Participating in Inquiry

In the January 2013 issue of School Library Monthly, Sharon Coatney writes about inquiry in schools, in an article that reports and synthesizes discussions from the Summer 2012 Inquiry Summit, sponsored by ABC-CLIO.   A notable takeaway from the article is the emphasis on teachers and librarians as participants in inquiry themselves, in addition to their roles as facilitators of student inquiry.  According to Coatney,

“[Teachers and librarians] need to identify and understand the learning dispositions associated with inquiry learning: curiosity, creativity, and reflection” (5).

The complex job of the school librarian offers many topics for inquiry.  In keeping with my recent post suggesting we “focus on one fish and follow it,” give yourself some space to be curious, creative, and reflective about some aspect of your work, even if it’s something seemingly small.  What do you want to know more about?  What is part of your teaching or library program that gives you the sense that it might be improved, aligned, or turned upside-down?  Or, as one of my doctoral program instructors asked when students struggled to figure out research topics – ask yourself, “where’s the tension?”

When you find the tension, focus on this area and dig into it as an inquiry topic.  Here are a few ideas for getting started.

-          Content-area knowledge: management practices, policies, library routines, organization of the library, children’s literature, reference databases, research and technology tools, social media and tablet applications, reading instruction

-          Pedagogy: questioning strategies, instructional design, assessment, student collaboration and peer review techniques, online learning, team teaching, coaching, peer teaching

When you decide to pursue an inquiry process, you can engage with the topic in lots of ways, including structured professional development workshops or seminars/webinars, conferences, teacher- or administrator-led study groups, action research, lesson study, professional reading and information seeking, and personal and group goal-setting/progress reporting/reflecting.

Consider your inquiry experience an ongoing endeavor, and not necessarily a prerequisite to guiding student inquiry.  Maybe your professional inquiry and student inquiry processes might even inform or shape each other.   In your inquiry, practice the research techniques that you teach to your students, and be purposeful and at the same time reflective as you construct and research your questions.   (In other words, don’t try to find information that gives you a certain answer; find and reflect on information and see what it says about your question.)  Follow Coatney’s advice to be open to uncertainty and ok with not knowing outcomes ahead of time.

Don’t forget to circle back and connect your findings, evidence, and learning with your original question, and do this more than once.  Does your evidence suggest that you took the path you thought you would follow?  Or did your inquiry illuminate a different angle of the topic for you?  Finally, remember to reflect on your affective experience.  Was the inquiry an invigorating process that motivated you, or an experience that felt nebulous and messy?  How might this experience help you to understand students’ needs as they pursue inquiry?

–Rebecca Morris

References:  Coatney, Sharon. “Zeroing in on Inquiry.” School Library Monthly 29, no. 4 (January 2013): 5-8.

Image: Hopscotch, by Jan Tik on Flickr. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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