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Inquiry and the Curriculum Conundrum

   Galileo Educational Network    March 10, 2016    Focus On Inquiry Research Series

We’ve defined inquiry and discussed how intellectual engagement is an important component of learning. The Focus on Inquiry study found that when teachers and school leaders build a culture of inquiry, it deepens student engagement in learning.

But what does that mean for teachers who every day, must accommodate students, their learning needs, and at the same time, the mandated curriculum/program of studies?

A discipline-based inquiry approach to curriculum design demands an understanding of how knowledge is organized in the world – how it is acquired, how it understands evidence and methods, and how knowledge and its acquisition connects to cultural, historical and philosophical roots.

That’s not what we see with most government mandated Programs of Study or curriculum documents. We’ll use the “rutted path” metaphor that describes most of these mandated documents – many learning outcomes serving as mile posts along a trail mapped from kindergarten to twelfth grade.  Replacing these with descriptions of how concepts and ideas cohere across and within disciplines help teachers understand how topics, methods, ideas and concepts exist in the world.  In this ways, concepts do not become items to cover, one after another.

We can exchange the rutted path metaphor for one that’s involves “learning the landscape”. This is the discipline-based inquiry approach to curriculum. It’s about learning to live and work in an environment: learning your way around, learning what resources are available and need to be brought to bear on the topic-at-hand, and learning how to use those resources in conducting your activities productively and enjoyably. (Greeno, 1991).

Sometimes the outcomes are not written in increasing levels of complexity, i.e., more difficult to master disciplinary concepts are interlaced with more simplistic concepts or even facts. Teachers may need to spend time reorganizing outcomes to ensure students understand the concepts, central to the discipline, are addressed in depth. There is great potential for teachers to be innovators and agents of change. Teachers can become leaders who collaborate to change system constraints that are less than ideal (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005).

For more on working with the curriculum using a discipline-based inquiry approach, visit the Focus on Inquiry website.