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Inquiry-based learning is not a new trend; it’s natural learning and is widely used in schools around the world. For instance, the globally renowned International Baccalaureate program is in use from K-12 throughout public and private schools worldwide.
The entire IB program is designed around inquiry-based learning. Further, many states in Australia have now made inquiry-based learning a strategic priority for all schools.
The reason inquiry-based learning is so broadly embraced is that it helps students build social and emotional learning capacity, problem-solving prowess, and college and career-ready skills. It’s a way of student engagement that steers from a traditional learning environment where the teacher lectures, the students take notes, answer questions, complete homework, and sit for an exam.
However, the big question is does it work? Moreover, are there are any disadvantages to this kind of instruction that would make educators want to shy away from it?
Here's the truth—there are advantages and disadvantages to any kind of instructional method. As always, it is the human element that makes things interesting.
There's no perfect one-size-fits-all teaching approach that will connect with the interests and abilities of every single student out there, and teachers know this intimately. So while there are certainly disadvantages to using an inquiry-based learning approach, the pros far outweigh the cons. Better still, there are ways around such stumbling blocks that teachers can navigate with ease, and we'll discuss them as we go.
What You Need to Know About Inquiry-Based Learning
This style of teaching is designed to emphasize the student’s role in the learning process, giving them ownership to explore, ask questions and share ideas.
This is what inquiry-based learning is designed to do:
Create deeper interest
Students get to ask their own questions, creating greater interest in the topic. When they ask their own questions, they pay more attention, as they are seeking open discussion and answers.
Teach problem solving
Students are told to find the answers to the questions they have. In many instances, this is effective because it prepares students for real-world scenarios utilizing skills they need in the future.
Students learn how to work with each other, solving problems as a unit.
Promote knowledge retention
Fact sharing has proven to enhance the ability to recall that information later. This demonstrates inquiry-based learning has greater retention capabilities.
How to Overcome Inquiry-Based Learning Challenges
While this can be a beneficial method of learning for students and instructors, there are some concerns with inquiry-based learning. Although engagement levels tend to be higher in this setting, there are instances where this method presents challenges.
These are some disadvantages to this style of instruction, and the measures you can take to overcome them.
1. Testing performance
When teachers focus learning time on student-led inquiries, it is important that no area of the curriculum is left behind. As we operate in a space where standardized testing is the norm, this could impact performance in this area. Without key learnings, students are unprepared for their exams. In a STEM learning environment, this could be detrimental.
The workaround: The role of the teacher in connecting curricular outcomes to the line of inquiry is the fundamental solution to this problem. By modelling effective questioning techniques, teachers are able to guide their students to find the answers they need while engaging in the relevant curriculum areas.
2. Reluctance to participate
This teaching and learning style requires total student engagement and participation. Students will be asked to speak up and immerse themselves in the activity. While this could help enhance their public speaking skills and also promote teamwork, it could be daunting for those students who have issues with speaking out. Additionally, it could be challenging for those students who do not think quickly on their feet. Comprehension and learning disabilities must be considered, which could become problematic.
The workaround: The solution is found initially in the kinds of questions that teachers ask throughout any inquiry. Essential questions that are big enough and open enough for anyone to answer from their own perspective, experience, or level of ability provide an entry point for every learner into a conversation that is relevant to them. Enabling learners to share in small group sessions with their friends is another way to support reluctant speakers. Above all, inquiry-based learning is designed to be responsive to learner interest, ability, and pace.
3. Teacher Mindset and Preparedness
If teachers do not completely understand or embrace this concept, they are unprepared and unable to engage with their students on a deeper level. This creates a disconnect, which in turn leaves the students unprepared and at risk. Teachers must have a clear understanding of the value of creating a learner-centred classroom, and develop the essential skills to facilitate inquiry-based learning.
