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Inquiry and Intellectual Engagement

   Galileo Educational Network    February 26, 2016    Focus On Inquiry Research Series

In our previous blog posts we provided a definition of inquiry that was appropriate to K-12 schooling and pointed to research that suggests discipline-based inquiry can positively impact student achievement. It’s time to look more closely at student engagement. The Focus on Inquiry study had teachers noticing deeper levels of engagement when students were involved in inquiry tasks. As one teacher noted, “In a word, they are more inquisitive!”

But what role does engagement play in learning, and why is it important?

Intellectual engagement is described as a state of intrinsic motivation in which a learner is so focused, so intensely interested in the topic at hand that time seems to disappear.

Neuroscience researchers have suggested active engagement in the topic at hand is necessary for learning. It’s a prerequisite for changes in brain circuitry that are thought to underlie learning. In educational terms, this suggests that passively sitting in a classroom hearing a teacher lecture will not necessarily lead to learning. But, active engagement with ideas that are challenging, require problem solving and problem posing, those that confound and intrigue the learner, invite students to make connections and see patterns which results in powerful illumination which comes from understanding. It is at this point that an individual derives intense pleasure from learning.

In this Chemistry 20 class, students were given Stoichiometry problems in order to solve collaboratively on the class whiteboards. Through making student learning visible the teacher was able to respond to students’ needs while in the process of learning. Learn more.

Teachers who know how to activate learning in the students they are charged to teach know how to design learning through dynamic, responsive pedagogies creating communities that strive to foster habits of thought and discourse in all students. These are places where students accomplish work that inspires, develops insight, connects with the broader world or discipline, and stirs the imagination. These are the hallmarks of a discipline-based inquiry approach.

The Focus on Inquiry study revealed at one site, 80 – 100% of students demonstrated either academic or intellectual engagement in all classes observed. In two classrooms, 90-100% of students demonstrated intellectual engagement during the first, second and final third of the lesson.

Focus on Inquiry researchers regularly met with teachers. As the study progressed, teachers indicated that they were becoming more thoughtful about task design and their use of formative assessment to guide their own and the students learning, and reflective about their practice. As professional learning sessions and mentoring meetings progressed teacher comments, classroom observations and particularly analysis of student artifacts affirmed teacher views that their students demonstrated a deeper level of engagement when involved in inquiry tasks.

The Focus on Inquiry digital resource can be viewed and downloaded here.