What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Kathryn Starke
Kathryn Starke
Professional development expert; M.A. in Literacy and Culture
Classroom full of students with their hands raised while teacher sits up front.

What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Inquiry-based learning is a form of learning based solely around questioning to seek knowledge. At times, inquiry-based learning is presented as a problem or scenario for students to solve. In all formats of the inquiry-based learning process, student exploration is at the forefront of the teaching and learning experience.

Inquiry-based learning takes place when students formulate questions, research answers to their posed questions, share their answers and new knowledge, and then reflect about the process. Rather than having the classroom teacher determine the topic or targeted questions of a unit of study, the students are given autonomy to determine the questions about the topic they want to further explore.

While there are several different types of inquiry-based learning, the result is the same. Students are using open-ended questions to direct their own learning based upon their own interests. They are making connections and deepening their learning. This kind of learning closely matches the belief of Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Inquiry-based learning allows students to truly understand content and increase comprehension.

What are the benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning?

This style of learning promotes a child’s curiosity and the opportunity for collaboration, which in turn increases student engagement. When students have ownership of their learning, their interest level increases, which certainly leads to higher comprehension skills. A deeper level of learning takes place in this style of learning. Instead of a traditional style of learning that often involves teacher talk, teacher-posed questions, student memorization, and student recall, students are planning and implementing their own learning. Teachers become a facilitator of learning. A true love of learning is evident through this process.

Inquiry-based learning is a powerful way to provide true differentiation for students. It also builds self-direction and independence. It nurtures students’ passions and hobbies. Inquiry-based learning greatly increases the motivation among learners of all ages.

Inquiry-based learning supports the 5 Cs in education: communication, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and citizenship. Making self-to-text, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections increases comprehension, another important “C” in reading. Through inquiry-based learning, students are making numerous connections when they are posing questions, researching information, answering questions, and sharing their knowledge with classmates. Recent studies have indicated that inquiry-based learning increases student achievement and levels the playing field for children from various backgrounds and cultures. When students are surveyed, they express how they prefer inquiry-based learning to traditional learning.

Inquiry-Based Learning Strategies to Implement in Your Classroom

Practice makes perfect, even in the implementation of inquiry-based learning. Students need to learn protocol and expectations of inquiry-based learning, especially if it’s a new style of the teaching and learning process.

A strategy that can be used to introduce and implement inquiry-based learning strategies is to turn a lesson into a problem or project-based learning experience. In problem-based learning, teachers present a driving question before beginning a unit of study. One of many inquiry-based learning examples before a citizenship unit could be: What would our school be like without rules?

Project-based learning can also be used as a unit of study, or rather a unit of exploration. Students can be given the opportunity to actually play and explore with pumpkins, magnets, or a classroom pet to learn about plant life cycles, magnetic materials, or animals. Students can create a list of questions they want to study and find out the answer to like: Why do pumpkins come in so many different sizes? How do you know if something is magnetic? or What do we need to take care of the hermit or hamster?

A learning strategy that supports questioning can be used to create a wonder wall. Students can write questions about a particular topic or their own interests on post-its that can be added to the wonder wall. The wonder wall can then be used to determine the next topic of study. Teachers should also create a classroom environment that supports all questions as valid and promotes asking great questions. Great questions are those that can lead to student research and can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.

School librarians are an asset when inquiry-based learning takes place. They can teach students how to select the best books or tools to research a topic. In addition to taking trips to the school library, another effective strategy is to use technology. Students can use a variety of student-friendly online research tools to gain information. They also can use a learning management system like Google Classroom to promote collaboration and communication through a question and response forum.

Teachers and students have the flexibility to create a learning environment that meet the needs of everyone in the class. Inquiry-based learning is an effective way to create a place where children enjoy finding the answers and sharing their knowledge with others.

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