We are told time and time again that higher education graduates will require a very different set of skills from those who have gone before them. Current and future university graduates will need to be innovative and creative problem solvers who will likely transition through several careers in their lifetime. They require skills and attributes for the jobs of today and of the future. Universities have responded by building these skills and attributes into their strategic plans:
“Our vision is for a transformative student experience that inspires a new generation to ask the questions that create change”
My inquiry journey so far…
My current role is Teaching and Learning Project Manager at a university dental school. Prior to this, I worked for medical schools in Scotland and Australia. My experience with Inquiry Learning as a pedagogical approach in health professional education has primarily been in the areas of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), Case-Based Learning (CBL) as well as student directed, open enquiry research projects which are usually found in the later years of academic programs. PBL and CBL are ubiquitous in medical education but I have found that in my current context, these approaches have been under-utilised.
This is very puzzling to me because health professional practice is ALL ABOUT INQUIRY. A dentist for instance, will begin every consultation by asking themselves the fundamental question: “What is occurring with this patient’s health?” They will then gather information about the patient’s medical history, dental history and presenting complaint. Clinical reasoning ability is dependent upon taking this information and combining it with contextual information about the patient, such as their age, gender, cultural, ethnic and socio-economic background, as well as physical information gathered during a physical examination. Bringing all of this information together, the practitioner can then begin to form a provisional diagnosis, and from here, perhaps they will ask themselves further questions about the patient’s condition and perform further investigations. Furthermore, practitioners are expected to be lifelong learners who practice evidence-based dentistry. Developing the skills necessary to be able to evaluate the latest scientific information and apply it to their professional practice is something that is required of every dentistry graduate. Therefore, wouldn’t it benefit our students greatly if inquiry skills were developed at every opportunity? This leads me to my first research question:
Does an inquiry learning approach lead to improvements in student clinical reasoning skills?
I was employed by the dental school to manage a project which centres on building Virtual Patient Cases; simulations designed to present the students with realistic scenarios which help to contextualise the underpinning dental sciences, and to help them to build their dental practice skills in a safe environment. I assumed that these cases would form the scaffolding for a CBL inquiry learning approach. However, what has occurred with many of these cases is a teacher-led, traditional, and passive approach to learning, whereby elements of the case are mentioned in passing by lecturers to illustrate concepts, but inquiry on the part of the students is negligible.
Academic staff are under pressure to cover a huge range of concepts and skills in a 5 year dentistry program, and graduate students with the knowledge and skills necessary to practice safely. Are teaching staff reverting to what they perceive to be the most ‘efficient’ method of knowledge transfer, ie. the sage on the stage? Is this also occurring because our academic staff are trained dentists, not trained teachers? Is it because this teaching method is what they find most comfortable?
This leads me to my second and third research questions:
What are the barriers to implementing an inquiry learning approach in higher education?
How can we implement an inquiry learning approach in health professional education?
When I think of inquiry learning, the image that comes to my mind is that of a tree with many branches. Beginning with an initial seed of an idea, the seedling sprouts and the tree branches off into different directions as this original idea leads to different pathways of inquiry. Some branches are stronger than others, but all of the branches help to keep the tree, or idea, alive. However, branches alone will not ensure the idea’s survival. The tree also needs a strong foundation in the form of a root system. In the case of inquiry learning, the root system is the expert search. And that is where my inquiry journey takes me next.
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