Authentic Enquiry

Authentic Enquiry is an approach to learning which begins with the learner’s interest and experience, rooted in concrete place object or artefact  and moves from there through a process of faciltiated knowledge construction, to a particular negotiated outcome which meets publicly agreed assessment criteria.  It’s bottom up, rather than top down. It’s authentic because it is ‘authored’ by the learner and because it is ‘real and genuine’ in their life story.   A special issue of the Curriculum Journal was dedicated to this approach in 2009.

An authentic enquiry is a Learning Journey which moves from purpose to performance. We all engage in learning journeys all the time. An Authentic Enquiry is a form of Learning Journey which is ‘scaffolded’ carefully and results in a product or a performance that achieves that purpose.  Authentic Enquiries are a response to Bauman’s challenge: 

educational philosophy and theory face the unfamiliar and challenging task of theorising a formative process which is not guided from the start by the target form designed in advance

Zygmunt Bauman 2001: The Individualised Society, Cambridge, Polity Press.
learning journey

Authentic Enquiry offers a way of framing an enquiry – whether formal, informal or problem solving in the workplace. It can be led by an individual or participated in by a team. The purpose of the enquiry provides the energy for the journey, learning power is how that energy is regulated over time – and how the learner approaches the identification, collection, curation, mapping, re-structuring and presenting the data and information needed to achieve a purpose.

Procedure for authentic enquiry – nine iterative processes

 First, the student is encouraged to choose an object or place that fascinates her. Careful, ‘hands-off’ prompting and guidance may be needed from the teacher, to ensure that personal interest is strong and authentic. The rest of the process will be highly influenced by the integrity of this choosing process. (Sometimes the ‘object’ turns out to be a person, or event – it is its susceptibility to observation and the strength of the student’s interest and engagement that are important.)

Second, she observes and analyses the chosen object/place, both as a separate, objective entity and in relation to her own interest and reasons for choosing it. In this, she is developing her sense of personal responsibility. This initiates the cycles of a personal development process which is recorded in a workbook and in which the student, tutor and later others participate. It requires the student to develop the critical curiosity and strategic awareness necessary for independent learning, in the context of effective learning relationships. She is also developing a sense of herself as a learner who can change and grow over time.

Third, she starts asking questions: obvious, but open ones, such as: How did it get there? What was there before? Why is it how it is? Who uses it? How and why did they get involved? She is initiating and conducting a process of enquiry and investigation, driven by personal interest and shaped in turn by the answers to her own questions. She is exercising and developing critical curiosity. (All the time, the student is encouraged to reflect on her motivation, reasoning and identity as a motivator of her own learning.)

Fourth, the questioning leads to a sense of narrative, both around the chosen object and in the unfolding of new learning. Historical and present realities lead to a sense of ‘what might be’ both for the object/place and for the learner and her learning. She is becoming the author of her own ‘learning story’ or journey.

Fifth, the learner begins to discern that this ‘ad-hoc’, subjective narrative leads in turn to new, objective facts and knowledge. Subjective learning starts to be related to a wider, objective awareness. The learning becomes a ‘knowledge map’ which can be used to make sense of the journey and of new learning as it comes into view. She is ‘making meaning’ by connecting new learning to the ‘story so far’.

Sixth, with informed guidance and support from the teacher, the student’s widening ‘map’ of knowledge can be related to existing maps or models of the world: scientific, historical, social, psychological, theological, philosophical… This is where awareness of the diversity of possible ‘avenues of learning’ becomes useful. It requires the teacher to act as supporter, encourager and ‘tour guide’ in the student’s encounter with established and specialist sources and forms of knowledge

Seventh, the student arrives at the interface between her personal enquiry and the specialist requirements of curriculum, course, examination or accreditation.   Her development as learner enables her to encounter specialist knowledge and make sense of it, in relation to what she already knows and in the way she already learns, interrogating it and interacting with it, instead of simply ‘receiving’ it, using the model of learning and ‘knowledge mapping’ skills she has developed through the enquiry. This is where the resilience will be tested, that will have started to grow through the responsibility and challenge of a self-motivated enquiry.

Eighth the student can forge links between what she now knows and institutional and social structures receptive to it: qualifications, job opportunities, learning opportunities, needs, initiatives, outlets, relationships, accreditation, publication… Initially, this takes the form of a portfolio or presentation, based on the workbook, making explicit both process and outcomes of the enquiry. Her learning has met its communicative purpose. She has created a pathway from subjective response and observation towards the interface with established knowledge.

Ninth In doing so, she has also achieved life-enhancing personal development by asking and answering such questions as: Who am I? What is my pathway? How did I get there? Where does it lead me? What were the alternatives? Who helped me and how? The outcome of this learning facilitates a sense of vocational identity – how I can make a difference in the world.

Authentic Enquiry is planned, constructed and enacted in accordance with these design principles:

It is reflexive

  • on its process
  • requires and stimulates critical and higher-order thinking
  • involves different forms of knowing
  • scaffolds and is scaffolded by learning power
  • learner reflecting on self as learner
  • learning guide reflecting on self and role
  • moves between self-assessment and public assessment
  • The practice models the principles

It is rigorous in integrating and assessing outcomes

  • impacts on knowledge and performance
  • assessment in context, not as determinant of process
  • produces evidence to build confidence in its efficacy
  • criteria for assessing process and outcome negotiated and explicit throughout
  • outcomes (also) assessed by publication/demonstration to community

It is in community

It is collaborative and conversational

  • recognising the power of language in the construction of knowledge
  • co-constructing learning and knowledge
  • creating (in preparation)
  • a community of understanding and openness to change
  • It is generative

It is Integrative

  • relating/uniting disparate elements
  • integrating the personal with the public and diverse world views and perspectives
  • moves between the particular and the general
  • connected to community identity, experience, understanding and purpose

It is person-centred/personal

  • driven by choice
  • about what matters to me
  • connected to my identity, experience, understanding and purpose
  • opening space for change
  • the learner is a person-in-relation
  • It is contextual
  • acknowledges the whole person

It is about Stories

  • uncovering and valuing narratives
  • enquiry as narrative
  • learner as author
  • learning guide as co-author
  • knowledge construction as narrative
  • using story to scaffold identity and agency