A discipline constitutes a distinctive way of thinking about the world. Distinctive ways of thinking characterize the professions and are modelled by skilled practitioners, those who are responsible for advancing knowledge within a discipline. Discipline-based inquiry ensures students gain mastery of the major schools of thought, including science, mathematics, history, etc. (Gardner, 2006).
As Newmann, Bryk and Nagaoka (2001) found students who engaged in more intellectually rigorous learning immersed within the disciplines, gained in-depth understanding of limited topics, rather than superficial acquaintance with many, and using elaborated forms of communication to learn and to express their conclusions.
Discipline based inquiry is the acknowledgment that students learn best when the subjects are meaningful to them. Student tasks must have “an authenticity, [and a sense] that the work being done in classrooms is ‘real work’ that reflects the living realities of the discipline being taught” (Friesen & Jardine, 2011). When students and teachers pose guiding questions, problems, or tasks that professionals in the field would recognize as important, they can work and learn from experts towards responses and performances of learning that are meaningful, sophisticated, and powerful. This view of the nature and purpose of learning is supported by a growing body of literature urging educators to design curricula, teaching, and learning experiences where students have the opportunity to “learn their way around a discipline” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 139) by engaging in authentic intellectual tasks and opportunities for genuine knowledge creation (Darling-Hammond, Barron, Pearson, Schoenfeld, Stage, Zimmerman, Cervetti, & Tilson, 2008; Jardine, Clifford, & Friesen, 2008; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development OECD, 2008; Perkins, 2009; Sawyer, 2006). Educators advocating for this approach argue that each discipline (e.g., science, mathematics, history) has its own particular ways of generating knowledge, verifying what counts as quality work, and communicating. The job of teachers thus becomes to apprentice young people into these practices. But knowledge of the discipline structure does not in itself guide the teacher. For example, expert teachers are sensitive to those aspects of the discipline that are especially hard or easy for new students to master. Teachers need both disciplinary knowledge and pedagogical knowledge and the ways in which these interact together in order to create the conditions for learning to occur.
Findings in the Learning Sciences, including neurology and cognitive science, support an inquiry-based vision for education in the 21st century (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2008; Friesen, & Jardine, 2011; Jardine, Clifford, & Friesen, 2008; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development OECD, 2008; Sawyer, 2006). Deep understanding comes from being immersed in a subject for a long period of time. Superficial coverage of many topics does not help students develop competencies because there is not enough time to learn anything in depth. Schwartz and Fischer (2003), Gardner (2006) and Perkins (2009) identify the need for students to be apprenticed into the ability to think in ways associated with major scholarly disciplines. Curriculum that is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’ does not allow learners to see connections among the things they are learning. There must be a “sufficient number of cases of in-depth study to allow students to grasp the defining concepts in specific domains within a discipline” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 20). This is why this document focuses on discipline-based inquiry and not universal inquiry models or minimally guided inquiry.
One of the important missing pieces in many schools is a coherent and simplified way of increasing knowledge of a subject from the lower to upper grades. Students often have difficulty understanding how various activities within a particular subject relate to each other, and how various units of study are related. Students also gain an incomplete and fragmented understanding when the context of what they are learning is divorced from how math, science, and other disciplines live in the world (Perkins, 2009). They are learning about a topic or content, rather than learning how to take part in the process of creating that knowledge.
“Superficial coverage of all topics in a subject area must be replaced with in-depth coverage of fewer topics that allows key concepts in that discipline to be understood. The goal of coverage need not be abandoned entirely, of course. But there must be a sufficient number of cases of in-depth study to allow students to grasp the defining concepts in specific domains within a discipline. Moreover, in-depth study in a domain often requires that ideas be carried beyond a single school year before students can make the transition from informal to formal ideas. This will require active coordination of the curriculum across school years.
Teachers must come to teaching with the experience of in-depth study of the subject area themselves. Before a teacher can develop powerful pedagogical tools, he or she must be familiar with the progress of inquiry and the terms of discourse in the discipline, as well as understand the relationship between information and the concepts that help organize that information in the discipline. But equally important, the teacher must have a grasp of the growth and development of students’ thinking about these concepts. The latter will be essential to developing teaching expertise, but not expertise in the discipline. It may therefore require courses, or course supplements, that are designed specifically for teachers.” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 20).
Discipline-based inquiry can be applied to all disciplines, with the aid of a conceptual framework. A study on photosynthesis, for example, has more relevance when set in the larger context of understanding the relationship between the sun, green plants and the role of carbon dioxide and water. Social studies content, such as the effect of industrial development on nature, can add new perspectives. Students can still learn the content of science and social studies, but through a series of well-planned experiences directly involving the learner, they will grasp the larger conceptual context and gain greater understanding while gaining fluency in the ways of working and knowing within that discipline, sometimes referred to as foundational knowledge of the discipline.
When students are actively involved, invested, and given the opportunity to make observations, collect, gather and analyze data, they’re using future “need to know” skills they will encounter throughout their schooling and their lives. They learn the content while developing the lifelong habits they need to guide creative thinking and problem solving ("What is inquiry-based learning?", 2004).
Characteristics of Discipline Based Inquiry:
- The study is authentic, in that it emanates from a question, problem, issue or idea that exploration that connects students to the world beyond school in ways that are central to the ways of knowing, doing and being within the relevant disciplines.
- Students are given opportunities to create products or culminating work that contributes to the building of knowledge.
- Assignments and activities foster deep knowledge and understanding.
- Ongoing formative assessment loops are woven into the design of the inquiry study and involve detailed descriptive feedback.
- The study requires students to observe and interact with outside expertise, including professionals in the field.
- Students are given the opportunity to communicate their ideas and insights in powerful ways through myriad media.
- Students’ final products are communicated through public presentations and exhibitions (Friesen & Scott, 2013).