Pioneer scholars are often met with new ways of learning as they embark on their research experience. The main learning format, and the one that forms part of the backbone of the Pioneer Academic System, is an approach that emphasizes the asking of questions rather than the seeking of answers. This is often referred to as inquiry-based or inquiry-driven learning.
In an article published in the Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is defined as, “a student-centered approach driven by students’ questions and their innate curiosity.” This definitely characterizes the Pioneer experience. In fact, natural curiosity is something that Pioneer scholars bring to the program and a trait that helps them thrive.
Pioneer scholar Yvonne (Nigeria, art history/architecture, 2020) shared that her inquisitive nature was not nurtured in her prior educational experiences and that being encouraged to approach learning from a place of inquiry enriched her experience in the Pioneer research program. “In high school they didn’t appreciate me asking so many questions, but now they do,” she said. “Every step of the way…you can ask a question…you can always incite a discussion…so you’re not just asking the question, you are also bringing your perspective into play.”
Questioning was already a strong aspect of Pioneer scholar Durga’s (international relations, 2020, India) learning style. She shared that Pioneer’s inquiry-based approach enabled her to entertain the “questions that bother me at the back of my head.” Durga elaborated, sharing that “Each time I look at a new thing, I look back at the questions that come behind…and think how does this relate…when I learn new things from new angles, things that are completely unrelated, it broadens my perspective, so I start looking at things in a new light.” An example Durga gave to illustrate her point was that learning how William Faulkner explored identity problems in the American deep south made her think of the same issues in the context of South Asia.
Some students are not accustomed to asking questions, however, and are hesitant to do so. They worry that their questions will reveal what they don’t know or are simply embarrassed to speak up. But Pioneer scholar Sannivas (India, mathematics, 2019) encourages students to push beyond these fears. “Don’t worry about asking questions, regardless of how stupid you think those questions are or [how] you think you would be perceived by your professor for asking that question. It doesn’t matter. Be comfortable with your professor and regardless of what you think of the question, just ask it.”
What Sannivas described is something that Yvonne took away from her Pioneer experience. She described the impact this has had on her academic life at Huston Tillotson University. “It made me confident in what I had to say,” she shared. “I still apologize for my questions, but I apologize less…and I don’t think my questions are that stupid anymore.” Yvonne added that she doesn’t hold back when it comes to putting her ideas out there, despite being naturally introverted. She is now confident that they are worthy of being voiced.
Sannivas added that the value in posing questions, in addition to promoting active engagement in the inquiry process, is that it fosters academic connections. “By building a back and forth with your professor through questions and discussions,” he continued, “you build a relationship.” However, letting go of the fear of asking questions, especially for students for whom this was not encouraged in prior educational experiences, may not happen overnight.
“I found that even in my class, there was some reluctance at first to ask questions with the professor, even though I don’t think we all understood the topic as well as we could have,” Sannivas said. But with time, things began to shift. “As we got into the program, we started asking lots of questions, we got closer with a professor, our understanding of the topic grew as well…it was a better experience all around. So I would suggest from the start diving into any questions you have in detail,” he said.
Despite the inherent value and the connections it can foster, the emphasis on inquiry that characterizes the Pioneer research program combined with its focus on data analysis can present an especially steep learning curve for some, especially students accustomed to laboratory-based research.
Pioneer scholar Maya (United States, political science, 2020) found that coming from a background in physical lab work involving data collection to a research program focused on data analysis presented a unique challenge for her. “I think the hardest part for me,” she said, “was I had never had to approach data in such a way that it wasn’t directly able to be concluded or I didn’t answer my question in its totality.”
This was not an easy pill for Maya to swallow. “I think that was really challenging, as a social science kid, to ask a question and not be able to achieve the answer that I so much had sought for throughout the summer,” she shared. “And while [I thought] that was a really big drawback and it definitely was really frustrating at the time, that was the best lesson I could have gotten in research from Pioneer and from pretty much anything I had ever approached before.”
Maya continued her political science research and found the same to be true in her subsequent experiences. “Research is just like that,” she said. “You’re never going to truly answer your question at the end of it,” she explained. “You’re going to get something that’s a total surprise.”
Another testament that true learning lies in the questions. And so it is at Pioneer.