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On the Nature of Inquiry: Choosing a Topic

David W. Jardine PhD

The arrival of new information technologies in our lives and the lives of our students means much more than simply new ways to provide the same old news. These new technologies demand that educators re-think the nature of their work. With the potentially relentless on-rush of new information, it becomes essential to re-consider what inquiry might mean in our schools. This re-thinking is obviously too much to consider all at once, because so many things are beginning to shift. These initial thoughts are merely a beginning.

What does it mean, to choose a topic for inquiry? It is commonplace in school, for teachers to choose activities that are geared and targeted to students’ abilities, grade, or developmental level. As someone who did part of their graduate work on Jean Piaget, this was, for me, a taken-for-granted feature of my work with student-teachers—instructing them on how to provide developmentally appropriate material for their students. However, one of the most common questions that student-teachers then raised was this: what about the students who are having trouble? What about the students who are finished in a flash? What about the child who barely speaks English? Who has a short attention span? Who hates math? Who is bored, over-stimulated, out of it, beyond it, over it? We all recognize something in these questions. Our attempts to outrun the differences that present themselves in any particular classroom are exhausting, confusing and, sometimes, nearly hopeless, especially with increasing classroom sizes, decreasing assistance in the classroom, and the social, economic and cultural pressures that are now ordinary in schools. Inquiry, and what it means about choosing topic has something to offer here.

Inquiry does not begin with a psychological and pathological version of differences, where each child has their own cultural, linguistic, personal and familial background, experiences, abilities, level, previous knowledge, intelligence (Gardner 2000). Rather, inquiry imagines a topic as a living topography, a living, interrelated place full of its own diversity, relations, multiplicity, history, ancestry and character. The question then is, what topics can be pursued in the classroom that have enough richness and complexity to embrace the full range of children and teachers’ work? Rather than beginning with difference and then doling out different pieces of topic, inquiry asks how we might take a class full of difference to a living place that can invite them all.

Here is a simple analogy. When I go out into the garden with my young son, I don’t send him off to a developmentally appropriate garden. I take him to the same garden where I am going to work. Now, once we get there and get to the work that place needs, of course, each of us will work as each of us is able. We are not identical in ability, experience, strength, patience, and so on. But both of us will be working in the same place doing some part of the real work that the garden requires. This garden and the real work it requires, is itself rich and generous and multiple and varied enough to embrace our differences. This place, this topography, this topic, has room for us both. It is a place where we can gather together in our differences and work in ways that each of us has something to offer to this place that is irreplaceable.

How can we imagine the topics listed in the curriculum guide as rich, generous, living topics, living topographies that are full of enough room for the full range of difference and diversity that we might bring to them, including, it must be added, the full adult attention of the teacher as well? How can these topics become experienced as living topics, full of real questions, real openings/opportunities for exploration? It is here that the hard work begins: how can we start imagining, for example, the phenomenon of number, or addition, or commas, or mapping the classroom, as parts of a living inheritance, as part of an already ongoing conversation into which we step, as inquirers?

It is this sort of imagining that inquiry demands of educators, especially now, when new information technologies are ready to break apart the old, fragmented, school-bound versions of knowledge that will no longer do.


Gardner, H. (2000) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.