Inquiry-based learning is a teaching and learning process by which students acquire knowledge through high-level questioning regarding a topic or specific matter. It may seem a pretty simple process, but the reality is that infusing curiosity and encouraging young people to discover knowledge on their own is not an easy task for teachers.
Inquiry-based learning can be challenging to manage if teachers don’t have the right training and the skills to facilitate self-directed learning. But if they do, inquiry-based learning will allow students to actively explore real-world problems and challenges, connect their learning to the real world, develop critical thinking skills, and significantly increase knowledge retention.
The authors of the book Make Just One Change, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana (2011) argue that formulating one’s own questions is “the single most essential skill for learning” and a way to raise their curiosity and enthusiasm for learning process.
Empowering students to take responsibility for their own learning involves giving them control over the learning process, which increases motivation and engagement.
The inquiry-based learning approach can be implemented at all levels of learning. Here are a few examples of inquiry-based learning at BFIS.
Science Grade 4
Teacher: Tracy Climent-Abramson
One of the questions students try to investigate is How do plants stay alive? They do a plant dissection and use the See, Think, and Wonder routine from Harvard Project Zero to form conjectures about how these structures functioned to help the plant stay alive.
Then they conducted experiments to test their hypothesis, and published them as a claim, evidence, and reason posters. The See, Think and Wonder routine encourages students to make careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. It helps stimulate curiosity and sets the stage for inquiry.
After this unit students focused on How animals stay alive. They researched biomes to understand different habitats and focused on the internal and external structures of animals to show how they adapt to their specific environments
Social Studies Grade 8
Teacher: Michelle Schuller
Guided Inquiry: Grade 8 students had to investigate the Laws of the Indies as well as the impact Christopher Columbus, Francisco Pizarro, or Hernan Cortes had on Native Americans. Students then had to create a list of witnesses and questions to ask to prove the explorer’s guilt or innocence in a mock trial.
Open Inquiry: 8th graders have been able to enquire into the social and economic impacts of colonization through their own inquiries. In these two separate tasks, students created open-ended questions that they were curious about and used research skills to investigate and record the answers in a process journal. In the end, students presented the results of their inquiries through “proof of understanding” products of their choice. At the end of each inquiry, students were able to learn from their peers in a gallery walk activity.
Grade 8 Science
Teacher: Julia Halverson
In grade 8 science, students engineer small vehicles as a culminating project for their unit of study on energy and forces. They are tasked with designing and building a gravity-powered vehicle with safety mechanisms to protect a raw egg from breaking when the vehicle rolls down a ramp and crashes into a wall.
They follow the engineering design process throughout the project, which is inquiry-based by nature. First, students do research and planning to develop their initial prototypes. They then test and modify their vehicles many times until they reach their final design solution.
Along the way, they grapple with questions such as:
- How will making my car lighter or heavier affect its motion and success?
- Why is the material of the wheels so important for gaining traction on the ramp, and what types of materials have the most traction?
- How can I use friction to minimize the force with which my vehicle hits the wall?
Over several weeks of hands-on inquiry and research, students deepen their understanding of energy conversions, forces, and Newton’s Laws of Motion
Grades 6, 7 and 8 English
Teacher: Andrea Cranshaw
Reading and Writing Workshops are centered on inquiry. When students are in a reading unit, they are always asking themselves, “What do we notice about… characters, setting, motifs, and theme?” They model this thinking in their mini-lessons and then make their thinking visible in their notebooks.
For writing, before they start a unit, they do an inquiry lesson with exemplar writing and ask, “What did this writer do to… (create a strong essay, create a compelling narrative)?” and then chart the characteristics they notice. This allows students to really see the kind of writing they will be producing by the end of the unit, in addition to identifying the success criteria in strong writing pieces.
Based on their own observations, in addition to student and parent feedback, the teacher recently has been developing some new grammar and word study (spelling) lessons, both using inquiry as the approach to learning.
Last year, she suggested Patterns of Power by Jeff Anderson, Melinda Clark, and Travis Leech as an approach to teaching grammar through inquiry. Each lesson focuses on a mentor passage taken from published literature, students examine those passages by asking,
- “What do we notice?”
- “What’s similar and different?”
- “Can I imitate what the writer did?” and
- “How can I apply this in my writing?”
“What I really love about using an Inquiry-Based Approach to Learning is the excitement and energy in the room while we are exploring our ideas. Students are more engaged in authentic thinking and learning, and end up producing some pretty amazing work as a result.” Ms. Andrea Cranshaw
Grade 12 English
Teacher: Kelly Zavotka
This example belongs to Socratic seminars in IB English class. Students prepare for their inquiry-based discussions by contributing their own essential questions to a shared document. In groups of four or five, they record 45-minute to hour-long discussions of a literary work based on these student-generated questions.
The focus is not only on building literary analysis skills and supporting their ideas with specific evidence from the book but also on constructing meaning together by exploring open-ended questions they generated in their notes while reading.
Here below there are some examples of students’ questions:
- How is the main character’s behavior a manifestation of his self-image, both literally and figuratively?
- How does the author use the X character in the novel and his attributes to comment on the relationship between son and father, as well as the assumed role of men in society?
- How is the weather used to represent the emotional state of the main character’s family?
- Is the violence of the father in the novel a representation of how the author’s father was in real life?
Inquiry Based-Learning Benefits for Students
Inquiry-based learning has several benefits for students including:
- Active engagement: Students take an active role in their own learning
- Encourages critical thinking: by asking questions and looking for answers students need to seek information, analyze it, synthesize their findings, and make connections which helps them develop their critical thinking and leads to a deeper understanding of the subject.
- Encourages creativity: Inquiry-based learning often involves trying new ideas and approaches, which can lead to creative solutions
- Fosters risk-taking: Inquiry-based learning provides a safe environment where students can take risks and experiment with new ideas and fail forward. This also helps to develop their confidence.
- Encourages collaboration and teamwork, which can lead to the exchange of new ideas and perspectives.
- Connects learning to the real world. Students explore real-world topics and problems and see the relevance and importance of what they are learning, making it more meaningful and memorable.
- Develops problem-solving skills: Inquiry-based learning requires students to find solutions to complex problems, which helps develop problem-solving skills and encourages creative thinking.
- Prepares students for the future: Inquiry-based learning helps students develop the skills they will need in their future careers, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective communication.