What Is Inquiry Based Learning?

Inquiry-based learning is learning that revolves around a question. It’s a teaching method that harnesses a child’s curiosity and encourages them to learn more because they want to, not because it will be on the test. 

“Inquiry-based learning is more than asking a student what he or she wants to know. It’s about triggering curiosity. And activating a student’s curiosity is, I would argue, a far more important and complex goal than the objective of mere information delivery.” 
What the Heck is Inquiry-Based Learning? Heather Wolpert-Gawron, 2016 Edutopia.

Main Objective: Create Hungry Minds!

The main objective for teachers using this method is quite simple: we aim to create hungry minds. We want our students to have an insatiable curiosity. Why? To equip our students for 21st-century success. We now live in what is referred to as the “age of complexity.” With rapid technological advancement and loads of never-ending information at our fingertips, people need to be able to handle complexity like never before. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are three psychological qualities that enhance our ability to handle complexity. Intellectual quotient (IQ), Emotional Quotient (EQ), and Curiosity Quotient (CQ). 

People with hungry minds have a high curiosity quotient. These people tend to be open-minded and are able to think flexibly. They are not stifled by ambiguity or changes in routine. They are more adaptable and more likely to have a growth mindset.

Developing 21st-Century Skills

Our students need to be equipped with 21st-century skills such as the following: 

Critical thinking: Analysis, problem-solving, investigation, and evaluation. Can they develop rules and solutions to help navigate this world?
Creativity: Innovation, exploration, design, and idea generation. Can they imagine and build their own world?
Collaboration: Cooperation, leadership, flexibility, responsive to feedback. Can they work together to function as members of each other’s imagined and designed world?
Communication: Listening, oral presentation, discussions, verbal & written. Can they discuss their actions and decisions and communicate their reasoning for these decisions?

If your students can walk out of your classroom as masters of all of the above, you will feel on top of the world! So how do you facilitate inquiry-based learning in your classroom?

Four Components of Inquiry-Based Learning

Spark Inquiry

To begin any IBL project, the teacher must first spark inquiry. Gently guide your students without telling them where they need to go. The teacher’s role is to ignite the curiosity that leads students through the process and NOT to provide them with explicit direction. 

After this “inquiry session” that you hold with your students, they should walk away with enough curiosity to propel them into the four main components of inquiry-based learning: Investigate, Create, Present, and Reflect. 

“Improve the Community” Inquiry-Based Learning Project by Markers and Minions

Investigate

Once students begin inquiring, the next step is for them to acquire information. This is entirely student-led. Students seek out answers to their guiding questions through research. They might use books, websites, newspaper articles, videos, interviews, etc. to discover information that leads them to a deeper understanding of their inquiry. 

However, it is important to understand the subtle differences between guiding inquiry and guiding research.

Do’s and Don’ts of Guiding Research

DO provide students with information to explore. Bring in books, preview websites, suggest video clips. 

DO NOT teach them how to navigate this information. Once you provide that scaffold and explicitly direct students, it becomes a research project and not an inquiry project. Kids are naturally curious, especially when they can make connections to what they know and their own personal lives. They will seek answers to their inquiries if they are curious enough.

Create

Students create a product that answers their questions, solves their problems, etc. Students will decide on their own how they want to convey the acquired information and knowledge. Some ideas for student-created products include video, artwork, writing, posters, experiments, or audio. 

In the photo example below, my students found a solution to the problem of homelessness in our community. Together, they decided to create “Survival Kits” to donate to the local temporary aid center.

inquiry based learning project where students discovered a solution to the homelessness problem

Present

Your students’ next step is to communicate what they’ve discovered with their peers. They get to decide how to share their new learning. Students may choose things like a role-play, gallery walk, digital presentation, or a performance.

inquiry based learning project where students ran as presidential candidates

Reflect

The goal of the reflection piece is not for students to reflect on their product. Oftentimes, this is where students like to explain how they made their videos, dioramas, posters, etc. 

Rather than focus on the product, this is the part of the process that instead promotes metacognition, or thinking about thinking. In other words, this is where students reflect on the process of inquiry and acquiring their new information. Use questions like these to guide your students: 

  • Why did you choose the sources you did when investigating?
  • What did you do when you came across information that was interesting? How did you feel?
  • What did you do when you found information that wasn’t useful to you? Did you ignore it and move on OR did it make you curious about something else?
  • How did you work together with others to find answers to your questions?

How Do We Measure Success?

Think back to your main objective, which is to create a hungry mind. How can students demonstrate that they’ve achieved this objective? Was their curiosity triggered? Was it strong enough to guide them through a quest of knowledge acquisition? 

Ask yourself the following questions when evaluating your lesson: 

  • To what extent was the student’s curiosity quotient developed?
  • Did the student think flexibly throughout the process?
  • How did they handle the freedom to investigate?
  • How intellectually invested were they?
  • How did they handle the information and knowledge (aka complexity) as it was presented to them?
  • Did they acquire new knowledge? To what extent?

Inquiry-Based Learning Projects Featured in This Post

If you teach Benchmark Advance and are wondering how on Earth you can find the time to fit in inquiry-based learning project ideas, check out this blog post.

Join me over in the Benchmark Advance Planning, Organization, and Tips Facebook group to share what you’re working on! 

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