How Inquiry Supports Student Learning in H&PE
Traditionally, a teacher is defined as one who imparts knowledge—but any modern educator can tell you that a special kind of magic happens when, instead of giving students the answers, educators help them to seek information and draw conclusions for themselves.
Inquiry-based learning is a process that begins with involving students in formulating questions on topics that interest them. As they proceed to seek answers, they build new understandings, meanings and knowledge which are then used to answer a question, develop a solution, support a position, or that lead to further questions on topics of interest to them. Inquiry is also an incredibly powerful approach to teaching—especially in our information-rich age. Knowledge is easily accessible, however, students must learn how to analyze and make sense of that information in order to draw conclusions.
“I think what we value in terms of education has evolved,” says Nicki Keenliside, Instructional Leader, Health and Physical Education for the Toronto District School Board. “And thus our teaching needs to evolve as well. We no longer need children to receive information from the teacher and repeat it back. Inquiry allows the learner to connect the learning to what’s already inside of them. [...] It’s a constructivist approach.”
Inquiry isn’t an “add-on.”
Inquiry has been used for many years as a strategy in many other curricula; however, the 2015 Health and Physical Education (H&PE) curriculum (Grades 1-12) was the first time this approach was formally written into the H&PE curriculum.
Most educators will already be using inquiry in their teaching, even if they might not call it by that name. After all, asking questions that lead students to think critically is an important part of teaching. But while the core of inquiry-based learning is having students ask and answer questions, there’s more at play.
Inquiry is a formal process that can be considered to have three main stages. These include launching, facilitating and making sense of inquiry. In the ‘launching’ stage, students (with the guidance of their teacher) formulate questions to explore that are connected to the big ideas of the curriculum. In the second stage (facilitating), educators facilitate student research and help them to interpret and analyze the information gathered. Finally, in the ‘making sense of inquiry’ stage, students evaluate, draw conclusions and communicate what they’ve learned, continually making connections to the curriculum. Throughout the process, students are also encouraged to reflect on what, why and how they’re learning.
“It’s powerful because it engages students and helps them build their knowledge,” says Deb Lawlor, Curriculum Consultant Health and Physical Education (9-12) and Contemporary Studies (7-12) , Student Success Department, Ottawa Catholic School Board. “It makes them think about what they already know and what they still want to know.”
And while Inquiry has been written into the curriculum in all subject areas, Karin Podlatis-Brown, Vice Principal of Chippewa Secondary School in North Bay points out that it has a special role to play in H&PE. “Inquiry-based learning is particularly important to H&PE teachers and students because the content of the curriculum is personal,” she says. What’s more, no matter the grade level, at the curriculum’s core lies an important question for each student to reflect on: How do I make healthy choices for myself?
Inquiry teaches skills for the 21st century.
In the fall of 2013, individuals and organizations across Ontario were consulted on a new vision for education, which includes a focus on the skills and knowledge Ontario students will need in the future. The result was Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario, a plan of action for helping students to develop higher-order thinking skills, also called ‘21st century competencies.’
“When students are engaged in inquiry they’re required to use all their learning skills,” says Keenliside. “They need to think critically, evaluate information and communicate what they’ve learned—all skills that are necessary in the 21st century.”
All of these skills are important, but thinking critically is especially vital in a world where technology puts a wealth of information from a variety of sources at our fingertips. “We need to support students in understanding what being critically literate is,” says Keenliside. “They need to know where they’re getting information from—who wrote the text, why they wrote it—before they take that information and use it for their own purposes.”
Inquiry is a great way to learn the Living Skills.
The Living Skills are the personal, interpersonal and critical and creative thinking skills which are woven throughout the expectations of the H&PE curriculum, and when it comes to teaching them, inquiry is a natural fit.
“The entire critical and creative thinking section of the living skills is inquiry,” says Lawlor. “[Students] have to interpret and synthesize information. All of those pieces then reflect on what can be done differently and how that knowledge can be transferred to new situations.”
“They are also interacting positively with their peers and working collaboratively,” says Keenliside of the inquiry process.
According to Sharon Seslija, a former Teacher Consultant with the Greater Essex County District School Board, the development of self-monitoring skills is another major take-away, as is time management.
Inquiry personalises learning in the Healthy Living Strand.
Inquiry-based learning is also a natural fit for teaching the Healthy Living Strand of the curriculum, where teachers address topics like healthy eating and human development and sexual health.
“A student came in with an extra-large double-double coffee drink,” Seslija recounts by way of an example. Rather than delivering a lecture on the nutritional content of the drink, the teacher instead suggested that the student might want to look it up. “After learning the calorie count and fat content, the student came back the next day with a bottle of water,” says Seslija. “That’s a very simple way of taking an inquiry stance.”
In Seslija’s example, not only is the learning student-directed, it is also personalized and makes the most of a teachable moment. Inquiry in the Healthy Living Strand can also take a more formal approach, however.
