The YPP Action Frame with Inquiry-Based Learning I: An Inquiry Cycle

We have ten questions now. What do we do next? How can we help others pick up and bring this Action Frame to life in accordance with their circumstances?

  1. Why does it matter to me?
  2. How much should I share?
  3. How do I make it about more than myself?
  4. Where do we start?
  5. How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?
  6. How do we get wisdom from crowds?
  7. How do we handle the downside of crowds?
  8. Does raising our voices count as civic and political action?
  9. How do we get from voice to changes?
  10. How can we find allies?

The audience in which we would be particularly interested includes civic educators, online-mobile organizers, and tool builders. Many differences are found across these groups regarding disciplinary knowledge, professional norms and skills, the economic sectors in which they are involved, or the driving forces behind their initiatives. Despite these differences, they have something in common in leveraging the potential of digital technology to realize democratic values and ideals in their own contexts. Collaborative thinking, diverse communications, equalizing power, and information sharing are among the traits most highly cherished for that purpose.

 Lined up with this account, the idea of the YPP Action Frame is to help various audiences design the best participation they can possibly envision for their own purposes. Now, let us talk more specifically about how. We figuratively view the Action Frame working as a front end mechanism. And we propose inquiry-based learning as key to the back end mechanism for effective running on the front-end.

Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry Cycle
Inquiry Cycle (cited from Chip Bruce's "What is inquiry-based learning?"

Figure 1. Inquiry Cycle  (cited from “What is inquiry-based learning?”)

Since John Dewey famously discussed the essential aspects of inquiry in How We Think (Dewey, 1933), inquiry-based learning has been extensively studied by a number of scholars. This work produced a range of different definitions, approaches, and applications, which makes it difficult to pin down inquiry-based learning with one particular definition. Here we focus on three main qualities found in common across such differences. First, inquiry-based learning highlights connecting learning to lived experiences beyond the classroom. It encourages using a variety of tools and methods––not only in the strict sense of scientific thinking, but in arts, journalism, literature, or music––for connected learning processes. This kind of learning helps inquirers own a meaning-making activity, for it directs them towards creating knowledge with personal relevance. It is not like receiving something “legitimate” that has been defined by another individual.

Second, inquiry-based learning revolves around critical change. The way inquirers engage in knowledge production can encourage them to rethink how knowledge is constructed and what counts as truthful knowledge. That is, they can tap into the disequilibrium of why a certain perspective is perceived as legitimate, why others are not, and how a particular stance keeps existing injustice from surfacing explicitly. Importantly, inquiry does not end only with a cognitive resolution to figure out the source of such disequilibrium. It demands one further step. Inquirers need to think about their actions as well as concrete thoughts that follow toward change. What counts as action, of course, calls for another round of discussion, and soon we will discuss this issue further in another posting. But what matters here is that inquiry-based learning is not about mere cognitive behaviors but about holistic intellectual enterprise as incorporated with knowledge and action.

More importantly, the closure is provisional. Newly created knowledge and action are not excepted from criticism, and they can feed themselves into a fresh beginning for the next inquiry. Self-criticism is the real strength that keeps the product of inquiry from being dogmatized and promotes diversity in knowledge and action for social justice.

It seems, however, that the critical aspect of inquiry-based learning is often underestimated. This underestimation is supposedly due to criticism about Dewey for overlooking, whether deliberately or not, the social injustices of his time: slavery, poverty, and racism. Still, criticisms given to Dewey’s oversight should not overshadow the essential nature of inquiry towards critical change, self-criticisms, and aversion of dogmatic knowledge. In fact, this perspective lines up well with the famous notion of the praxis of Freire (1970/2000), which is a key construct for critical pedagogy for social transformation. What is being emphasized throughout Freire’s critical pedagogy is no less than the holistic sense of intellectual practice, combined with action and reflection, for social change.

Third, as already signified in the previous steps, inquiry-based learning is a cyclical and dynamic process, not with static content, which is why Dewey paralleled inquiry as a way of thinking, compatible and necessary to democracy. (Dewey described “democracy” in at least thirty different ways, according to Clarence B. Carson (1960), ranging across political, social, economic, and educational systems, as well as a way of life, a theory of knowledge, and a scientific method. Democracy is inclusive of social norms and values, and more). Inquiry begins with an authentic and meaningful question to learners and ends with concrete knowledge and action. The end is only tentative and open to criticism, which sets forth a new inquiry. The cyclical procedure is shown in Figure 1 (cited from Chip Bruce’s post: “What is inquiry-based learning?”). The five steps are not entirely exclusive. They often bleed into one another and reiterate the cycle itself. The procession is rarely done in a simple or linear manner. The key aspects of each step are illustrated, albeit quite simply, as follows. The main ideas are drawn from Bruce and Bishop (2008):

• Ask: Inquiry begins with a question that comes out of experiences and disturbs an inquirer’s intellectual, social, or emotional equilibrium. This “indeterminate situation,” in Dewey’s terms, is not something that can be imposed upon an individual. Rather it can be perceived by the experiencers themselves. The concept of  “who owns the question?” impacts the rest of the steps significantly.

• Investigate: Investigation concerns many ways inquirers engage in an “indeterminate situation” to understand its meaning, causes, social influences, and relations to other parts of a society. This process entails interactions with others, by which inquirers often face social, intellectual, physical, and moral challenges.

• Create: Creation involves hands-on learning, which often entails a tangible creation, new forms of collaboration, and media or artifacts created in parallel with (or part of) the investigation step. Bruce and Bishop (2008) viewed this step as part of “controlled or directed transformation” in Dewey’s (1938/1991) definition.

• Discuss: Discussion highlights a dialogic and communal process with others, which has been articulated much in Dewey’s later work (1938/1991). Discussion plays a key role in transforming an individual-level practice into a social enterprise for knowledge construction. Listening to others, elucidating the thoughts of others, and understanding each other’s points are crucial to this step. Relevant questions include, “What did we newly find out?” and “What does the finding tell us?”

Reflect: Articulated in detail in the work of Schön (1983) and others, reflection means “looking back” on something, simply speaking. Still, the actual processes or the conception introduced in Schön and others are not so simple, as are other steps. Reflection is embedded in all of the prior steps of an inquiry cycle as finetuning and tinkering with the tasks each step has to tackle. Such reflection on a small scale should not be disregarded, of course, but for this simplified illustration of an inquiry cycle, I focus on reflection on a large scale for one entire cycle. In this sense of reflection, inquirers revisit the initial question (i.e., the indeterminate situation), and judge whether they now got into a new equilibrium, or in Dewey’s term, “a unified one.” The inquirers make sense of new concepts in a whole picture of the inquiry cycle and distill new concepts into action. This step also culminates in an existing inquiry, yet leads to a new cycle.          

Inquiry-based learning can be summarized as connected, critical, and cyclical; that is, situated, personal, action-based, social, and reflective (please read “What is inquiry-based learning?”). Can this concept be completely new? No. On the contrary, such a notion of learning is embedded naturally in individual meaning-making processes; it has simply been lost as education becomes increasingly institutionalized. What new idea can an inquiry cycle offer? Reemphasis on the holistic nature of knowledge production, of course, is a great takeaway. But the most prime takeaway to highlight about an inquiry cycle is the articulation of the complex and implicit inquiry process into discrete steps (as discrete as possible), which eventually encourage people to initiate their own inquiries.

Now, how do we this inquiry-cycle link to the the Action Frame? Read this post.