Making observations, asking questions and pursuing investigations – it’s how humans have come to understand the world. Research from neurology found that learning experiences modify connections among neurons in certain areas of the brain, which gradually reorganize these areas . The architecture of a student’s brain is shaped by and through learning experiences. The research from the neurosciences also suggests that active engagement is necessary for learning. “Active engagement is a prerequisite for the changes in brain circuitry that are thought to underlie learning. In educational terms, this suggests that passively sitting in a classroom hearing a teacher lecture will not necessarily lead to learning. Conversely, active engagement with educational material within or outside of school will support learning” .
The primary purpose of schools is to sponsor learning. We know that people learn best when trying to do things that are challenging and of deep interest to them, reflecting the close interplay of the emotional in cognition and the development of capacity.
Csikszentmihalyi (1990, in OECD, 2007) calls the ‘flow’ state, a state of intrinsic motivation manifested by intense emotional and intellectual excitement. Friesen (2007) defines this state as intellectual engagement, the state in which the learner is so focused, so intensely engaged, that time itself seems to disappear.
The implications of the findings from this study, when combined with findings from other studies on engagement (National Research Council, 2003), highlight students’ need for “worthwhile tasks, some autonomy in how to do them, good feedback, good colleagues to work with, opportunities to learn and improve” (Levin, 2010, p. 77). Knowing how to learn, being inspired to continue learning, and learning together with others are essential in today’s world. As a result, in an education system designed on older, different notions of teaching and learning, educators continue to search for ways to redesign schooling so that it sponsors deep, meaningful learning. Merely adding “more interesting courses” or contemporary media to existing structures can be alluring, but our findings suggest a different, more fruitful direction.
Since learning requires students’ effort and interest, reforms need to take into account the ways in which the emotional and cognitive aspects of learning work in tandem to create the optimal conditions for deep, engaged learning. Such reforms also require supporting teachers in their designing of flexible, adaptive learning environments that can be manipulated according to the emerging needs of learners and the learning situation.
- First Level: Knowing the existing knowledge and how it works.
- Second Level: Knowing the culture that produced that knowledge, eg. the culture of science, mathematics or history. How do mathematicians think? What are the drivers? Ways that knowledge in a particular discipline is created, verified, generalized.
- Third Level: Knowing how to create knowledge. How do you change knowledge? How do you create new ideas or knowledge? How do you put forward evidence? How do you work creatively with concepts to create new ideas, new knowledge, new products?
The OECD report (2007) explains that at this point the brain begins to make connections and see patterns in the information, which results in a “powerful illumination which comes from understanding” (p. 72). This state of sudden epiphany is described as “the most intense pleasure the brain can experience in a learning context” (ibid., p. 73) and naturally, is an experience that fosters motivation as students experience the pleasure inherent in deep learning.
The world is in the midst of incredible advances in our understanding ‘of the mind and brain, on the processes of thinking and learning, on the neural processes that occur during thought and learning, and on the development of competence’ . Not that long ago, it was believed that the brain had all of its neurons at birth. The brain was unchanged by life’s experiences. We now know that the brain is continually changing in response to experience.
While some may argue inquiry learning takes too much time and it’s more efficient to simply give students the information they need to know, this does not lead to true understanding. Students need to engage in real work that reflects the work someone in the field might tackle. This leads to authentic learning and skills that serve students well into the future. They must cope with problems that may not have clear solutions. They will deal with changes and challenges to their understanding.
Schools need to go beyond the accumulation and transmission of information and move toward the generation of useful and applicable knowledge. They should be communities that strive to foster habits of thought and discourse in all students from all backgrounds. They should be places where students accomplish rich, engaging work – work that inspires, develops insight and stirs the imagination. An Inquiry-based philosophy can accomplish this.