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Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning

Learn by doing with this problem-centric approach to teaching

“When will I ever use this?” It’s an age-old question and a favorite of many bored or frustrated students. The question is fair, though, and education should serve a clear and relevant purpose.

People learn in many different ways, and while concepts like specific learning styles have been mostly debunked, overall approaches for how to make class material relevant and engaging continue to be debated. Inquiry-based learning checks off many of these boxes and makes the purpose behind a lesson undeniably clear. 

What is Inquiry-Based Learning? 

Inquiry-based learning has questions and problem-solving at its core. Rather than asking a teacher to stand in front of the class and lecture about a specific topic, there is a renewed focus on students’ individual curiosities. Instructors present students with a question, a problem, or a project goal to achieve, and apart from teaching necessary and relevant skills, the teacher operates as a facilitator and guide. Students learn by doing, making the process all the more engaging and enriching.     

Focus On Curiosity

Many inquiry-based lessons and tasks ask students to pursue topics of their own choosing. This allows students to engage with their own curiosities and apply skills in ways that enrich their interests and reward deep dives into subjects they may later study in college or their careers. By appealing to the interests of the students, inquiry-based learning becomes immediately relevant and applicable to real life.

The Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning

When mastered, inquiry-based learning offers all sorts of benefits from fostering critical thinking skills to honing a student’s ability to communicate effectively. 

1. Encourages critical thinking.

With this approach to learning, students have to break down a problem or a task into steps, carefully determining the best approach to each part of the process. This experience demands that students think critically as they ask themselves how to best proceed. This ability to break down larger projects into individual steps and ask specific questions to guide progress is vital for success in the adult world. 

2. Improves problem-solving skills.

As students navigate the steps of their projects, they are bound to encounter problems and setbacks that demand attention. Since each student’s project or task is usually individualized in inquiry-based learning, students need to become self-reliant when solving these eventual problems. While a teacher should be around to help and offer hints to solutions, part of the experience is learning to problem-solve on one’s own. Given the complexity of these tasks, there are fewer ways to learn that offer better opportunities to develop these problem-solving skills. 

3. Encourages creativity. 

Oftentimes, inquiry-based projects culminate in some sort of product that students need to create using the skills and knowledge they developed along the way. For instance, a project about assessing water quality might task students with developing a plan for improving the drinking water in their community. This real-world application demands creativity and a thoughtful application of subject material rather than simply asking students to repeat information back to a teacher on a test.  

4.Improves communication between students. 

Some inquiry-based learning is also group-based. With any complex task, communication is vital, and for students to work well together and accomplish their learning goals, they will have to learn to speak clearly and openly with their peers. Even assignments and tasks that are not group work can encourage communication. If teachers allow students to share resources, peer editing, or even present their findings, they will need to communicate effectively. 

5. Connects students’ learning to the real world. 

The kinds of tasks students complete in inquiry-based learning are very similar to how the real world works. In society, people observe a problem or ask a question and then go about figuring out the best way to solve or answer it. Whether it be a plumber seeking out the root of a stubborn leak or an analyst scrutinizing quarterly earnings, real careers are all about observation and action. 

6. Encourages engaged learning. 

Since so many examples of inquiry-based learning center around student choice, learners are usually much more engaged with the lessons. They are personally invested in what they are doing

The Different Types of Inquiry-Based Learning

This approach to learning can take many different forms, some more rigid and guided than others. When considering inquiry-based learning, you need to think about individual needs, the independence of the students involved, and exactly what content and skills need targeting. 

Structured Inquiry

With structured inquiry, an instructor develops a step-by-step guide for how students can go about solving a problem or investigating a phenomenon. For instance, a science class might involve a lab where students dissolve a penny. Each step of the process is carefully planned and documented in advance, and students have to follow directions to the letter. They still learn by doing but in a much more controlled environment. This type can be broadened a little more by offering a few options with the questions students try to answer. They all follow a similar process like the scientific method, but each might come to a different conclusion depending on their initial question. This approach is best for younger students or those with little experience with inquiry-based learning. 

Open-Ended Inquiry

Open-ended inquiry is, naturally, more open. Students are free to pick topics on their own and go about solving problems and answering questions at more individualized paces. Instructors are present to offer guidance and support, but students or groups of students are mainly on their own as they learn about the topic at hand. 

For instance, a class may be tasked with researching a historical precedent to the American Revolution and developing some sort of presentation or product with what they learn. Students have freedom in selecting their topic, gathering information, and deciding what kind of product to make at the end. Typically, classes will gradually build to this kind of learning since students need ample training and modeling to understand how to best learn in this environment. 

