19 April 2014

Enquiry-Based Learning

I begin with a statement about autonomy’s place in education: it is suggested that
intrinsic motivation is sustained by satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence. (…) [S]tudents tend to learn better and are more creative when intrinsically motivated, particularly on tasks requiring conceptual understanding.1
Creativity is difficult to teach.2 Whatever facilitates student autonomy, in part due to its positive affect on creativity, is therefore valuable in the classroom. As enquiry-based learning (EBL) is designed to give students choices, EBL should be considered for its use in learning--whether by auto-didacticism, through an institution, or a in a mixture of the two. That application is central to this series on pedagogy. This post, which discusses EBL in legal education, is the first substantive essay in that series.

1. Category One: Enquiry-Based Learning

Enquiry-based learning, in its purest manifestation, directly joins subject knowledge with autonomy. That is, EBL grants students the liberty to decide what and how to study. This asserted, it is pertinent to explore ‘subject knowledge’, and to suggest how that bespoke content relates to enquiry and vice versa.

There is a tension in the ideas regarding writing-instruction.3 In The Elements of Teaching Writing, Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj explain how some courses separate writing development and knowledge assimilation.4 This division, state Gottschalk and Hjortshoj, is inappropriate and illustrative of educational problems framed as dichotomies.5 When so framed, such problems are difficult to overcome because both are important things to teach, and it is rarely clear which must take precedence.

The dichotomy’s solution is to merge subject knowledge with enquiry--to show students how to use methods of enquiry to learn the subject knowledge. Students can investigate substantive material and through that process learn what a teacher would elsewise have to teach. The result is a curriculum that asks students to choose a research question and the process with which to answer it. (My next two posts attempt to show how the relationship between ‘question’ and ‘process’ determines whether an education is enquiry-based, problem-based, or basic-socratic.)

2. Initial Refutations

To provide students with this freedom raises several contentions. These range from issues about each student’s ability to write research questions to accusations that students are lazy and cannot be trusted to work at all without strict oversight.

As this is only an introduction to EBL, I will answer the foregoing paragraph’s two raised items, then finish. Note that contentions other than these two exist; I plan to address them elsewhere.

2.1 Open Enquiry is Difficult

Open enquiry's difficulty is a valid concern. The investigative methods I allude to above are complex processes: fully open enquiry is the standard in postgraduate education; and early undergraduates and students in further- or compulsory-education may struggle under EBL regimes.

This is why it was necessary to set up EBL as, and in, a continua of sequential learning paradigms. EBL-inspired curricula need not start at the extreme, widest open end. Rather, properly constructed courses may adopt whatever incremental steps from the two other learning paradigms are helpful. EBL’s purpose is to motivate by allowing autonomy, not to intimidate with obfuscated demands. If students (at different stages) are better off with heavily-guided studies, then that is what they should receive. EBL is amenable to such fluidity.

2.2 Idle Studentry

I’ll begin with a strong claim: students are not lazy. They may appear so, however, when what they are asked to learn does not engage them. Watch any student--child or mature--in an activity they enjoy, and you will see how energised they can be. EBL aims directly to bring out that same enthusiasm. The ‘lazy student’ argument, then, supports EBL’s implementation because it only applies in learning paradigms that EBL is designed to oppose and combat.

3. Conclusion

Enquiry-based learning is the principle model in the pedagogical structure that I am presenting in this series. EBL’s main feature is to insist students choose (i) the (research) question and (ii) the method with which to answer it. EBL is an open, osmotic paradigm. If EBL must borrow from other pedagogies, or either of the other two models discussed in this series (problem-based or socratic), to facilitate successful learning, then EBL must borrow. EBL will fail its design aspirations if it does not inculcate learning. In the next post, I discuss problem-based learning--the middle category in this series’ arrangement.

1 Christopher Niemiec and Richard Ryan, ‘Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in the Classroom: Applying Self-Determination Theory to Educational Practice’ (2009) 7(2) Theory and Research in Education 133, 135–6. This article is available on selfdeterminationtheory.org along with many other useful resources on self-determination theory, which concerns motivation, especially in education.
2 Of course, this assumes that creativity should be taught and is valuable. This also assumes there are no competing claims on an education, such as training to interact socially, or instilling discipline. I intend to address both these concerns in the future. Until then, see eg Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (Vintage 1960) ch 4, in which chapter Bruner suggests intuitive knowledge may account for creative breakthroughs in maths and science, but teaching intuition qua creativity is problematic.
3 Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj, The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines (Bedford/St Martin’s 2004) 14–18.
4 ibid.
5 ibid.

Created: 14 May to 25 August 2014. Version 1.0.

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