What Does It Mean to Make Inferences? , pp. 2 of 9

What this paper aims to do is to first contextualise the act of making inferences within the inquiry approach, and demonstrate how questions that assess the skill of making inferences can be better phrased with more precision (while taking into account how inquiry is used in the teaching of humanities subjects in Singapore). The subsequent section will then breakdown the thought processes behind making inferences into smaller and distinct steps, and demonstrate how following each rung of the thought process will make for a better levels of response marking scheme (LORMS) that can accurately reward the moves that go towards drawing inferences, rather than rewarding peripheral skills such as the ability to present an answer in a coherent fashion. Finally, the last section of this paper will then discuss the positive spin-off benefits that an accurate mapping of the skill of making inferences can have in a historical classroom and show why the close partnership between teaching and assessment is necessary to deliver effective classroom learning.

Asking better questions - Contextualising Inferences within the Inquiry Approach

Despite the dual recognition of the centrality of the inquiry approach to humanities education, and the acceptance that primary sources prove to be a valuable avenue for historical education, there still exists a gulf of understanding as to how source-based work fits into the inquiry approach (MOE, 2012). This gulf manifests itself in the way the questions intended to assess for the skill of making inferences are currently being asked, and from the current way we define and come to understand what it means to make historical inferences.

By implication, the implementation of
the inquiry approach appears to be cursory. After all the talk of an inquiry approach, the assessment which too often dictates the beats and steps of classroom instruction ultimately pays minimal heed to any higher aspirations of an inquiry-based learning. There appears to be a lack of awareness of the position of “inferences” in-relation to other source-based skills and the entire historical inquiry process. Furthermore, there also appears to be a lack of understanding as to what is involved when making historical inferences. As a result, inference is currently the label used on any source-based question that does not fit into other type of skills out there, and the way inference questions are phrased heavily suggests a lack of understanding of what historical inference entails in the inquiry process.

The figure below (Figure 1) illustrates the position of ‘inferences’ and the other common source-based skills within the historical inquiry process. While history in the classroom is not entirely the same as academic history, there are relevant parallels that will be demonstrated later. Most importantly, the act of making inferences occupies a specific niche which involves the creation of new knowledge by using new pieces of information in primary sources, in conjunction with pre-existing knowledge gathered from reviewing the state of the historical literature in order to answer a specific inquiry question. The process of combining these two is a complicated mental process of inductive reasoning, and does warrant more analysis and closer thought. Should this new historical understanding be completely contradictory to that of the prevailing wisdom, we might well label it revisionism; but should it be in agreement with the prevailing conventional wisdom, then it is an act of generating a clearer image about the past that we already know the rough image of.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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