Global challenges inquiry: An adventure in inquiry based learning

By Robin Mueller

The Lecture

I arrived as a student on the university landscape in the early 1990s, a fresh-faced seventeen year-old ready to tackle the rigors of higher education.  I was confident about my potential for success as a student, mostly because I had already experienced the mode of educational delivery that I expected to encounter in university – the lecture. I imagined the lecture as being expressed in opposites, either as dreadful (boring and dry) or fantastic (entertaining and informative).  I must say that my pre-conceptions weren’t often challenged, and throughout my undergraduate education I experienced many, many good (and not-so-good) lectures.

Almost twenty-five years later I think similar pre-conceptions about higher education are still pervasive.  In my experience, students and teachers often equate the idea of post-secondary teaching with lecturing.  At the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, a good portion of our work is consequently directed towards examining the lecture-based approach, and proposing additions or alternatives to the lecture format that help to prompt deep engagement and optimal student learning.

Alternatives to the Lecture

One of these alternatives is called inquiry-based learning. Though it comes in many different forms, inquiry based learning is typically characterized by learner-centered and student driven design, where students are actively involved in shaping and enacting the learning process.  Inquiry based learning is highly collaborative, and involves the instructor as a facilitator rather than a “teacher.”  Often, inquiry based learning also features a collective exploration of a difficult problem or challenge that requires more than one viable solution.

The College for Discovery, Creativity, and Innovation (CDCI) is the arm of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning that is dedicated to imagining, exploring, and implementing inquiry-based learning across disciplines at the University of Calgary.  I’m delighted to be a part of the CDCI’s new Global Challenges Inquiry course (UNIV 201), which is designed to engage first-year undergraduate students in the process of inquiry based learning to explore a complex world challenge.  Informed by the Global Challenges Community of Scholars, our instructional team (myself and Dr. Shahirose Premji) and CDCI director Dr. Jay Cross have worked collaboratively to plan, implement, assess, and revise the course in an iterative way as it rolls out for the first time this winter.

Global Challenges Inquiry: An Adventure in Inquiry Based Learning

The Global Challenges Inquiry course has been formatted as an inquiry-based immersion experience for students, and it has turned out to be much the same for our design and instructional team.  We have dubbed our experience a “grand adventure,” and as such, we guide our work by indulging in our own curiosity, taking risks, and learning alongside the students in our classes.

Though it feels precarious at times, we have embraced the improvisational nature of the UNIV 201 course.  As instructors, we know that we want to lead students through the process of exploring a global challenge, narrowing their focus within that challenge, and proposing some kind of innovation that might address the challenge in a small but meaningful manner.  This seems very neat and tidy in theory (see our schematic of how the course proceeds below).  But, in reality our students often get stuck.  In my experience this happens at the “narrowing” phase of our process, where it seems counter-intuitive to students that increased specificity leads to more effective innovation.  Our instruction then takes an improvisational turn, especially when students get stuck in the proverbial mud of a broad and complex topic area.  Being fully present in these moments to serve as a guide rather than a lecturer can derail our perceptions of lesson planning, and can result in straying from the outcomes that we hoped to achieve during any given class – a result that can feel a bit dangerous, but simultaneously exciting and rewarding.

Our sense of risk-taking is also fostered by our perceived isolation—it’s hard to tell who is working with inquiry-based formats on our campus and how this is expressed.  Additionally, there are very few resources out there for teachers and students who are experimenting with entire courses that are structured around inquiry-based learning.  Consequently, I aspire to establish a community of instructors and designers who can help one another in our respective inquiry-based learning adventures…  and can work together to develop and pilot options for implementing this approach in higher education.

If you’re reading this and working with inquiry-centered approaches in your teaching, please consider this an invitation to connect!  I will be hosting a themed conversation in April about inquiry based learning, which will provide an opportunity for people to share what they are doing in their classes and brainstorm ideas for potential supports and resources (for details and registration, see our workshop calendar).  It is my hope that this will evolve into a community of practice, where those of us who are using inquiry-centered approaches can dialogue and collaborate.  While the lecture does, and always will, have its place in higher education, there is an exciting opportunity to co-create alternative modes of teaching and learning at the university that offer rich learning rewards for students and teachers alike.

More Resources

UNIV 201 Global Challenges Inquiry course syllabus

Download (PDF, 542KB)

College for Discovery, Creativity and Innovation launches UNIV 201 course (UToday article)

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