Inquiry education (sometimes known as the inquiry method) is a student-centered method of education focused on asking questions. Students are encouraged to ask questions which are meaningful to them, and which do not necessarily have easy answers; teachers are encouraged to avoid giving answers when this is possible, and in any case to avoid giving direct answers in favor of asking more questions. The method was advocated by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
The inquiry method is motivated by Postman and Weingartner's recognition that good learners and sound reasoners center their attention and activity on the dynamic process of inquiry itself, not merely on the end product of static knowledge. They write that certain characteristics are common to all good learners (Postman and Weingartner, 31–33), saying that all good learners have:
- Self-confidence in their learning ability
- Pleasure in problem solving
- A keen sense of relevance
- Reliance on their own judgment over other people's or society's
- No fear of being wrong
- No haste in answering
- Flexibility in point of view
- Respect for facts, and the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion
- No need for final answers to all questions, and comfort in not knowing an answer to difficult questions rather than settling for a simplistic answer
In an attempt to instill students with these qualities and behaviors, a teacher adhering to the inquiry method in pedagogy must behave very differently from a traditional teacher. Postman and Weingartner suggest that inquiry teachers have the following characteristics (pp. 34–37):
- They avoid telling students what they "ought to know".
- They talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
- They do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
- They encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
- They do not summarize students' discussion.
- They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students' interests.
- Their lessons pose problems to students.
- They gauge their success by change in students' inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of "good learners" as a goal).
"Our educational system is traditional and backward-looking, and it produces students who cannot deal with change. It consists of an irrelevant, structured "subject matter" system where subject matter knowledge is the end goal, a paradox in an age of change. Traditional classroom organization must be eliminated (including grades, desks, courses, and administrations), and an inquiry system must be instituted which is devoted to instruction in the process of learning to develop in students competent "crap detectors" (with which they can deal effectively with change). A curriculum which trains students in the processes of learning, recognizing that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs, must be student-centered, question-centered, and language-centered: it must consist of relevant questions (selected by the students as worth knowing the answers to) which will help students to develop and internalize concepts which are appropriate to reality; it must take place in a questioning, meaningmaking atmosphere in which students "learn by doing" how to be a successful learner and in which the teacher serves as a guide; and it must include a study of the new media language and of the relationships of language to reality so that the student can develop standards by which he can judge the value of perception. Training for the new kind of teacher who is needed for this system would shift him into the role of inventor of viable new teaching strategies and have him question what he is doing and why he does it."
- Neil Postman