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Inquiry-Based Learning: What It Looks Like in a Classroom Setting

by Model Teaching | June 3rd, 2019.

Have you heard of inquiry-based learning, but weren’t really sure what it entailed? Have you tried to implement it in your classroom, but not sure if you’re hitting the mark? Read on to find out the difference between true inquiry and flawed inquiry.

As a teacher, you are most likely familiar with a KWL chart that depicts what students KNOW (K), what they WANT to know (W), and then eventually, what they LEARN (L). Inquiry-based learning focuses on the “want to know” portion of a KWL chart. However, true inquiry involves a student seeking the answers themselves, as opposed to a teacher simply providing the information through lecture and direct teaching. Here, we will examine what components make up true inquiry-based learning, as well as what flawed inquiry might look like for the sake of comparison.

Inquiry Based Learning

Flow of Knowledge

In a true inquiry lesson, there is a back and forth flow of knowledge between the teacher and students. It begins when the teacher poses an idea or concept and then asks targeted questions. This leads to students sharing their ideas and asking additional questions. Next, the teacher responds with additional thought-provoking questions that encourage students to investigate on their own and analyze their findings. And finally, students build on their knowledge and defend new explanations and understandings based on evidence they collect through their investigations.

On the other hand, if inquiry is not the focus of a lesson, the flow of knowledge tends to be one-directional, as the teacher poses an idea or concept and asks specific questions. The teacher then provides direct resources or learning activities from which the answers to the questions can be found. Students complete the activity or research with specific guidance from the teacher, and then present the answer to the question. This gives them little or no opportunity for higher level thinking.

Teacher as a Facilitator

With real inquiry, teachers are facilitators, as opposed to just a teacher imparting information. As a facilitator, they prompt student questioning and idea sharing with purposeful questions, ensure that students have access to the resources as they determine what they need, and set clear expectations for student behavior. Most importantly, students are held accountable for their own actions.

If a teacher is simply acting as a teacher, they may only lecture and they rarely encourage communication and questioning. Most likely, they provide limited resources such as books or websites, and they strictly monitor and micromanage student behavior. As you can imagine, this type of environment is not very conducive to feelings of student ownership. Students have no sense of ownership when they have no choice in how to investigate a problem. And if students are working independently and have no one depending on them, they don’t have much incentive to perform beyond minimum expectations.

Benefits of Inquiry

One benefits of true inquiry is a genuine feeling of student ownership as students are given meaningful tasks that are engaging and challenging. Additionally, student accountability increases when students are part of a cooperative group and have others depending on them.

A sense of ownership and accountability aren’t the only benefits to inquiry-based learning. Students’ natural curiosity is peaked in true inquiry as they explore a concept and ask their own questions to further understand what they are learning. Also, students are encouraged to think outside the box and creatively test their theories. Through this hands-on learning, students learn valuable 21st century skills such as creativity, collaboration, perseverance, and problem solving. The authentic work they do is representative of what adults do in the real world, and they become familiar with the adult thinking process of analyzing an idea, breaking it into manageable parts, and seeking comprehension of each part to build a conceptual understanding.

If students are only exposed to “sit and get” learning, they have no opportunity to practice 21st century skills, their work has not authentic purpose, and they are typically limited to rote knowledge and comprehension questions, instead of working on higher order thinking skills.

Classroom Practice

So what does this look like in a classroom? With true inquiry, students ask and answer questions that increase in rigor as their investigation progresses. Eventually, these include upper level Bloom’s Taxonomy questions such as synthesis and evaluation. In addition to books and online resources, students consult experts or conduct their own investigations, and use these resources to explore their ideas. They work on activities from levels 2 through 4 of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge which include Working with Skills and Concepts, Short-Term Strategic Thinking, and Extended Strategic Thinking. Best of all, students practice their critical thinking by planning their own investigations using the experimental design process. Furthermore, throughout the inquiry process, students must communicate their needs and offer progress updates. When they are ready to share their findings, they may present them in a wide variety of ways including verbally, in writing, or through a media presentation.

