model, responding to the children’s interest in dinosaurs, the teacher will present talking points on species that are extinct, dinosaurs being one of them. She will introduce hypotheses on the cause of extinction and the processes of evolution, which will trigger an investigative process involving data gathering, collaboration with parents and experts on the subject, community resources, and the synthesis of evidence to support or refine the group’s thinking, or even to generate new inferences on the evolution of species.
Such higher-order thinking spurs creativity, an understanding of causal relationships, analytical skills, statistical and scientific interpretations. It also promotes collaboration, and communication, at a more complex level as compared to a traditional thematic learning environment.
Over the years, inquiry-based pedagogy has inspired educational philosophies around the world. The Reggio Emilia approach in Italy, which has over 30 international networks in different parts of the world, draws its pedagogy from the inquiry-based constructivist type of thinking that has gained ground in the last five decades. The International Baccalaureate (IB) programme that has become immensely popular all over the world among both local and private schools is also based on an understanding that inquiry based thinking and learning is the most powerful way in which children learn.
This approach to teaching and learning is powerful, but is also challenging for students and educators. It’s an approach that requires all the stakeholders (the students, the educators, and the family) to remain fully invested and committed to the process of learning. It is a social endeavour, and is a true testament to the collaboration of a social network, both in the school and at home, as the two must be aligned to realise learning goals. This can be challenging for students, who may want to focus on a more one-dimensional approach to learning and assessment. But if education is indeed a reflection of life and not a preparation for it, then an inquiry-based approach to education is what families should be choosing to give their children as a strong foundation in the early years of education.
To quote American psychologist Jerome Bruner: “We call it ‘education’, the cultivation of ways of going from the past and the present into the possible”.