By Makoto Hattori / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe Central Council for Education has nearly finished compiling the newest version of the curriculum guidelines, which will be sequentially implemented from the 2020 school year. The new guidelines will comprehensively revise the curricula of elementary, junior high and high schools to better link them to university education. In particular, the high-school curriculum will undergo large changes, including an expansion of its inquiry-based learning component. What is inquiry-based learning? And what will happen in classes?
Inquiry into true nature
Inquiry is about exploring and coming to understand the true nature of the object being explored. Inquiry-based learning, then, is an approach to learning that trains the learner to examine the true nature of a problem and equips him or her with the right thought process to get to the optimal solution.
What does an inquiry-based learning lesson look like?
Here is the kind of dialogue that takes place: “How will you measure the mold that has appeared?” “I intend to do it by visual observation.” “You should think of a better way to quantify it.”
Kyoto Municipal Horikawa High School has become known for its “miracle” — a dramatic increase in the number of graduates advancing to national and other public universities. In January last year, I visited the high school to observe one of its inquiry-based learning lessons — the driving force behind the feat.
In one classroom, a first-year student who had chosen a research project on the theme of suppressing mold growth was facing a barrage of questions from the teacher, graduate-school students and fellow classmates.
At the school, every student spends two hours per week over a period of 1½ years doing experiments and research and eventually writing a research paper. The classes I saw were “seminars” made up of about 10 students and based around a subject area, such as chemistry, biology or humanities. Students begin participating in the seminars starting in the second semester of their first year.
Research topics on the day I visited included “Official languages of the United Nations that Japanese people can master quickly” and “Utilizing the stickiness of ‘natto’ for water purification.” The students had chosen the topics themselves. A student presenting on the “Relation between the ability to focus and time” was meeting strong opposition from classmates, who were insisting that such a study would be very difficult to carry out successfully.
No answers provided
In the field of education, the inquiry-based learning process includes (1) identifying the problem, (2) conducting experiments and research to gather data, (3) organizing and analyzing the data, and (4) summarizing and presenting conclusions. The goal is to nurture life skills to navigate in a society where accelerating advances in science and technology and globalization have made the future more unpredictable.
“Search study” involves looking for an answer that someone else has already provided. The method is easily accomplished through an internet search. On the other hand, “inquiry” involves thoroughly considering a problem not yet answered to arrive at the best solution possible.
When I visited the high school again in September — eight months after my first visit — the students had advanced to their second year and were giving presentations in front of posters summarizing their research findings.
A male student was presenting on “Improving the operational efficiency of city buses.” To collect data, he actually rode buses, measuring the distances between bus stops, recording bus delays and counting the number of passengers getting on and off. After analyzing the data, he came up with the idea of introducing “rapid buses” that bypass some bus stops. “It’s an immediate problem that has concerned me because buses are often late due to traffic congestion during the day,” he explained.
Parents and university researchers launched a relentless series of questions and comments, including, “Are you sure you handled the data appropriately?” and “Your conclusions don’t address the research question.”
“We really have to use our brains,” students said in response to the criticism.
“What’s important is communication and independence. Students develop comprehensive strengths by improving their communication skills. And the rule is that the teachers never provide the answers,” explained Toru Onda, 59, the school’s principal.
Skills for society
The value of inquiry is not limited to improving academic performance.
Yamanashi Prefectural Enzan High School offers two types of courses — a general education course and a commerce course. Forty percent of the high school’s graduates find employment, 40 percent go on to vocational schools, and the remaining 20 percent go on to junior colleges and universities. Enzan High School’s school-wide inquiry-based learning program was introduced at the Central Council for Education meeting.
The school’s three-year program aims to develop local community leaders. Making use of mainly the integrated study classes, the school offers career education and trains students in survey and other data-collection methods, analysis methods and presentation methods over a period of two years. In the third year, students are divided into groups to discuss solutions to the region’s challenges. Topics include “Promoting Koshu wine” and “Safety measures for tourists.”
“We want to nurture the students’ ability to independently identify and solve problems because that ability is what will be required in society after they graduate,” said Principal Takao Iijima, 60.
“It’s hard, but we’re taking it seriously because it will benefit us after we graduate,” commented one female student who seemed to be enjoying the experience.
“The experience of presenting their work builds confidence in the students. The expressions on the faces of students who lacked confidence when they entered the school continue to improve,” said Yasuko Komori, 51, a teacher at the school. Although 30-40 students per day used to come to school late among a student population of over 400, today barely any students are tardy.
Shiho Hirose, once a teacher at the school and now a supervisor at the Yamanashi Prefectural Education Center, said, “Inquiry-based learning is not just for high schools oriented toward sending graduates to universities.”
Too much college prep
Individual teachers used to be responsible for devising and implementing inquiry-based learning. From the 2000 school year, however, periods of “integrated study” were gradually introduced at elementary, junior high and high schools to deal with contemporary issues that do not correspond to traditional subjects.
The initiative took root in elementary and junior high schools, which have conceived unique programs tailored to local characteristics and students at individual schools. The programs involve studying the creatures that live in a nearby river or planning an event to vitalize the local shopping street, among others. In some cases, students spend six months to a year on the process from coming up with ideas to making a presentation.
Through this process, children comprehensively draw on the knowledge, perspectives and ideas learned in subject classes such as Japanese, mathematics and social studies. Teachers also cooperate in supporting children’s efforts. When inquiry-based learning reaches fruition, the entire school experiences a sense of unity, and classes become livelier. Such learning also plays an important role in the attainment of better academic performance, as demonstrated by Programme for International Student Assessment and National Assessment of Academic Ability assessments.
However, high schools have remained a problem.
High schools are supposed to use integrated study classes to facilitate student inquiry into advanced, complex issues such as international studies, the environment and social welfare. In reality, however, many high schools use the classes for supplementary sessions for college entrance-exam preparation. Such classes are often taught in the traditional way: The teacher writes on the board and one-sidedly explains the topic.
In the new curriculum guidelines, what are currently called periods for integrated study in high schools will be renamed “periods for integrated inquiry.” New subjects including “mathematical and scientific inquiry” and “historical inquiry” will be established. College entrance exams will also be revised to link the life skills acquired in elementary and junior high school to college education.
“We already know as a society that classes where the teacher provides the students with the answers do not work,” said Associate Professor Hiroyuki Kuno, 49, an expert on inquiry-based learning at Nagoya University.
Parental support key
Inquiry-based learning involves learning from real life. Defining a research topic related to the real world or everyday life allows a student to breathe life into and make practical use of the knowledge he or she has learned in math, science or other subject classes. Communicating with various people also allows the student to develop his or her thinking skills and judgment.
Consequently, inquiry-based learning also equips the student with the academic capabilities required to pass college entrance exams. But winning the support of parents for inquiry-based learning is not easy, since it does not explicitly equip students with a large amount of knowledge. Parents have reportedly expressed strong opposition to inquiry-based learning, citing the need for entrance-exam preparation — even when a school’s track record of sending graduates to universities is shown to have improved as a result of inquiry-based learning.
Inquiry-based learning makes learning more enjoyable and easier to understand for students, and is rewarding for teachers. Whether inquiry-based learning becomes more widespread will depend on gaining the support of parents as well as teachers.
Integrated study and inquiry-based learning
When the integrated study initiative was first implemented, its main focus was on promoting the “integration” of different subjects. However, the curriculum guidelines revised in 2008 clearly stated that the essential goal of the initiative is to equip students with the thought processes necessary to solve problems. Today, inquiry-based learning takes place mostly in integrated study classes.