Is inquiry really a continuum?

I have always worked through inquiry or so I thought. A couple of years ago I was given an opportunity to work within the Early Years. This is when my world became much bigger and my understanding of 'real' inquiry began to take shape.

I had sometimes heard misconceptions, and sometimes still do, that young children are incapable of inquiry. As so many of us know this is simply untrue. Inquiry comes so natural to these young learners as they make sense of their world. They independently, without guidance, question, wonder, create and reflect.

As we are now introduced to the new buzz words 'student agency' my experiences in Early Years is that student agency is not ours to give it is only something we can take away. There are suggestions that we must teach inquiry, ease students into independent inquiry projects or, like other areas of the curriculum, we must view inquiry as a continuum. I have started to wonder if this is really the case. From my experience the children already know too well how to inquire. Granted they will need support along the way with their skills of observing, questioning and research being nurtured, but are we not taking away their agency when we presume to imagine that children are incapable of inquiry without our close guidance?

Everyday in my classroom I am witness to a wide variety of different forms of inquiry that each develop a variety of skills. Since the beginning of the year my greatest concern has not been to facilitate inquiry but to make the children aware of their own agency to think, choose and create independently. Once the children become aware of their learning freedom within the classroom and beyond inquiry becomes natural to the children. I allow free movement of children throughout the day as they engage in their own learning experiences. Yes it can be messy!.
Below are the forms of inquiry that I consider happening most days:

Structured Inquiry: This is were I guide the students throughout a particular inquiry to gain understanding of the Central Idea. This style of inquiry allows me to model the steps and skills of inquiry. Helping to develop the children's interest in an area and supporting and developing their questioning. Developing their research skills as the search for answers and ultimately providing a variety of means by which the children can express their understanding. It is through this structured inquiry that I help to develop the children's process of inquiry of a particular area from beginning to end.

Controlled Inquiry: This is where my provocations come in. With each area of learning I set up a variety of provocations often with intended learning outcomes in mind e.g. a weighing station. Quite often the children will not use the provocation for 'my' intended use but they are free to explore. Once a child is engaged in an activity this is my opportunity to support the children's observations and questioning of their learning. An attempt to give more understanding to the activity they are engaged in.

Guided Inquiry: Guided inquiry often comes as a result of structured inquiry. The children are given agency on how to move forward with a topic or question chosen by me. This can also come through one of the many provocations during controlled inquiry. This is an indication that the children are beginning to use their inquiry skills with greater independence. The children are making the inquiry their own!

Free Inquiry: I find that this can often be the most meaningful to the children as they engage in activities of personal interest with no particular learning outcomes. As the inside and outside of my classroom is organised with provocations the children can choose and use resources anyway they wish. This allows the children the freedom to choose, act and reflect on their own learning experience. This may be as simple as watering the flowers, looking for bugs or building a moat in the sandpit. I have found that this kind of inquiry is more inclined to building social, collaboration and communication skills.

It is not that I believe there is no progression in the children's skills of inquiry but I think that if we are to use the swimming pool visual as a representation of what is happening in the classroom it is much more chaotic and not as organised as the image perceives. I would argue that inquiry should be chaotic at times, noisy, quiet and never in a straight line. The image we should really see is the image I have of a swimming pool, kids jumping in all over, choosing their own style of swimming or choosing not to swim at all and sometimes even breaking the rules. This is my image of inquiry. Each child brings something unique and variety of skills, attitude and personalisation.


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