Seeking Questions, Not Answers: The Potential of Inquiry-Based Approaches to Teaching Library and Information Science

Article excerpt

This article explores the use of questions in teaching LIS and works from the premise that inquiry-based approaches to education provide unique opportunities to engage students in genuine learning experiences. The writings of philosopher Karl Popper are used to establish a theoretical framework for investigating the potential of questions to cultivate and build student understanding, knowledge, and competence in the content of our discipline, as well as skills necessary for the profession. His ideas are discussed in relation to an overall inquiry-based approach to education and the close affinity of this approach to core concepts and principles of the discipline. Two inquiry-based instructional approaches are described-"essential questions" and "focused conversation"-and applications to library and information science education are discussed.

Keywords: inquiry-based approaches, Karl Popper, essential questions, focused conversation

Introduction

Media critic and educator Neil Postman presents provocative commentary about the purpose of education in his book The End of Education, addressing the influences of media, technology, and consumerism on students and schools. When speaking specifically about what students should learn, he laments the lack of attention on the part of educators to the importance of questions in teaching. As Postman (1995) notes,

... all of the answers given to students are actually the end products of questions. Everything we know has its origins in questions. Questions, we might say, are the principal intellectual instruments available to human beings, (pp. 172-173)

He focuses on questions as being at the heart of learning and the impetus for building knowledge. To focus only on the "answers" in the classroom misses the essence of what is likely most significant in any field of study and critical for any student to understand.

This article explores the use of questions in teaching LIS and works from the premise that inquiry-based approaches to education provide unique opportunities to engage students in genuine learning experiences. The writings of philosopher Karl Popper are used to establish a theoretical framework for investigating the potential of questions to cultivate and build student understanding, knowledge, and competence in the content of the LIS discipline, as well as skills necessary for the profession. His ideas are discussed in relation to an overall inquiry-based approach to education. Two specific inquiry-based applications are then proposed that reflect the themes discussed. The first one is based on the use of essential questions and the second one promotes focused conversation through a set of sequenced questions.

In general, inquiry-based approaches to education focus on student involvement in the construction of knowledge rather than an educational approach that emphasizes the transfer or accumulation of established knowledge. Ausubel and Robinson (1964), for example, differentiate rote or reception learning from meaningful or discovery learning, the latter type utilizing an inquiry-based approach (p. 482). With rote learning, they say, new concepts and ideas are presented to students in final form, whereas discovery learning has students actively reorganizing and transforming material to give it meaning. Jerome Bruner (1986) also conceptualizes learning as a communal activity with students involved in constructing reality and not simply receiving knowledge. Questions usually play a central role when learning is viewed as an active, student-centered process. Through the use of questions, students are engaged in making sense of information they encounter, and the information needs to be integrated into a student's existing knowledge base to provide coherence and meaning. When knowledge is constructed by students (vs. received in final form), the process occurs at a more personal level and the resulting understanding is likely deeper. …