What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Inquiry-based learning is an approach to learning guided by students through questions, research, and/or curiosity.

An inquiry-based learning strategy is simply a way to facilitate inquiry during the learning process. It might be useful to think of ways to suppress inquiry to emphasize the strategies that might be used to promote it.

Years ago in the (tongue very much in cheek) 12 Ways To Kill A Learner’s Curiosity, I said that limiting choice, thinking in black and white, and focusing on answers instead of questions were just a few ways to stifle inquiry and curiosity.

In Strategies For Creating An Inquiry-Driven Classroom, TeachThought Professional Development facilitator Irena Nayfeld offered that “children want to understand the world around them, and naturally reveal their interests by asking questions – sometimes even too many questions! As educators, we may feel pressure to keep going with our intended lesson plan or to get to our ‘point.’”

So let’s take a look at how to promote inquiry-based learning in your classroom.

14 Ways To Promote Inquiry-Based Learning In The Classroom

1. Instructional design

One of the most powerful ways to promote inquiry learning in your classroom is to design activities, lessons, and units that benefit from, promote, or require inquiry. If there’s no ‘room’ or a ‘role’ for inquiry in your classroom, it will be difficult to ’cause’ in any sustainable way.

Good essential questions can be useful here, too.

2. Question-Based Learning

Question-based learning is a TeachThought framework for learning through the formation and revision of questions over the course of a specific period of time. You can read more about Question-Based Learning. This also can be combined with student-led or self-directed learning where students ask their own questions which, if done in an authentic (to the student) way should result in more sustainable inquiry as well.

Also, see questions to guide inquiry-based learning.

3. Inquiry-based rubrics and scoring guides

By defining and itemizing individual facets of inquiry and framing what it looks like at different levels of proficiency, students can be more clear exactly what you’re hoping to see them capable of and ‘doing’ as a result of the activity or lesson.

4. Model inquiry

This can be done in many ways, including dialogic conversation, Socratic Seminars, and think-alouds, among others.

5. Use question and statement stems

Sometimes students don’t know the mechanisms or patterns of inquiry and question and statement stems can act like training wheels to help get students moving in the direction of sustained, authentic inquiry. You can see some examples of sentence stems for higher-level discussion, for example.

6. Intentional Feedback Loops

Reward ‘Cognitive Stamina’ by encouraging students to ‘dwell’ on a topic or extend inquiry even when hitting dead-ends, the assignment is ‘over,’ or they’re not sure where to ‘go’ next. Consider some kind of ‘inquiry-driven grading’ where you adjust grading processes to accommodate this unique approach to learning.

The brain works through feedback loops. Roughly put, students do something and something happens in response. The tighter and more intentional the feedback loops are for the application of inquiry, the more likely it is to ‘stick.’

See also What’s a Feedback Loop In Learning?

7. Gamification

Reward points for great questions. Consider assigning more points for questions than answers. Provide ‘levels’ for students to progress through (based on points, for example). Reward curiosity with immediate positive feedback. (See #6 above.)

8. Reframe content

Math, science, social studies, language arts, and other traditional content areas are all overflowing with fascinating concepts, topics, histories, legacies, people, and so on. ‘Position’ content in a new way that is fresh, provocative, or even controversial (see below). Inquiry is more natural when ideas are interesting.

9. Controversy sells

‘Banned books’ or other (mild to moderate) controversies can go a long way in sustaining student engagement–which sets up the stage for inquiry.

10. Clarify the role of mindset in inquiry

This can be done in part by clarifying the value of mistakes and uncertainty in the learning process.

11. Use ‘smart’ learning spaces

Design physical learning spaces to promote interaction, access to digital and physical media, and spontaneous collaboration. Artfully design spaces with color, light, and furniture, etc.

12. Leverage interdisciplinary learning

Work with teachers across content areas and grade levels to increase interdependence and ‘gravity’ of student work

13. The power of ‘place’

Connect students with experts and local organizations to embed work in places native to that student. This is obviously more complex than can be explained as a line item in a single post but just imagine the role of ‘setting’–how much more at ease and natural and connected students are in places native to them–communities or homes or neighborhoods or streets or cities they care about and have a history with that is inseparable from the student.

14. Emphasize humility

You can read more about this idea from a separate post I wrote on learning through humility.

*previously published at TeachThought.com

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