modes of inquiry both in their methodology ways of discovering or constructing knowledge and critical thinking ways of justifying or refuting knowledge claims by bb3r98Ga



                 IN GENERAL EDUCATION

                                        K. P. Mohanan

Table of Contents

   1. The Relation between Modes of Inquiry and Knowledge Content
   2. Unpacking the Aims of a Modes of Inquiry Module
   3. Educational Philosophy: Inquiry and Evidence
   4. Ingredients of a Modes of Inquiry Module

1. The Relation between Modes of Inquiry and Knowledge Content
The focus of attention in a modes of inquiry module in General Education (GE) is not on a body of
knowledge per se, but on the creative and critical thinking processes that yield the knowledge as its
output. If we wish our students in biology, engineering, and history to think like biologists,
engineers, and historians, we should minimally help them acquire the ability to:

  I.      discover interesting problems/questions in the given domain,
  II.     conduct preliminary investigation to ensure that the problems/questions are significant
          and real (i.e., that they are not pseudo -problems/questions),
  III.    conduct further investigation to come up with solutions/answers to these
          problems/questions, and
  IV.     critically evaluate solutions/answers by checking (i) how they address the initial
          problems/questions, (ii) how t hey address further problems/questions that may bear upon
          the solutions/answers, and (iii) how well they compare with alternative solutions/answers,
          using the criteria of critical evaluation in the domain.

These general demands apply across disciplines, ranging from engineering and physics to psychology
and history. Each discipline, however, has its own special characteristics that make it somewhat
unique in spite of the broad family resemblances. A careful look at the modes of inquiry in physics
and biology, for instance, reveals significant differences between them, even though they are both
“science” disciplines. Both biology and physics in turn are fundamentally different from
mathematics. Similarly, psychologists, sociologists, historians, and linguis ts use significantly
different modes of inquiry both in their methodology (ways of discovering or constructing
knowledge) and critical thinking ( ways of justifying or refuting knowledge claims). Sadly, normal
teaching at university limits itself to transmi tting the knowledge content and applying the knowledge
to standardized textbook problems. It pays very little attention to the goals of kno wledge
construction and kno wledge critiquing outlined in I -IV above. It is this gap that the emphasis on
modes of inq uiry in GE hopes to address.
Given that modes of inquiry are closely tied up with knowledge content, and cannot be taught in a
vacuum, the above situation points to the need for a mode of education that combines modes of
inquiry with knowledge content, id eally all the way from primary school to graduate school. The
aspects of modes of inquiry that an Honours level module may deal with will be highly advanced and
discipline specific. In contrast, a GE module aims at modes of inquiry at a more basic level, f ocussing
on those aspects of academic inquiry in various disciplines that will be of value to all university
graduates independently of their specialization. In both cases, the modes of inquiry will be
appropriate for the level and type of knowledge conten t expected of students at that level.

2. Unpacking the Aims of a Modes of Inquiry Module
By “modes of inquiry”, we mean the modes of discovering and constructing academic knowledge as
well as the modes of critically evaluating what is regarded as knowl edge. Hence, a modes of inquiry
MI module involves paying attention to the following ingredients:

     (a) an appreciation of the core evidence and argumentation that support or refute the leading
     (b) an appreciation of the similarities and difference s in the modes of inquiry in various
         academic pursuits, and an awareness of their relative strengths and limitations in the
         exploration of a given question or problem,
     (c) the ability to engage in these modes appropriate to the given situation, and
     (d) the mental dispositions that we expect every university educated individual to possess,
         resulting from the understanding and practice of these modes.

The first step to wards this goal would be familiarity with evidence and argumentation, ((a)) such that
students begin to question the kno wledge they receive. For instance, we expect a university graduate
to be able to answer questions like, “Why do you believe that matter is made up of molecules? What
is the evidence for/against the hypothesis that the dive rse living species of today evolved from a
single mono-cellular species?”
The next step would be to acquire a general perspective on the similarities and differences in modes
of inquiry ((b)), including modes of justification (e.g., proof vs. evidence -based argumentation),
types of evidence (e.g., experimental vs. non -experimental, quantitative vs. qualitative), types of
modeling (e.g., mathematical vs. non -mathematical), and criteria of critical assessment (e.g.,
reliance vs. non-reliance on predictions.)
Academic mental abilities that we expect university graduates to possess ((c)) include:
      the thinking abilities involved in the discovery/construction and critical evaluation of
         academic knowledge,
      the language abilities needed for effective academic communication, and
      the capacity for independent learning.

The desired mental dispositions of a university -educated individual ((d)) include:
       intellectual skepticism, that is, not believing or rejec ting anything without carefully
          considering the evidence for and against it,
       willingness to question and demand evidence,
       awareness of the uncertainty and fallibility of human knowledge, and
       openness of mind, that is, readiness to reject elements of one’s o wn prior “knowledge” on
          the basis of fresh evidence and thinking.

3. Educational Philosophy: Inquiry and Evidence
An MI module in discipline X will be viewed as an apprenticeship to research in discipline X at an
elementary/basic level. The e ducational philosophy that underlies the modes of inquiry modules is
the idea that students learn best through independent inquiry, whether in kindergarten, primary
school, junior college, or university. An important function of education is helping studen ts develop
and strengthen their natural ability for independent inquiry.
The basic hypothesis of what is called Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is precisely the above view:
students learn best by constructing and critically evaluating the knowledge that we w ish them to
acquire, including what is regarded as “basic” knowledge. This would mean that students are treated
as research apprentices from the very beginning, from primary school to the undergraduate program.
Educators at the university level have no con trol over the modes of teaching in schools and junior
colleges, but we can initiate students into a different mode of learning at least from year 1 at the
Closely tied with Inquiry -Based Learning is the concept of Evidence-Based Learning (EBL), the
idea that students should accept a piece of “kno wledge” only on the basis of a consideration of the
evidence and argumentation for (or against) that conclusion (including an awareness of the
alternatives and the reasons for the choice from among them .) We do not tell our students what to
believe, they must make up their mind on their o wn on the basis of evidence and argumentation.