In contrast, if inquiry is not being practiced, student questions are limited to basic knowledge and comprehension, while activities are limited to level one in Webb’s Depth of Knowledge which is recall and reproduction. In other words, students complete tasks and activities by simply following step-by-step instructions, with little to no higher-level thinking. Their research is limited to books and online sources, and they use those only based on a specific plan developed by the teacher. When students are ready to share their work, their communication is limited to basic written work, multiple choice tests, or possibly short answer questions from the teacher.

When practiced regularly and with fidelity, inquiry benefits all learners by giving them the opportunity to synthesize their learning themselves. This article was meant to serve as an overview of what authentic inquiry-based learning consists of. With the information here, you can determine if your teaching practice aligns with these basic principles. As an additional resource, the information from this article has been compiled in an infographic, available for download below.

Use this infographic as a checklist to help you determine if you are implementing authentic Inquiry Based Learning, or if you need to adapt your plans.

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Inquiry Based Learning Infographic

Inquiry Based Learning: Can You Identify What True Inquiry Looks Like?

This infographic will help readers distinguish between true Inquiry Based Learning and flawed Inquiry Based Learning.

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  • Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Guide – This resource outlines the four levels of complexity for classroom activities. http://www.aps.edu/sapr/documents/resources/Webbs_DOK_Guide.pdf
  • Video: Inquiry-Based Learning: From Teacher-Guided to Student-Driven – This video shows inquiry learning in action in an elementary school classroom.
  • Video: STUDENTS AT THE CENTER: Inquiry-Based Learning at Pittsfield Middle High School – This video shows how inquiry learning works in a high school classroom. This particular examples is a literature class, and includes feedback from the students, as well as teachers.
  • Blog Article: Inquiry-Based Learning: The Power of Asking the Right Questions – This blog article, written by a 4th grade teacher, focuses on the importance of questions and ties into section 5 of this course. It includes a student-created mind map with questions the student has about the given topic.
  • Phases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle – This article discusses five phases of an inquiry cycle: Orientation, Conceptualization, Investigation, Conclusion, and Discussion.
  • Case Studies of an Inquiry-Based Science Programs’ Impact on Students’ Attitude towards Science and Interest in Science Careers – This study examines the relationship between inquiry based learning and students’ attitudes towards science, and finds a positive correlation.
  • Three Case Studies of Three High School Teachers’ Definitions, Beliefs, and Implementation Practices of Inquiry-based Science Method Including Barriers To and Facilitators of Successful Implementation – This case study gives a detailed looks at three high school science teachers using an inquiry model of teaching. Conclusions include that inquiry based learning leads to greater retention of knowledge and is even successful with lower level students as they appreciate the freedom and flexibility to take risks. This study also acknowledges potential barriers and challenges to implementing inquiry based learning.
  • Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) – This article argues that the scaffolding provided through inquiry learning is a help, and not a hindrance, to student learning. Scaffolding reduces cognitive load and allows students to learn more complex material than they could without scaffolding.
  • Inquiry-Based Instruction in the Social Studies: Successes and Challenges – This dissertation is focused on teacher perceptions of inquiry based learning in the social studies. Throughout the study, many teachers gained a more positive perception of, and increased, their inquiry-based instruction.
  • Changing practice in teacher education through inquiry-based learning – This case study examines student teacher education, and finds that when exposed to inquiry based learning, they developed a clear understanding of the benefits of this method of instruction. It addresses how this method challenges traditional teaching methods and acknowledges that there may be differences and tension between newly educated teachers and veteran educators.
  • Inquiry‐based science in the middle grades: Assessment of learning in urban systemic reform – This study follows 8,000 students over three years that are part of a district-wide reform of science education. With new inquiry based curriculum developed by district staff and staff from the University of Michigan, students demonstrated statistically significant gains in test scores for each year of participation in the program.
  • The effects of inquiry-based learning on elementary students’ conceptual understanding of matter, scientific process skills and science attitudes – This eight-week long study examined a group of 5th grade students who received science teaching intervention based on inquiry based learning principles. The study concluded that while the program did have a positive impact on their scientific process skills as well as their conceptual understandings of scientific content, it did not necessarily impact their attitudes about science.

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