The workaround: A key factor is understanding that great classroom inquiry is guided and supported by the teacher, through questioning and by providing formative feedback. Students are never left to their own devices; rather, the teacher facilitates and guides each step of the inquiry process, ensuring that students are on the right track as they develop the higher-order skills of critical and creative thinking.
4. Student Readiness
Students involved in this type of setting must have the capacity to inquire and make decisions on their own. As inquiry is a self-directed form of learning, they must be comfortable with taking responsibility for their own learning, without relying on someone telling them what to do on a continuous basis. While this does provide for student agency and voice, students may not work well in an unstructured environment if they are unprepared or unequipped for this shift.
The workaround: The critical solution to this potential problem is to teach the skills of the inquiry process to learners. All learners have the capacity to ask great questions, and to make judgements about the information they are researching. However, they must be taught these skills. When teachers base their classroom inquiry on a structured inquiry process, and teach students how to use this process, they provide a scaffold for self-directed learning that enables all students to feel supported along the way.
The nature of inquiry-based learning does not lend itself to traditional models of assessment. The teacher-centred paradigm of pre-preparing assessments that are designed to confirm retention of pre-determined knowledge will not work well in an inquiry setting. This model will standardise and effectively limit the levels of achievement to those that have already been decided by the teacher. When this happens, individual pathways and potential for personalised learning goals are lost.
The workaround: The solution is for the teacher to work from within the process, capturing evidence of learning and higher-order thinking as students are developing these skills. From the very beginning of a unit of inquiry, teachers create an opportunity for diagnostic assessment by asking an essential question. Listening to student voice through their responses will provide a wealth of information about prior knowledge and experience, perspective, ability and interest, while engaging all learners in a conversation that builds curiosity. Ongoing, real-time formative assessment is the answer here, and requires an interactive role from the classroom teacher, to provide formative feedback and support students to develop their learning goals.
Asking questions to drive learning is at the heart of the inquiry model. When teachers are unsure of how to manage this process, they may default to asking closed, content-specific questions, and the rigour of authentic inquiry is lost. It is important for the teacher to have a proper grasp of how to ask effective questions to guide their students towards curricular outcomes, while still enabling learners to think deeply and critically about their own learning. If the teacher is lacking in this area, it has a trickle-down effect on the students as they will not learn the basics of effective questioning, reasoning, and problem solving.
The workaround: The solution is to ask questions that connect to the essential understandings and deep concepts of the curriculum, rather than to specific areas of surface-level content. These questions are open to a range of perspectives and inspire a range of responses. Students will discover the content more readily when they understand and explore the purpose and relevance of learning it.
Learner portfolios become the collection point for evidence of learning in an inquiry-based classroom, as students work at their own pace and level. Portfolios showcase student work and reinforce the teacher’s grading, but most importantly they provide an ongoing opportunity for feedback, enabling students to improve and progress as they build upon previous learning. If teachers do not manage this process well, they may revert to relying on summative assessment tasks to determine progress. This is very time-consuming as these assessments are usually large pieces of work that must be individually graded.
The workaround: The solution for teachers is to focus on collecting evidence of learning against achievement standards throughout the learning process. When teachers are able to assign a level of achievement and provide formative feedback in the moment, they add this to the learner portfolio, which becomes a progressive report of achievement rather than a filing cabinet to be sorted out later.
8. Checklists & Ratings
Teachers may use checklists, a learning continuum, or rubrics to guide students through their learning to keep them on task. While this may be useful for the students, if the requirements are very vague, the instructor will not have the information needed to properly observe and assess students. Additionally, rating scales may be skewed, limiting student learning and creativity. This leaves the door open for educator bias.
The workaround: The solution to this potential risk is to ensure that any learning continuum or success criteria are directly related to the outcomes of the curriculum and that the levels of achievement are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher-order thinking. This ensures that both the essential understandings of the curriculum and the critical and creative thinking skills of learners are being assessed.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Apr 2, 2019, updated September 29, 2021