4. Ingredients of a Modes of Inquiry Module
A modes of inquiry module minimally contains the following ingredients not typically contained in
the traditional modules that aim at knowledge content alone:
        demonstrations of the professional inquirers in action, and their reflective statements on
           the methodological principles and the criteria of critical evaluation that underlie the
        exercises that provide practice in the use of these principles, facilitating mastery (at a
           basic level) of the habits of thought that characterize the professional’s inquiry, and
           assessment tasks (in CA and final examination) that test the understanding of and ability
           to use the relevant modes of inquiry.
To become a painter, it is not sufficient for a student to see a large number of paintings: (s)he must
observe the processes that lead to the finished products, by watching pa inters in action. Explanations
that accompany the demonstrations by professionals (e.g., “I made this shadow on the grass darker to
make the figure more prominent;” “I need more water in my brush to make the colour spread
smoothly.”) would aid the learning process. Finally, in order to master the skills of painting, no
amount of observing and talking to professionals is sufficient: the beginner has to pick up brushes
and colours and start painting, with some guidance from the professionals. Parallel remarks apply to
the art and craft of research as well.
A module that focuses on modes of inquiry in science should provide a detailed account of the
evidence and the thinking processes that lead to the scientist’s conclusions, in contrast to the style of
traditional textbooks that provide the conclusions without the evidence and thinking that bears upon
them. If we wished to inculcate the modes of inquiry in biology, for instance, we might probably
make a careful selection of the relevant sections from Bright Wi lson’s An Introduction to Scientific
Research. At each point in the teaching of the subject matter, we may go through the relevant issues
addressed in the book. For instance, sections 3.2. (Observation and Description), 3.3. (Cause and
Effect), 3.9. (The Search for Causes), and 3.10 (Fallacies) could form the backbone of the discussion
of Mendel’s experiments, Darwin’s observations, and so on. Such a discussion would give students
an understanding of not only Mendel’s laws and Darwin’s theory, but also the thinking that went into
the construction and critical evaluation of this body of knowledge.
Likewise, an MI module in history would present not only what is given in history textbooks, namely,
what historians believe to have taken place in the past, but a lso the thinking that historians engage
in when arriving at their inferences on what must have happened. History is a reconstruction of the
past on the basis of clues available in the present, and in that sense is analogous to the study of
biological evol ution, forensics, paleontology, archeology, and historical linguistics. This concept of
the historian’s task is hardly ever available in traditional textbooks and lectures on history. What is
important is for the undergraduate students to get a sense of ho w historians find their sources, ho w
they reconstruct history on the basis of available sources, ho w they critically evaluate these
reconstructions, and how they choose between alternative versions of history on the basis of
available evidence. A module th at teaches students the historian’s modes of thinking should
minimally provide an understanding of this aspect of thinking in history.
Of particular importance in an MI module is developing an awareness of the evidence and
argumentation in the given discipline. For example, almost all university students believe that the
earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun, but most of them have no familiarity with the
evidence for these hypotheses. Their beliefs about the solar system are unfortunately ba sed on the
words of authority (textbooks and teachers): very few of them have even heard about the retrograde
motion of planets, the phases of Mercury, and Foucault’s pendulum that are central to the relevant
evidence. Similarly, they believe that a molecu le of water contains two atoms of hydrogen because
their textbooks have told them so, but will not be able to briefly outline the evidence on the basis of
which we reject Dalton’s hypothesis that a water molecule contains only one atom of hydrogen. They
believe in such things as double bonds involving the “sharing” of electrons, but will not be able to
answer explain why we can’t solve the apparent puzzles of valence by assuming multiple valences
instead of multiple bonds. They believe that there are such t hings as molecules, but cannot construct
an argument for this hypothesis on the basis of Brownian motion. Ho w many of our science students,
given Galileo’s account of falling bodies and the impetus theory of motion deriving from Aristotle,
will be able to argue coherently why the former is superior?
These are serious gaps in the education of university students. To the extent that the basis of beliefs
for students is trust in authority, they violate one of the fundamental axioms of rational inquiry,
namely, the systematic doubting of statements not supported by evidence. A module that focuses on
modes of inquiry in a discipline should minimally provide familiarity with the evidence for the body
of propositions that are presented as knowledge in that module.
Addressing issues of evidence in a discipline calls for an understanding and mastery of the modes of
argumentation and criteria of critical evaluation in the discipline, which are an integral part of MI.
In focusing on this aspect, we help our students to become better critical thinkers.
In the preceding paragraphs, the focus was on the understanding and appreciation of modes of
inquiry in science, facilitated by interweaving the discussion of the knowledge content with the
thinking that underlies it. In corporating the understanding and appreciation of the modes of inquiry
in subject modules would constitute a considerable improvement of the existing system of education,
but that is not sufficient. Students should be given practice in these modes of thinking, so that they
can use these modes when dealing with problems that arise in their life after getting the university
If we wish to aim at empowering students to think like engineers, physicists, biologists,
psychologists, and historians, we must build our modules around exercises or tasks that develop the
required mental abilities, and not rely exclusively on lectures that summarize or explain the body of
knowledge available in textbooks. The assessment tasks (including those of the final examination) of
such a module should test the students’ mastery of the mental abilities that go into research in that

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