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Inquiry education (sometimes known as the inquiry method) is a student-centered method of education focused on asking questions. Students are encouraged to ask questions which are meaningful to them, and which do not necessarily have easy answers; teachers are encouraged to avoid speaking at all when this is possible, and in any case to avoid giving answers in favor of asking more questions. The method was advocated by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
The inquiry method is motivated by Postman's and Weingartner's recognition that the activities and behaviors of intelligent people ("good learners") at all stages in life focuses on the process of inquiry, not an end product of static knowledge. They write that certain characteristics are common to all good learners (Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 31-33), saying that all good learners have:
- self-confidence in their learning ability;
- pleasure in problem solving;
- a keen sense of relevance;
- reliance on their own judgment over other people's or society's;
- no fear of being wrong;
- no haste in answering;
- flexibility in point of view;
- respect for facts, and the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion;
- no need for final answers to all questions, and comfort in not knowing an answer to difficult questions rather than settling for a simplistic answer.
In an attempt to instill students with these qualities and behaviors, a teacher adhering to the inquiry method in pedagogy must behave very differently from a traditional teacher. Postman and Weingartner suggest that inquiry teachers have the following characteristics (pp. 34-37):
- they avoid telling students what they "ought to know";
- they talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions;
- they do not accept short, simple answers to questions;
- they encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid mediating or judging what is said in student interactions;
- they do not summarize students' discussion;
- they do not plan the direction of their lessons in advance, but allow it to develop in response to students' interests;
- their lessons pose problems to students;
- they gauge their success by change in students' inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of "good learners" as a goal).
In an example from the above-mentioned book, students in the Virgin Islands who participated in a voluntary program of this sort described it as being not so much a class as "more like group therapy."
Another example is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Ethnography of the University (EOTU) project, which sponsors undergraduate research on the university and archives it in web-accessible form for the UIUC community. EOTU also functions as a learning group for students, staff, and faculty interested in what it means to conduct research on universities as institutions.
- Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Dell, 1969. ISBN 0385290098.
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