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Steps for Inquiry and Problem-Solving

Although problem-solving and inquiry are technically different, they require many of the same skills. At a minimum, students need to recognize the language that they will need and the processes involved. Critical thinking skills are also crucial for successful inquiry projects. Teachers can model some critical thinking skills, such as

  • analyzing arguments, claims, or evidence
  • making inferences using inductive or deductive reasoning
  • judging or evaluating
  • making decisions or solving problems
  • asking and answering questions for clarification
  • defining terms
  • identifying assumptions
  • interpreting and explaining
  • reasoning verbally
  • predicting
  • seeing both sides of an issue (Lai, 2011, pp. 9-10)

Critical thinking skills do not necessarily come naturally with second language learning, and they are culturally situated, so students need to learn and practice them before, during, and after each step in the process. According to Molnar, Boninger, and Fogarty (2011), an environment that “encourages students to ask questions, to think about their thought processes, and thus to develop habits of mind that enable them to transfer the critical thinking skills they learn in class to other, unrelated, situations” is where critical thinking is cultivated (p. i).

Although sources describe the steps in the inquiry process differently, most sources include the same five basic steps of establishing orientation, conceptualization, investigation, conclusion, and discussion (Pedaste, et al., 2015). These steps are addressed to the learner and include:

  1. What are you interested in? Ask a question that has meaning, define the problem, and figure out what you need to do to answer it.
  2. Investigate by researching. Plan, gather resources and information, and record what you have found.
  3. Create new ideas, thoughts, and directions for action. Make sense of the information you have gathered by summarizing, synthesizing, and interpreting.
  4. Discuss with others. Interaction can shed new light on the question, the investigation, and the process. Share what you have learned and then use the feedback to return to the process.
  5. Reflect on the inquiry process. Did the process lead to unexpected conclusions? Is there something else that needs researching? Has the problem been solved?

For younger or less proficient learners, Freeman and Freeman (1998) present six steps that follow these same basic guidelines. They call this the “Wonderfilled Way of Learning,” and the steps are addressed to the teacher:

  1. Ask the students: What do we know about ______?
  2. Ask the students: What do we wonder about _____?
  3. Ask the students: How can we find  out about _____?
  4. With the students, work out a plan of action, and, at the same time, work school district curriculum requirements into the unit.
  5. Plan an event to celebrate what you have learned together.
  6. Learning is continuous. From any unit, more topics and questions come up. Begin the cycle again. (pp. 138–139)

Regardless of which set of guidelines you and your students follow, inquiry projects can be used to support language and content learning.

In the chapter’s opening scenario, Ms. Petrie guides the students through learning experiences. She has planned that throughout the project, they will not only learn techniques for inquiry such as planning, brainstorming, reflecting, and evaluating, but through their interactions, they will also acquire a variety of language content and structures. These activities facilitate many of the CALL principles—for example, students have many opportunities for language input and output, they have many choices (structure/autonomy), they are motivated to learn because they are answering meaningful questions (authenticity and connection), and they interact with peers and community members (social interaction and feedback).


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Steps for 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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