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ThoughtStretchers Education Podcast

3 Keys To Make Inquiry Based Learning Effective

May 7, 2024 | Inquiry

3 Keys To Make Inquiry Based Learning Effective

by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education

Effective teaching leads to effective learning and I don’t know of an educator who doesn’t share that outcome as a goal. Some educators advocate and evangelize for a narrow view of instruction and desired academic outcomes but evidence shows that a more thoughtful approach, including direct and explicit instruction, inquiry exercises, and collaborative activities is essential. At ThoughtStretchers, we’re advocates for inquiry and believe in its power. Here are a few important considerations to help you make inquiry based learning effective.

It is worth acknowledging a criticism of what some call progressive education, inquiry teaching and learning, or some sort of constructivism. That criticism is that it can be light on knowledge building and even, in some cases, avoid anything that resembles direct or explicit instruction. Evangelists of direct and explicit instruction often conflate unguided discovery learning with inquiry-based learning. Using that, they cite evidence that it isn’t effective teaching but that shouldn’t keep us from being thoughtful about the role of teacher guidance and the importance of building knowledge as we design and deliver instruction.

Teaching With Intent

The phrase educational researcher John Hattie uses, teaching with intent, is useful here. We must understand which parts of our desired academic outcomes are surface, deep, or transfer learning to align our scaffolding and assessment accordingly. While both traditional and progressive education evangelists might claim that their preferred instructional approach is best and the ‘other’ approach should not be employed, we should view it as a “yes, and…”, rejecting that false binary. The evidence shows that direct or explicit instruction is efficient in building surface knowledge and that inquiry exercises and collaborative activities are essential in extending that surface knowledge to deep and transfer learning.

The major reason for introducing the notion of intent to teach is to avoid these claims about one teaching method vs. another (e.g., explicit vs. unguided, DI vs. PBL). Instead, it highlights the importance of choosing a method that is intentionally aligned with the success criteria of a lesson.

– John Hattie

Intentional and Intuitive Inquiry

A distinction we make in our inquiry workshops and professional learning is intentional and intuitive inquiry. Intentional inquiry includes all of the ways a teacher designs instruction to include inquiry activities and the ways in which student engagement with inquiry is deliberately planned for. Examples might include planning a Socratic Seminar or Question Formulation Technique as part of a lesson or unit, or perhaps a project-based learning experience.

Intuitive inquiry refers to how a teacher uses inquiry to engage with students in the moment, unplanned but responsive. I sometimes refer to this as the art of teaching because it’s an artist-like leveraging of teachers using their perception to determine whether to respond with a question, more information, more time to reflect and think, or other moves based on what they think will push that student’s thinking forward. Another example of this is the use of facilitative questions like “What makes you say that?” to help make student thinking visible.

For a deep dive conversation into the evidence for direct instruction and inquiry and more listen to this podcast conversation I had with teacher, researcher, and writer Dylan Wiliam.

Listen on Apple Podcasts: Sorting The Evidence For Direct Instruction And Inquiry

Differentiating Inquiry

Knowing when to use inquiry in your teaching should not only be guided by the academic outcomes noted above. It is important to consider the cognitive complexity of tasks and prior academic achievement in aligning our scaffolding and assessment. Part of that is determining the prior experience of our students with inquiry to help us determine what level of autonomy they can handle. If students have little experience with inquiry exercises they’ll need more guidance and support and conversely, students who have engaged in inquiry learning before will likely require less.

Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient in preparing students for the modern world. Students should leave school with important knowledge and understandings but an inability to problem-solve and think critically will leave them ill-prepared for the challenges they will encounter. Effective teaching includes elements of direct and explicit instruction as well as inquiry exercises and collaborative activities. It’s this balance of teaching and learning, aligned to desired academic outcomes, that our students need and deserve.

 

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