Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Inquiry Loop

Last week, we talked about the idea about inquiry based on John Dewey's philosophy: learning always starts with the question of the learner, then we investigate solutions; create new knowledge as we gather information,discuss our experiences and reflect our new-found knowledge. Based on the previous process, we will come up with a new question and we will enter another inquiry loop. After that discussion, Professor Arvan asked us where this loop happens in our study or in which course we have this loop.
I would say that this loop does not happen in most of my classes and I think just like creativity, we do not spend all of our time doing things with creativity. However, it does happen to us once in a while and we should  grasp it.
Then it leads to the question: what leads us to the loop . For me, I want to use my example of taking a statistics class called survival test last semester. At first, I did not know anything about that class and I chose it since it is the only advanced statistic class that fits my schedule to graduate in May. So my original question for this class was what survival test is? Because I did not want to spend my time on this class and learnt nothing. My professor's teaching style did help me a lot in this class. At the first class he told us the three most important topics will be covered is Kaplan-Maeier estimator, log-rank test and Cox regression. Also, he told us why we need these three methods at the first class. So during the further study, I was like the man with a map and whenever I got lost, what I needed to do is to look at the map: the original questions, to find my direction.  In my opinion, these questions are the entrance to the loop and whenever I got lost, I could go back to where we began instead of jumping out of the loop.
The next question will be how do we know we are in the loop. In my experience, my loop does not work in a perfect circle, usually when I am on the second step: investigate the solution, I may go to different directions. First is memorizing and it happens a lot in my education experiences. When I get bored with the question or I could not feel the desire to look into the question deeply, I would choose the easier solution: memorizing. Compared with understanding, memorizing is always a easier choice but it will not help us continue the loop, instead memorizing does not require us to create new knowledge. We will end up jumping out of the loop, not to say repeating the loop. The second is to create the new knowledge but the definition of the new knowledge here is not for the human beings but for ourselves. In other words, we can master the knowledge we do not know before and for me, that  is the sign of getting into the loop.
Yes, someone may argue that understanding the new knowledge happens almost in every class in every semester. However, first, I would say that knowing new things does not mean that we understand the knowledge, especially in the college level. Second, the final question is how to repeat the loop rather than finishing a circle that means the original question during our discussion: be in the flow.I am not the person that can force myself into the repeating loop, so according to my experience, it is closely related to the professor's teaching style. My survival test professor, Dave Zhao treats teaching as building houses. He does not speed up the class unless he is sure that at least 50% of students in class understand the content, which does build a solid foundation for us in the further study. In addition, he also likes to give us a little bit challenging question for us, so we always have questions in hand to go on the loop.
If there is one more question for this topic, I think it would be how to continue the loop when the class is over. In the the survival test class, I did finish a personal project with what I learnt to solve a problem my friend had in his intern: how to quantitatively analyze the credit risk of P2P lending in China. So, for me, I guess when I can apply what I learnt to realize my career goal, I tend to continue the loop. We may have a further discussion on this question this week.


  1. Thanks for starting us on this topic.

    I want to take up your remark - memorizing is always easier. It isn't for me. I used to have quite a good memory, but stuff that would be committed to memory wouldn't get there by memorization. It would get there by exposing myself to the stimulus a lot, because for whatever reason I wanted to do that. One example, I mean it to be humorous, I can remember many TV commercials that I saw as a kid. I watched a fair amount of TV then and for reasons I can't explain many of the commercials got committed to memory. I had no goal that it should happen. But it did.

    Now let me backtrack a little. One reason we are interested in those inquiry cycles is because it is a way to find flow. If you do find flow, it is supposed to feel effortless. Your concentration is great, your skills are up to the challenge, and possible distractions have been put out of mind. How can something else that is not flow (memorization in my view is not flow) be easier?

    So, taking you at your word, the producing of understanding as you do it must not be flow either. If that's right, maybe we need to sharpen our question to something like, when can following an inquiry cycle produce flow? Also, when doesn't flow emerge.

    Let me make one last observation and then close. There is nothing here to say how long a cycle should take - a day, a week, a month, a semester, a year, several years. In my teaching, it is sensible to treat each offering of the course as the start of a new cycle. And then following the cycle is very much like following Model 2 of Schon and Argyris. I'm not sure how long a cycle should be for you in a course. Could it be that each problem set generates its own cycle? I don't know, but we might take up that question.

  2. Today I just finished my psychology lab. And it suddenly occurred to me that actually any science works basically according to the Inquiry Loop. First people confront a question, then coming up a possible hypothesis. After that people practice and using data to see if the hypothesis is true. If not, people raise new question and make the loop starting again. That's why science is self-correcting because of trying and testing. But I don't think every class can offer this opportunity to be in the loop.

    In terms of memorizing, I actually feel the pure memorizing part is hard for me. Instead of that, I believe understanding is the best way to memorize, or we can say to derive on one's own. In statistic classes, the odd thing is that professors usually don't mention how these formulas are formed and where they come from. At most time, they just give examples and teach students the way to fill in the formula. While in one of my psychology class, strangely enough, professor actually explained the reason behind some statistics formulas we use, which is extremely helpful for me to start understanding and memorizing those formulas. When something makes sense, people don't forget.

    In order to continue a new loop, keep practicing might be a good way. Because when we use what we learn in the class, we actually are trying to prove it again and again. Maybe one day we find it does not fit the hypothesis, then we'll start a new round of loop. While that definitely needs ability to observe and inquiry.