Improving Learning by Adding Inquiry

One of the most common learning design questions I’m asked is, “How can I get learners more engaged with my content?”

From an lesson or course design perspective, the solution is, inevitably, to rethink your content so it doesn’t begin with an immediate and forceful emphasis on the “right answer.”

Here is a learning environment model (LEM) example that shows a standard instructional approach to a lesson designed around a specific concept or topic:

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In this model, the instructor or facilitator begins by presenting and explaining the concept being studied. S/he then reinforces the concept by providing additional information via a reading or video. Next, the learner practices the concept as it’s been presented, and then proceeds to demonstrate information mastery through a quiz.

The challenge with such a model is that it begins with the specific “what” of the lesson – the “right answer.” Unfortunately, once this “right answer” has been introduced formally by the instructor or facilitator, learners generally lose all motivation to discover or explore the “why.” Why does it matter to me personally? How does it fit into everything else I know? What kind of assumptions do I have about this topic and where did they come from?

Once the “right answer” has been formally introduced, the need for reflection and critical thinking are often abandoned. The learner moves quickly to memorizing the answer, along with any other data that may be necessary to demonstrate mastery.

By contrast, if we introduce an inquiry or discovery phase at the beginning of the lesson, one that is not focused on the “right answer,” we can provide information contextualization, motivation for information exploration, and personal evaluation of the concept.

Here is a revised LEM that shows one example of what this might look like:

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In this revised model, the lesson opens by inviting learners to discover and explore experiences and assumptions related to the concept or topic before it’s introduced formally. This flows into an experimentation phase in which learners ask questions like, “How would things be different if this didn’t exist?” or “What if we changed the order of things or flipped things upside down?”

Once we’ve contextualized learners, given them an intellectual context for and a personal interest in the information we’re going to share, then they’re ready for a formal presentation of the right answer. At that point, they’re already in critical thinking mode. They know how to classify the information and determine how it’s meaningful to their personal circumstances.

Phil Antonelli, senior learning strategist at Xerox Learning Solutions, has this to say about the importance of moving beyond the “right answer”:

Testing truth, evaluating how two plus two gets to four, and the recognition that our answers and ideas are held together by individual or group belief systems – there is a lot going on underneath the surface that we hardly ever consider. Unfortunately, there is so much going on around us that can distract us, and the need to produce results causes us to focus more on the outcome than the process.

It is unfortunate, but in most cases, corporate learning is focused on performance related to business outcomes, rather than the thinking skills that underlie the performance. It is so much easier to observe and measure action than reflection. In most cases, questioning skills are only taught when directly related to the business outcome.

As we look to improving our learning solutions with contextualization and inquiry, here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Ask questions that encourage exploration – Before introducing key concepts or core information, engage learners with questions that encourage them to reflect personally and explore possibilities. Ask questions about your topic that facilitate broader thinking that’s relevant and interesting to learners. Be sure these questions are exploratory in nature and have no “right answer.”
  • Ask questions that foster experimentation – A good way to avoid the “right answer” syndrome is to allow learners to experiment with information, to alter it or rearrange it, in order to see what the result will be. This helps learners gain a deeper understanding of the information/concept being presented and creates a strong sense of agency.
  • Ask questions about questions – It’s also important to allow and encourage inquiry about your inquiry. Let learners question the purpose of your questions. Encourage them to ask new and different questions. This will reinforce the openness of your environment and underscore the importance of critical thinking.
  • Encourage collaboration as part of the inquiry process – Many learners will feel uncomfortable or unstable with a lesson that begins with inquiry and reflection and offers no “right answer.” This discomfort can be mitigated easily by having learners work in pairs or small groups. Working in a group can give learners a sense of empowerment when it comes to exploring new ideas.
  • Give learners plenty of wait time when asking questions – Finally, if you’re designing for or working in a face-to-face environment, make sure you provide plenty of wait or thinking time when you ask questions. This provides learners with ample time to process information and think. Avoid rushing learners to come up with quick answers.

Additional Reading Resources

Randy Emelo – Ask Me Anything: The Power of Questions in Learning
David Truss – Questioning Your Inquiry
Dan Meyer – A Very Valuable Conjecture

NextThought is an innovative learning solutions provider specializing in engaging experiences that produce increased learning potential, participant satisfaction, and member retention.