For example, an educator can pose an overarching question to students in a unit. “Rather than saying ‘let’s talk about mental health,’ instead ask ‘What makes a person healthy?’” suggests Lawlor. Depending on student readiness, they can then work with teacher guidance or in a more independent way to collect, synthesize and reflect on the information in order to draw their own conclusions.
Inquiry helps students make connections in the Active Living and Movement Competence Strand.
Inquiry-based learning can also be a powerful tool in a physical activity setting—especially when educators use the Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) approach. In TGfU, games and activities are divided into four major categories that use a similar set of skills and tactics (i.e., Target Games, Net/Wall Games, Striking/Fielding Games and Invasion-territory Games).
“Teaching Games for Understanding used within physical education already has inquiry built into it,” explains Lawlor. “Students learn how to analyze game strategies and interpret opponents’ movements.”
“They’re also able to transfer skills, especially if using similar sports categories,” says Seslija. “For example, if you’re doing basketball and soccer together—which are both Invasion-territory Games—a lot of the skills are the same, but one game uses hands and the other uses feet. When kids can make connections, they learn better.”
Even if educators choose to use a more traditional sports-based approach to physical education, inquiry can still play an important part. “Ask them questions about game strategy,” says Lawlor. “How can you hit with the most power without losing control? How can you best position yourself to regain possession of the ball? They start to interpret and analyze.”
Inquiry offers multiple entry points.
Although the stages and steps of the inquiry process are linear, educators don’t need to have students move through every step every time. Depending on factors like student readiness, available resources and time constraints, educators may pick and choose.
“Sometimes we’ll give kids the questions,” explains Seslija. “Then kids will enter in at the second stage and start finding resources. Sometimes we may give them the questions and the resources. Then you’ll work through the components of phase three.” In this way, educators are able to scaffold the learning and gradually release responsibility to the students.
“Multiple entry points allow teachers to engage students where they’re at,” adds Podlatis-Brown. “Because many of the topics in the Healthy Living Strand are personal, students come with a variety of knowledge and understanding.” She recalls one instance in a grade nine health class where one student was sexually active and experienced while another had questions about kissing. “In my mind, the inquiry process is differentiated instruction on steroids,” she says. “It’s taking kids where they are and then making it personal—what do they know, and what do they want to learn.”
It’s important to create a culture of inquiry.
No matter what stage you choose to start at, before you begin it’s important to create a culture of inquiry. “Have a safe environment built into your class, so kids feel like they can ask questions and share their ideas,” says Lawlor. Educators can also model asking questions and ‘thinking aloud’ whenever possible. In this way, taking an inquiry stance is likely to become second nature to students.
Remember that mistakes are part of the learning process.
It’s also important to remember that it’s okay to let things get messy and to let students make mistakes. “The whole idea is that, even though it’s structured, you have to step back and let kids do the messy work—and it can be messy,” says Seslija.
And just as students may take detours along the way, educators shouldn’t expect that their work will always go smoothly. “I worked with a couple of teachers who were excited to go to the Science Centre to do inquiry-based learning,” Keenliside recalls. “The kids were going to pose their own questions. I supported them through that visit and then didn’t hear from them for a period.” When Keenliside reconnected with the teachers two months later, she discovered that the students’ questions were not inquiry-based, but rather questions that could be answered with a simple Google search. She continued to work with the teachers, helping them to better guide students in formulating questions. “If you try something, and it doesn’t work, make sure to reflect,” she advises.
Reach out for help.
Finally, keep in mind that there’s no need to go at it alone. In mid-April, Ophea is releasing a new Inquiry-Based Learning Guide, which will be available free-of-charge on the Ophea Teaching Tools Website. The guide will be divided into four sections, including an overview of inquiry in H&PE, a section on the assessment of inquiry-based learning, a section about applying inquiry in H&PE and finally, an Inquiry in Action section that gives sample inquiry lesson plans and teaching tools. There will also be a number of professional learning opportunities associated with the guide.
Seslija also suggests connecting with your school’s teacher librarian, if you have one. “Inquiry is the bread and butter of what they do,” she says. Finding a learning buddy to approach inquiry with can also be helpful. “It might be someone else in the school who is looking to get involved in inquiry-based learning,” says Keenliside. “Start sharing stories and support each other.”
And if you still don’t feel like you have all the skills and knowledge you need, don’t despair! Modeling inquiry for your students is about learning along the way. “I think the bottom line is, just dive in at a place where you feel comfortable,” advises Seslija.
Help students build on their own knowledge for a lifetime of healthy living.
And although adopting an inquiry approach is a learning process, it’s one that’s well worth the effort. “It’s very student-centered,” comments Lawlor. “Traditionally as teachers, we’re the information providers. With inquiry you become a facilitator for students to build on their own knowledge.” And when students do so, they tend to internalize it and apply it to their own lives.
Moreover, as an educator, “the key is to be prepared to let go of thinking that you need to know everything,” Keenliside concludes. “You have to be prepared to learn alongside your students.” Adopting an inquiry approach supports a student’s natural sense of wonder and curiosity, which has the potential to increase engagement and achievement (particularly important within H&PE), and can have a direct relevance to every aspect of a student’s life-long health and well-being.