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Developing critical thinkers through inquiry

By 01/05/2022No Comments

Dr James Calleja, lecturer in educators’ professional learning and development, explains how inquiry teaching can be used in the classroom and on the pitch to help learners develop critical thinking and conceptual understanding.

As education has advanced, student-centred approaches have challenged long-standing assumptions about teaching and learning.

Inquiry teaching is one such approach. It is driven by presenting learners with challenging tasks, usually in the form of open questions, situations and problems, which require them to think, reason, explore, discuss and communicate their understandings.

“For inquiry, tasks need to provoke curiosity, to be cognitively stimulating while providing an achievable challenge to learners,” says Dr James Calleja, a researcher and expert in the approach. “Through inquiry, learners encounter and engage with challenging, intriguing and unfamiliar tasks in order to discover the unknown. Inquiry teaching, therefore, opens up the teaching of subjects for exploration, collaboration and creativity.”

According to Calleja, inquiry teaching differs considerably from more traditional approaches to teaching and learning, which rely on teacher exposition and the transmission of knowledge. Inquiry teaching challenges the assumption that learners have limited knowledge compared to their teacher, and that learning is best achieved through watching, imitating and listening, or that the teacher has authority over the content being taught and has to correct learners’ misunderstandings.

“In an inquiry teaching scenario, the teacher seeks the co-creation of knowledge with learners by making misunderstandings and misconceptions explicit and up for discussion,” Calleja explains. “Within this understanding, inquiry teaching seeks to develop attributes such as critical thinking, reasoning and creativity, which are crucial in today’s ever-changing and complex world.”

What all this adds up to is an approach that, convincing evidence suggests, is more effective at bringing about deep learning and conceptual understanding. An inquiry approach to teaching and learning has been found to produce transferable thinking skills as well as improved attitudes towards learning, which are vital in the modern employability context.

“Through inquiry, learners are more prepared to work collaboratively with others, make their own informed decisions, be innovative, be able to present and communicate ideas and also to receive feedback and act on it,” Calleja says. “In today’s dynamic and ever-changing world, employers seek people who are autonomous and who can use their agency in learning to regenerate themselves professionally.”

And while the approach has obvious applicability in fields like science, inquiry learning has actually been used in a wide variety of areas – including by top sports academies. Calleja highlights one such approach, Horst Wein’s ‘Game Intelligence’, which prioritises the intelligence of the learner (player) as the driving force to performance, allowing them to read the game, analyse situations, draw on past experiences, and use their creativity to execute solutions.

“In sports situations, learners are faced with new situations that change rapidly,” he explains. “On the training grounds, players can negotiate their learning with the support of the coach. However, competitive events present new challenges for players who would then have to act more independently. Adopting an inquiry approach to teaching like ‘Game Intelligence’ is therefore considered vital so that learners are able to transfer their learning from training to a more competitive environment.”

Calleja acknowledges that teachers seeking to implement inquiry approaches in a local context face significant challenges, particularly due to curricula that still prioritise the learning of content over concepts and processes, and assessment through tests and examinations.

It is important, he believes, for schools to invest actively in the professional development of their teachers, as an ongoing collaborative journey that teachers undertake willingly with the support of the school leadership team. One effective approach that has been growing globally and in Malta is lesson study, a collaborative approach whereby teachers research, discuss ideas and plan a research lesson targeted to address a particular issue, which is then taught, observed and evaluated by discussing data collected from its teaching.

“Effective schools are research sites that promote, support, share and celebrate educational research,” Calleja says. “In my opinion, local schools need to become a learning site not only for learners but, equally importantly, for teachers and school leaders too.”

The Mediterranean College of Sport is set to be one of the most pioneering educational and sporting facilities in the Maltese islands, aiming to develop future athletes of international calibre. The co-educational college is set to open its doors to students in September 2024 and will be housed adjacent to St Aloysius College in Birkirkara. For further information please send an email to cbonnici@mcs.edu.mt.