Problem-Based Inquiry

Perhaps the most “real-world” variant of this learning approach, problem-based inquiry starts with a specific problem or issue. These problems can be local and smaller in scale like “How do we make school lunches more appealing?” They can also extend to global threats hotly debated on a grander scale like “How do manufacturers manage emissions while remaining profitable?” Students research relevant topics, synthesize that information, and develop plans and solutions to the problem presented at the start of the process. 

Guided Inquiry

Like with structured inquiry, guided inquiry operates with a more rigid step-by-step guide for students, but instead of students following the process on their own, they are guided through each part by a teacher. This version offers the least amount of freedom, but the high level of structure makes it ideal for younger and inexperienced students. 

The Four Key Steps of Inquiry-Based Learning

With all the advantages of inquiry-based learning, you might be wondering exactly how to implement such an approach or what the process would look like. While the exact details may vary from class to class, all inquiry-based instruction shares a few common steps. 

1. Students should develop a question about a topic that interests them. 

Student curiosity should be at the forefront of more open-ended inquiry. Start with a broad topic or issue that the student is passionate about or interested in. Then, after some preliminary research, each student should be able to pinpoint an issue or problem related to that topic. These observations can shape the beginning of a question that will guide the rest of the inquiry process. 

2. Use class time to research the topic and explore it in more depth. 

Once they have a problem to solve or a question to answer, students will need to dive into extensive research that narrows more and more as they get into the specific facets of their topic. Class time should be dedicated to the process to help teachers facilitate the research and also to encourage students to do the level of research necessary for this kind of inquiry. Students might present findings along the way and conference with peers and instructors about their progress.

3. Have students present their topic to the rest of the class, practicing public speaking skills.

Presenting findings to peers and teachers can be made a little more formal with dedicated check-in presentations. This holds students accountable for progress on their projects while also allowing them to work on communication and public speaking skills. Peers with similar interests and topics might also be able to share resources and bond over their inquiries. 

4. After they present, ask students to reflect on what worked about the process and what didn’t. 

With this kind of learning, failures and setbacks are inevitable. In fact, encountering these hurdles and discovering how to overcome them is all an intended part of the process. Students need to actively reflect along the way to track their thinking, brainstorm, and problem-solve. These reflections help track progress and give learners a way to document how and why they do things as part of their inquiry. 

Examples of Inquiry-Based Learning

This kind of learning can take many forms, and people may have already participated in inquiry-based learning without realizing it. 

1. Field Trips

Taking a day trip to a factory, zoo, or museum allows students to engage with the class content in a real-world setting, a core tenant of inquiry-based learning. On these trips, students might be asked to interview experts, gather information from exhibit displays, or simply document observations to better understand the inner workings of a place. This process can be much more engaging and the relevance to the real world is undeniable since students are actually operating in the real world rather than a classroom. 

2. Science Experiments

In a controlled class environment, students can still learn on their own. Experiments are an excellent example of structured inquiry where students have a specific objective to complete, and the teacher has provided a guide for how to complete said objective. However, students still have to figure out how to achieve these steps, which fosters independence and engagement.  

3. Projects

More broadly, projects are a great way to give a little more agency to students in all kinds of classes. Most projects are more open-ended where students can choose their preferred method of gathering information. They are also for developing a product based on that information. Students might demonstrate their understanding of literary elements by writing a short story full of symbols and motifs. They might also create a short film to demonstrate an understanding of effective imagery. 

4. Classroom Debates

Students love a good debate, and a structured, well-researched debate offers plenty of opportunities to put inquiry-based learning to the test. Either as a group or individually, students need to not only research information to support their side of the debate, but also investigate the opposition to develop rebuttals. Balancing an understanding of multiple sides demands critical thinking and careful analysis, which makes debates a great way to assess skills and knowledge. 

Overall, inquiry-based learning is one of the best ways to make learning relevant and engaging for students who are willing to tap into their curiosity and broaden their horizons. Whether through field trips, science experiments, creative projects, or passionate debate, inquiry-based learning makes education immediately meaningful.  

Frequently Asked Questions About Inquiry-Based Learning

What questions should I ask about inquiry-based learning?

You should ask about the philosophy behind the technique, what implementation strategies the teacher uses, what role the teacher has in the process, how the inquiry is assessed, and what resources are available.

What are the five guiding questions of inquiry?

The five guiding questions of inquiry are about understanding students’ prior knowledge, setting specific goals for learning, exploring investigation methods, identifying necessary information, and reflecting on acquired knowledge.

What are PBL questions?

PBL questions, Project-Based Learning questions, are open-ended, real-world inquiries that encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration among students.

What are five examples of inquiry-based learning?

Examples include scientific investigations (experiments, observation), historical inquiries (analyzing primary sources), literary explorations (text analysis), mathematical problem-solving, and real-world problem-solving (addressing societal issues).

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