3 Questions To Guide Effective Inquiry Based Learning
by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education
The debate over the efficacy of inquiry based learning has been the subject of several blog pieces and podcasts here on ThoughtStretchers Education and even more similar such content outside of our figurative walls. While we are certainly advocates of inquiry teaching and learning we always want to follow the evidence and engage in best practice with our professional development work and advocacy.
A recent meta-analysis by previous podcast guest (before our name change), Ard Lazonder shares compelling evidence that underscores the pivotal role of guidance in ensuring the success of this pedagogical approach. I’ll unpack the key findings of the meta-analysis and explore the implications for teachers seeking to implement effective inquiry-based teaching practices, including 3 key questions to help determine whether inquiry based learning is a good fit and, if so, what levels of guidance to provide.
Lazonder’s meta-analysis reveals that guidance is a crucial element for the success of inquiry-based learning. Students provided with some form of guidance exhibit enhanced skill proficiency during tasks, greater success in obtaining topical information, and higher scores on post-inquiry tests evaluating learning outcomes. Remarkably, the effectiveness of guidance transcends age groups, benefiting children, teenagers, and adolescents alike.
The findings of this study have significant implications for educators looking to incorporate inquiry-based learning into their teaching repertoire. The central recommendation is clear: guidance should be an integral part of the learning process. Whether it is a short-term inquiry within a single lesson or a more extensive project spanning multiple lessons, the provision of guidance is essential for student success.
Interestingly, the study suggests that the specificity of guidance does not dictate its effectiveness. While more specific guidance tends to boost performance, both specific and nonspecific guidance contribute equally to improved learning activities and outcomes. This revelation empowers teachers to create guided learning environments that balance freedom for exploration with the necessary support for students to navigate inquiry successfully.
Addressing the question of age-related differences, the study finds no consistent evidence, allowing teachers to base their choice of guidance on factors such as students’ topical knowledge, familiarity with inquiry skills, and the teacher–student ratio.
Reassessing Minimally Guided Approaches:
The meta-analysis also sheds light on minimally guided instructional approaches, challenging the assumption that more specific guidance necessarily leads to greater learning. The study suggests that ‘strong guidance’ does not equate to ‘specific guidance,’ opening avenues for alternative dimensions like frequency and duration of guidance to be explored in future research.
Three Guiding Questions for Teachers:
To assist teachers in navigating the use of inquiry-based teaching, the study proposes a set of guiding questions:
1. Is the lesson content suitable for inquiry?
If your goal is for students to acquire surface knowledge other instructional methods such more closely aligned with direct instruction are generally more effective. But if you’re looking to move students to deeper learning, inquiry-based learning can be an effective approach.
2. How much inquiry experience do my students have?
Assess the prior academic experience of your students to determine where they are in their inquiry-based learning journey and consider how much guidance they will need.
3. What is the ultimate goal of my lesson?
I see this as aligned with Hattie’s idea of teaching with intent. What you want your students to learn should help determine your instructional approach. Noting the cognitive complexity of the tasks and student work along with the prior academic achievement of those students are important steps in determining the effective level of guidance.
Many criticisms leveled at inquiry based learning are founded in the lack of guidance, often conflating ‘inquiry’ with unguided discovery learning. Lazonder’s meta-analysis emphasizes the indispensable role of guidance in fostering successful inquiry-based learning.
Teachers are encouraged to carefully consider the nature of their lessons, the experience level of their students, and the desired learning outcomes when implementing this pedagogical approach. By doing so, educators can create enriching and effective learning environments that harness the benefits of inquiry based learning while providing the necessary support for student success.
Lazonder, A. W., & Harmsen, R. (2016). Meta-Analysis of Inquiry-Based Learning: Effects of Guidance. Review of Educational Research, 86(3), 681-718. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315627366