is there something to find out?
Is the most important mission of education to help children learn how to acquire new knowledge, so that as adults they will be able and disposed to acquire the knowledge they need? If we are serious about this goal, we need to understand a great deal about children's knowledge acquisition skills and how they develop. A goal of the EDUCATION FOR THINKING project is to help develop this critical knowledge base.
How does the acquisition of new knowledge take place? We need to understand the process if we are to help children become effective knowledge acquirers.
How can the knowledge acquisition process be studied? One method of observing knowledge acquisition is to follow students as they engage in inquiry learning -- an educational method that has attracted much recent interest. A research method very effective for this purpose is the microgenetic method. In research observing middle-school students engaged in computer-based inquiry learning (see sources below), we ask pairs of students to work together on problems such as the earthquake problem. The object of the problem is to analyze a database to determine which of a set of varying factors do and do not make a difference to earthquake risk, so as to be able to accurately predict risk based on these factors.
Our research suggests that students may lack the cognitive skills needed to make their inquiry learning productive. Some of these skills center around the initial inquiry phase of the process (see KNOWING diagram) -- recognizing that there is a question to be asked, that there is information to be examined that bears on beliefs I hold and claims I wish to make. In the absence of this recognition, students are rarely effective in the later phases of inquiry learning, involving analysis (V), inference (VI), and argument (VII). The implication of this fact for educators is that answers cannot be provided to questions that the student does not have.
But aren't children naturally inquisitive? Are inquiry skills something that really need to be developed? The image of the inquisitive preschool child, eager and energetic in her explorations of a world full of surprises, is a compelling one. But the image fades as the child grows older, most often becoming unrecognizable by adolescence, if not middle childhood. What has happened to the "natural" inquisitiveness of early childhood? In part its nurturance into adolescence and adulthood rests on a set of values (III) that parents and teachers must convey and support. But equally important is the channelling of this inquisitive energy into development of the cognitive skills that make for effective inquiry. The skills originate in early childhood, with achievement of the epistemological understanding (II) that knowledge originates in human minds, is fallible, and has the potential for disconfirmation in the face of evidence. Only then does the coordination of theories and evidence that is a hallmark of authentic scientific inquiry become possible. In sum, the so-called "natural" curiosity that infants and young children show about the world around them needs to be enriched and directed by the tools of scientific thinking.
What, then, can educators do? If the goal of education is understanding rather than performance (I), and we aspire to teach inquiry as a process (rather than merely have students acquire products of others' inquiry), then we must promote students' understanding of the inquiry process. Developing students' meta-level processes of awareness and management that govern the multiple phases of their inquiry learning (left side of the KNOWING diagram) is the surest path to ensuring their consistent choice of effective knowledge acquisition strategies in their own inquiry learning.