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In our quest as educators to prepare our kids to enter the world to thrive and succeed, we constantly strive to empower them with the best aptitudes for doing so in a rapidly-changing world.
These are the abilities of independent and critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, and the drive to learn anywhere at anytime. Ultimately, few instructional methods accomplish this quite like inquiry-based learning.
The inquiry-based learning approach to teaching creates an integrated and student-led learning journey. Instead of presenting information to students, the teacher allows students to explore materials on their own. Traditional teaching methods are often one way in that the teacher relays needed information, students take notes and follow along.
With inquiry-based learning, the student learns by doing; curiosity and exploration often lead to better comprehension and understanding of materials.
Where Do We See Inquiry-Based Learning?
Since we retain and remember far more of the things we do or participate in than things we simply read about or are told about, inquiry-based learning can help students fully understand and comprehend a topic.
Used in STEM learning environments, inquiry-based learning means offering the tools for measurement, experimentation and more at the students’ disposal, and allowing them to discover for themselves how things work.
The inquiry-based learning approach to teaching creates an integrated and student-led learning journey.
In an art environment, materials and supplies for a particular medium can be provided and explored. For most students, this process triggers curiosity and questions, and they are far more likely to retain the answers and details when they are actively engaged in hands on learning.
Truthfully, aside from these examples, inquiry learning knows no boundaries. It can be employed anytime and in any classroom or other educational setting to provide students with authentic learning experiences based on connection and relevance to their interests and abilities.
Because of its inherently exploratory nature, it tends to bring out the best in our students and their abilities, and allows them to take responsibility for learning and thus make it meaningful.
Benefits of Inquiry Based Learning
As we continue to explore inquiry-based learning in our classrooms, it's important to consider why it deserves an honoured place in teaching practice. Here are just a few of its immeasurable benefits to both teachers and students.
- Enhances critical thinking skills: While inquiry-based learning can be used to help students learn about a specific topic or retain information in a specific situation, it also builds important skills that can benefit the learner on an ongoing basis. Cultivating skills that will be used later in life for school or work provides the students with a solid foundation and a huge boost in college and career ready skills.
- Makes learning more interesting: Both teacher and students benefit when a more entertaining and more interesting approach is used. For teachers, the feeling of success that comes from knowing your kids truly "got" the concept or lesson just can't be beat. When kids are actively engaged and interested, they will retain more, perform better and have better outcomes. For kids, the inquiry learning style keeps things interesting and allows those students who are more hands-on kinaesthetic learners to shine.
- Encourages curiosity: Inquiry-based learning depends on curiosity to work; encouraging this valuable and often overlooked quality in your learners can lead to success in other areas. A curious student is an engaged student and one who will actively seek out information beyond what is provided in book form or as a lecture. Curiosity can trigger a love of learning and enhance social & emotional learning as well.
- Empowers students: When you provide materials to explore and trigger curiosity, you empower your students to discover details they would otherwise miss. This also ensures that they take a proactive approach to learning without limitation. Inquiry-based learning can help a child who may struggle with attending to a book or lecture truly comprehend and experience materials in a whole new way. This in turn can foster confidence in other areas and with other forms of study and information.
- Enhances comprehension: Even your best students may simply be memorizing key vocabulary, facts and dates, but not fully comprehending the scope of what you are teaching. When you read about an experiment that features a chemical reaction, you can likely remember that "baking soda and vinegar cause a reaction" particularly if you already have good conventional study skills. Having access to baking soda and vinegar and a place to combine them—and then witnessing the bubbly, explosive reaction is far different and most students will remember that impressive chemical reaction far longer than they will remember the written explanation. Even better, experimenting in a hands on way triggers questions: "What else does baking soda react with?", "How much vinegar does it take to react?" and "Does baking soda react the same way with water?". These queries lead to a more in depth understanding of the topics and enhance both comprehension and retention.
The process begins with curiosity; when you can activate a student’s interest and curiosity in a particular subject, you’ll see real engagement and mastery of the topic at hand. Knowing that inquiry-based learning benefits any learning style is a start, but how can you integrate this empowering method in your own classroom?
Simply asking “what do you want to know?” is not enough; some students won’t respond or care, while others may already feel familiar with the material. Instead, offer something new. Bring in items to explore, without telling what they are or how they relate to the topic at hand. Simply placing these items in an accessible place and allowing exploration can trigger questions.
The process begins with curiosity; when you can activate a student’s interest and curiosity in a particular subject, you’ll see real engagement and mastery of the topic at hand.
Allow exploration; give students time to discover on their own and you’ll find that the questions and curiosity begin flowing. You can present objects and topics as a starting point and then give students the chance to explore them.
A social studies class can feature old tools we no longer use today (or images of those tools) and allow students to speculate on the items’ purpose. Is it a tool for preparing food, shoeing horses or building a piece of furniture? Students can examine the image or object for clues from the material, surface, shape and more. This turns a lesson on pioneer life into a memorable event and ensures the information is retained.
Encourage involvement, too. For example, instead of showing how to handle clay or make a mosaic in the art classroom, hand out the materials when you begin the lesson. Reading about how Romans used mosaic in architecture may entertain and engage a select few students, but handing out the safety glasses and heading out to safely smash up some pottery and tiles together will secure everyone’s attention and involvement.
The Inquiry-Based Learning Process
Not every lesson needs to be a hands-on extravaganza, but following the general process below will help you integrate the inquiry based approach into your own classroom:
- Have students develop a query or question they want to answer. Open ended questions that invite exploration are best. "What happens when…?” or “how does this item work?” or “why does this happen” are all good starting points.
- Be on hand to guide research and answer questions, but don’t do the work for them. Allowing plenty of classroom time for exploration and being there to expand on any key points allows the students to see you as a trusted resource as they uncover details on their own.
- Have students present findings. If you’ve broken the group down into smaller parts to work, then each team can present their findings to the group. This further enhances understanding and supports critical presentation skills used later in life.
- Follow up and give students time to discuss what worked and what didn’t, also called the debriefing phase in Solution Fluency. What were they surprised to learn, and what preconceived notions did they have to abandon as they researched? This approach not only solidifies the information gained in the process, but it gets students thinking about how research works and where any preconceived ideas fit into the learning process.
Embracing your own curiosity and interest in a subject can naturally trigger your students' interest as well. Integrating inquiry-based learning into your own classroom may be as simple as presenting tangible items for exploration and then being on hand to answer questions as they pop up.
No matter how you do it, capturing that natural interest and curiosity can turn your reluctant learners into students that are hungry for information and details, and result in better experiences and outcomes for all.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Apr 4, 2019, updated October 18, 2021