Crossing ‘the Great Divide’ through Inquiry

Shifting toward using inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning can be a big challenge for a teacher.

The challenge seems to stem partly from the patterns of thinking that inquiry approaches require from the classroom. Deductive patterns of thinking most commonly used in traditional, test-driven systems are often barriers to being able to implement an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.

In deductive approaches, teaching and learning moves from large topics to smaller sets of facts. The movement of thinking in deductive patterns follows what has traditionally been the structure of a scope and sequence. For instance, in content-based curriculum, a syllabus might consist of large topics broken down into sub-topics, and finally unpacked in a series of facts. We see an example of this type of deductive pattern in the illustration below.

An extract from a deductive curriculum. Topics and facts are the most essential feature.
An extract from a deductive curriculum. Topics and facts are the most essential feature.

The pressure of coverage (usually to prepare for a high-stakes test) fuels the drive to teach deductively, usually through direct instruction strategies such as lecture, a strategy used to transmit a lot of information in as short a time as possible.

Deductive patterns of teaching and learning are useful in a few instances, but overused can lead to what Edna Sackson at whatedsaid calls “the great divide,” when all of a sudden, the volume of fact learning and drills, piles of worksheets become the norm as a child moves toward a high-stakes test-driven secondary school culture. If this situation is different from the inquiry based primary experience, the child experiences “the great divide.”

The pattern of teaching and learning in a deductive lesson.
The pattern of teaching and learning in a deductive lesson.

Let’s take a look at an example. Say the teacher aims for students to appreciate the craftsmanship of poetry. Some author’s decisions in writing poetry focus on language, imagery, beginnings and endings, structure. If a teacher thinks to teach these craft lessons deductively, the lessons might consist of the teacher demonstrating how different poems achieve beautiful language, imagery, etc.

The teacher might just tell the students about the craft of poetry.

If we turn deductive thinking on its head, we get inductive thinking – the movement of thinking from specific ideas to generalizations. It is similar to scientific research, in that scientists investigate sets of data and find patterns among these to arrive at generalizations, large ideas which organize the data and answer questions within the discipline.

If we give students a set of poems, and ask them to find patterns, students might just become more engaged in the study of poetry. They might read the poems closely. They might have dialogs with peers about how the poet achieves meaning through what they did as they crafted the poems. Students might discover that poets make very specific decisions about the language they use in such an economic genre. Students might find out devices common to some poetry, which allow the poet to conjure images in the reader’s mind, taking the reader on the author’s personal intention within a poem. Students might also notice and come to conclusions about structure and its significance in a poem.

The pattern of thinking in an inductive lesson has similar process to an inquiry cycle.
The pattern of thinking in an inductive lesson has similar process to an inquiry cycle.

Along the way, the teacher might teach students to form good questions and how to be precise in their language as they question and express what they learn. Along the way, students might learn to negotiate meaning through collaborative dialog with peers. They might learn specific skills such as annotating text, metacognitive thinking, and synthesizing what they learn into coherent and well-supported responses to literature.

Students just might learn to use skills necessary for them to perform well in say, a literature examination.

The challenge to teach using inquiry-based approaches is a tough shift, but the toughest shift is in the teacher’s mind.

If we want our students to be self-directed learners who can solve problems for which there are no readily apparent answers, why not give them these opportunities, every day, through our lesson design?








Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

9 thoughts

  1. Thank you, Aloha, for this thoughtful and instructive post. Many high school teachers become defensive, saying they are limited in what they can do because of curriculum requirements and the demands of the system. You have simply and cleared laid out how an inquiry approach is possible at any stage of learning. I’ll add a link on my post to yours!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ed. I do understand the difficulty of facing what seems like a massive curriculum that one has to cover in secondary school, the looming exams and transcripts for uni admission, etc. That inquiry is a natural way to learn, and can be achieved through tweaking process is something that the new ATTL framework and our unit planners lay out clearly. Thanks for linking!

      1. Thank-you both Ed & Aloha for getting this discussion going here and on Twitter. It’s been something I’m trying to chip away at. We’ll get there!

        The backwash effect of university entry (and terrible university teaching) seems to reach younger and younger through the curriculum. Misconceptions about inquiry from the older end (and a sometimes unfair tarring of HS teachers with an ‘uncreative’ brush from the younger) can make it harder than is necessary to see the common ground.

        If it helps, I wrote a piece on the same idea in IS Magazine a few months back, after looking at inquiry for an MA unit:

  2. Hi Stephen, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. An aspect of the ‘great divide’ might be unnecessary labeling of secondary school teachers as ‘uncreative’ etc. Experienced teachers who are using the new unit planner might find that inquiry is inherent in the process of planning teaching and learning. An intention perhaps in our dialog is to provoke the thinking and reflection on how to make the shift?

  3. What a beautiful way of explaining how inquiry can be the basis, even in most structured curriculum. Thanks a lot. Recently a colleague requested me to conduct a PD session on inquiry and ATTL. I was struggling how to explain the value of inquiry and was not sure of convincing my colleagues but this is very logical explanation of how with a little shift in approach we can maximise the learning for our students.

    1. Hi Rashima, thanks for your note. There is a struggle in shifting thinking from what is comfortable to a new process, and sometimes it helps to just shift the point of view to the students’ – what would help students to learn in more engaged ways? Treasure hunts are always engaging, and inquiry is just like a treasure hunt, but more cognitively demanding!

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