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Inquiry and Problem-Solving

As you read the scenario below, reflect on how problem-solving and language learning complement each other.

Ms. Petrie’s sixth-grade ESL class has voiced a desire to learn more about U.S. culture. Throughout the first part of the semester the students made a list of questions that they would like to ask long-time residents of the United States. Ms. Petrie is working with the students to develop ways to answer their inquiries. She is basing the project on a series of pictures and materials downloaded from Pics4Learning (https://www.pics4learning.com/) on U.S. culture. First, she will show some of the pictures to help students reflect on what they really want to know. Second, she will work on techniques to help them develop ways to find out information. Each student team will make a project plan in which they will outline their goals, list their questions, and describe how they will conduct their research, what resources they will use, and how they plan to present the results. The class decides that each group will create a slideshow using Wixie (https://www.wixie.com/) in which they will present their results using a mix of audio narrations, pictures, and text. Also, the class decides to have a  mini-conference where they will present their slideshows and discuss their results.

Team 1 has decided to interview native English speakers to learn their views about English language learners. Team 2 has decided to survey what it is like to be a seventh grader. Other teams will approach community members to learn more about U.S. customs and beliefs. Each student will have a role.

Students will keep a journal in which they record language, content, and process questions for discussion. In this way, they will receive helpful feedback and support during the project from peers and the teacher. The class has also created a Facebook group where they can post their questions and receive feedback from their peers and the teacher during this project.

► Overview of Inquiry and Problem-Solving

Inquiry, for the purposes of this chapter, is defined as a process of discovery in which students go through iterative stages of questioning, reflecting, and research. Students can participate in many types of inquiry activities, including, for example, library research on historical events, constructing family genealogies, examining how their community supports environmental health, and exploring how different cultures are treated in their school.

Problem-solving is often viewed as a component of these inquiry activities. Although difficult to define precisely, problem-solving is generally understood to include skills such as making accurate observations, finding and organizing information, predicting, synthesizing, and using other higher order thinking skills (HOTS) to find solutions.

Inquiry and problem-solving have been proposed as necessary for language learning for many years (Brown, 1994; Chamot, 2005; Marsden, Mitchell, & Myles, 2013). The TTS-LL (Healey et al.,  2011) standards for Goal 3 and the ISTE standards (ISTE, 2018, see Standards 4 and 5), also list inquiry and problem-solving as necessary skills. Why do language students need to problem-solve and conduct inquiry?

First, problem-solving and inquiry help students learn metacognitive strategies that are employed to manage one’s learning (Oxford, 2003, 2016), and students who can use these strategies are typically better language learners. In addition, research indicates that learners remember better what they do rather than what they receive passively, and that is the rationale behind active inquiry (Park & Choi, 2014, see chapter 4). As learners work to construct the language that they need while participating in problem-solving and inquiry tasks, they acquire additional languages in much the same way as they acquire their first—by trial and error, reflection, and personal involvement.

Second, in lessons where language is the content, students can apply strategies based on problem-solving and inquiry to recognize patterns, ask important questions, and make conclusions about language. Research shows that these skills should be acquired from both participating in problem-solving activities and explicit teaching before problems are presented (for a review, see Janzen, 2008).

Computer technology use can enhance language and content learning during inquiry and problem-solving activities in English language classrooms. First, computer use can support inquiry. For example, the free encyclopedia Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.org/) provides an online database with multimedia content for learners to see, listen to, read, and interact with the information that they are seeking. This format makes the language and content accessible for use in the problem-solving process. Another example is database or spreadsheet software (such as Microsoft Access or Google Sheets) that enables students to locate and log the data that they have collected during their inquiry. This software allows students to have a record of their process and the language involved in it. In addition, computer technologies can help students present the results of their inquiry projects.

Problem-solving tools abound on the Internet, for example, MindTools (https://www.mindtools.com/), TeacherVision (https://www.teachervision.com/problem-solving), and Common Sense Education (https://www.commonsense.org/education/). Figure 6.1 presents some of the tools available through Common Sense Education.

 

Figure 6.1. Some of the useful inquiry and problem-solving tools available from Common Sense Education.

Some publishers such as Common Sense Education (http://teacher.scholastic.com/) offer a variety of open educational resource (OER) applications and materials appropriate for various grades, types of content, and diverse learners that provide scaffolding to solve problems in areas such as the environment, social relations, and immigration. For example, Ansel and Clair: Little Green Island (see the shortened link at https://goo.gl/Lq65Bz), designed for grades 2-4, is an ecosystem simulator game that can help students individually or in groups to use language to plan and organize during inquiry around fighting pollution. In other words, computer-based resources can provide data on a wide range of topics that is accessible to students at different levels and with different learning styles and strategies, support the efficient organization of data, facilitate an organized and accessible presentation, and present problems, all while tracking process and progress. Many ESL and EFL learner textbooks currently incorporate problem-solving and inquiry-based projects. Why, then, should teachers use technology?

Keep in mind that if the technology use does not make the language learning process more efficient or more effective, teachers should work to find more appropriate tools. As noted in the examples, however, computer use can make language learning through inquiry and problem-solving more effective and more efficient by enabling learners to use language to develop multimedia presentations; to demonstrate ideas; to calculate, track, and organize; to access information to be transformed; and by facilitating a host of other tasks.

License

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Inquiry and Problem-Solving by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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