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What is Inquiry-Based Learning? A Complete Guide for Educators

Inquiry-Based Learning offers a promising way to spark students' interest and curiosity for improved educational outcomes.

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By Julia Bashore

inquiry based learning

Inquiry-Based Learning is an educational approach where students actively engage in exploring questions, problems, or scenarios to gain a deeper understanding and knowledge discovery.

As educators, we all want certain things for our students.  We want them to learn the material they need to pass their grade, certainly, but we also want to help them become curious, self-driven lifelong learners.

As a teacher, I can tell you that this is no small order.  Faced with the pressure to make up for learning losses that occurred during the pandemic, many teachers may feel like most of their time in the classroom is spent simply “playing catch-up.”

By rethinking how we deliver content and engage our students, however, we might begin to see ways we can empower them to not only learn what the school district mandates, but also to become the independent, academically-minded individuals we know they have the potential to become.

I truly believe one of the best ways to make this a reality is by adapting Inquiry-Based Learning. Let me explain why…

What Makes Inquiry-Based Learning Different?

Inquiry-Based Learning is a way of teaching that puts the highest emphasis on student discovery.

In Inquiry-Based Learning situations, students are tasked with researching solutions to a meaningful problem.  Instead of, say, reading a chapter of the textbook and responding to questions or writing prompts, students must complete in-depth research to create or discover answers of their own.

In Inquiry-Based Learning, the teacher’s job is to facilitate students’ exploration, fostering critical and higher-level thinking, problem-solving abilities, comprehension of concepts, and enhancing their engagement and motivation to learn through science process skills.

Inquiry-Based Learning is less scripted than traditional classroom models.  Instead of memorizing facts or drilling repetitive strategies, students need to take an active role in answering the question or solving the challenge presented by the teacher.

Essentially, Inquiry-Based Learning puts students in the role of the researcher.  Instead of passive bystanders on the road to knowledge, the students in Inquiry-Based Learning classrooms are in the driver’s seat.

The Key to Making Inquiry-Based Learning Work

While there are many ways to make Inquiry-Based Learning work for your class, the main common factor is that students need to be curious about the topic at hand.

During my time as a teacher, I’ve found that when students are genuinely curious, they become self-motivated to dig deeper into a topic.  They start learning because they want to find the answers – not just because they want to get a good grade or because they’re scared of punishment.

Sparking curiosity is the key to promoting genuine inquiry in your class.  It’s the difference between students who are learning because they have to versus students who are learning because they want to.

In order to foster curiosity, the teacher needs to present the material in an exciting way.  One of the best ways to do this is to give students an intriguing question or challenge to begin the unit.  Modeling your own excitement and enthusiasm for the topic can also help students get on board.

This question your class focuses on will vary depending on the subject and grade level you teach.  A third-grade science classroom might wonder why the moon looks different in the sky at different times of the month, while an eighth-grade history class might marvel at the different ways ancient explorers used the stars to navigate the globe in centuries past.

Questions can be connected to just about any subject, from math to science to reading.  By tying in a real-world problem, a fascinating phenomenon, or an interesting piece of history, you’ll be able to get students to perk up their ears and actually start paying attention.  Pretty soon, they’ll be replying to your question with questions of their own, no matter what subject you teach.

As long as the question catches student interest and drives curiosity, it will provide the essential framework for Inquiry-Based Learning to begin.

Breaking it Down With Inquiry-Based Learning

Once students have had time to brainstorm and wonder about the anchor question or phenomena that’s sparking their curiosity, it’s time to jump into the real learning.  Read on to learn about the Inquiry-Based Learning process.

Present the Topic.

Present your topic, challenge, or question to your class as a whole group, and make sure to model your own curiosity and interest in the subject.

Once your students are hooked, give them plenty of time to record their own questions and ideas related to the topic.  Encourage students to ask questions and be curious. This can be done by posing open-ended questions and creating an environment where all questions are valued.
Allowing them to start a mindmap or KWL chart (with spaces for what they Know, Wonder, and Learn) is a good way to let them get their ideas on the page.  Just giving them time to turn and talk to one another about what they’re thinking is another easy way to build the buzz around your topic.

Conduct the Research.

Students should use their questions as a springboard into researching answers and ideas related to the topic at hand.  Teachers can choose how to structure this research time.  Whether it’s done independently, in partners, or in small groups, students should be given ample time to access a variety of materials that will help them understand their topic better.

Ideally, some of your students’ research should involve real-world context.  Conducting an experiment, going on an in-person or virtual field trip, or simply getting to the school library for more in-depth work time all serve to enrich your students’ abilities to dig deep and really immerse themselves in the topic.

Remember, you want to give students the freedom to explore different paths and make mistakes. This trial-and-error process is crucial for deep learning.

Share Their Findings.

The payoff for working hard and building that knowledge base should be rewarding!  Let students share what they’ve discovered in a celebratory way.  Whether they’re teaching the class with a Google slide, presenting their own website full of facts they’ve found, displaying their own poster in the school lobby, or teaching their newfound skills to a younger grade level, finding a meaningful way to share what they’ve learned is an important part of the Inquiry-Based Learning cycle.

By making the end result matter in a context outside of the usual “hand it in, receive a grade” scenario, students will begin to place more value on the work they complete.  This creates a better work ethic and, you guessed it, even more independence and genuine inquiry into the topic.

Reflect on the Process.

When every student has had a chance to share their work, it’s important to give each member of the class a chance to reflect on their progress.  Allowing students to look back on how their understanding of a topic has grown can help them appreciate their own hard work, while also letting them gently identify areas they might need to strengthen in the future.

Taking the time to reflect on learning and research skills isn’t tied to just one project or unit of study, either.  Building students’ abilities to self-monitor and assess their own work is a skill that will serve them in every subject area and grade to come.

How to Make Inquiry-Based Learning Work For Your Class

Inquiry-Based Learning is endlessly flexible.  By following the four steps outlined above, teachers can then decide how they want their Inquiry-Based classroom to look.

Some teachers prefer a more open-ended research question, in which every student can choose their own topic and research it independently.  This might look like each student choosing a different problem or challenge to tackle, or allowing students to explore the solutions or ideas they find most interesting.

Others prefer a more structured and sequential research question.  This setting allows students to research according to predetermined steps and guidelines, and is especially useful for science experiments and classrooms. Teachers can offer close guidance to students during each part of the process while still allowing the students to do the heavy lifting (and learning!).

Regardless of which approach works best for you, Inquiry-Based Learning will be a success as long as student research, curiosity, and communication is at the heart of the process.

Who Benefits from Inquiry-Based Learning?

Because Inquiry-Based Learning can be scaled to suit any grade, it’s an ideal model for just about every educational level. Studies have even shown it to be effective at the university level. Teachers only need to make sure that the question or challenge they present to their students aligns with district standards and isn’t too easy or difficult.

No classroom is exactly alike, of course, and no two students are exactly alike either.  One of the most beneficial things about Inquiry-Based Learning is the ease with which teachers can scaffold the content to fit what every member of the class might need.

Students learning English as a second language might be able to conduct part of their research in their home language, or use translation software to assist them in writing.  Teachers could also pull English Language Learners as a small group to ensure that they’re able to grasp the material and don’t feel overwhelmed.

Similarly, students with Individualized Educational Plans who may have a physical or learning disability can also succeed with Inquiry-Based Learning.  Teachers can provide accommodations as needed to certain students while still allowing them to pursue the information that fascinates them.

Inquiry-Based Learning not only gives students the ability to be researchers.  It also allows them to become experts by the end of the unit.  This is especially empowering for students who may struggle with traditional “read-and-respond” style assignments.

By letting your students take an active role in finding answers, sharing knowledge, and teaching their newfound knowledge, you won’t only be making them smarter.  You’ll be making them more confident, curious citizens of the world.

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