Inquiry-Based Learning in the Classroom

What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

The definition of inquiry-based learning (IBL) is that it starts from a place of questioning. Students may spontaneously ask questions or be prompted to ask questions about a particular topic. They might research to find answers, engage in activities that will help them pursue answers, or work collaboratively in pursuit of answers; regardless, all learning stems from these questions. By engaging in inquiry-based learning, students come to understand that they can take responsibility for their learning.

What are the benefits of inquiry-based learning vs. project-based learning? The truth is, these systems and conceptual frameworks do overlap, but inquiry-based learning always follows from students' questions as the main motivation to investigate new material or acquire new skills. Inquiry-based learning can be especially motivating for students who do not respond well to top-down instructional models.

Inquiry-Based Learning Examples

A lot of thought and work goes into designing inquiry-based learning investigations. For instance, a teacher might ensure that students can access strong research materials to answer their questions, as well as activities like dramatizations, presentations, and role plays that help them unearth new materials.

Possibly the most natural place to find IBL strategies happening is in the science department. Many examples of inquiry-based learning come in the context of an inquiry- based learning science environment where students are likely to start by listing a series of questions about the topic at hand. They continue by engaging in inquiry-based learning activities like experiments and close observation that help them answer questions.

Inquiry-based learning in mathematics can also be quite motivating for students, as they come to understand that even the most abstract seeming mathematical ideas can be applied to solve authentic questions they might have. For example, students might start by asking questions about the most efficient way to figure out how much candy they need for Halloween. In pursuit of answering such a question, students will have to think algebraically, numerically, and probably collaboratively as well.

Because inquiry stems from students' real, concrete questions, inquiry-based learning can be an important bridge into using authentic learning standards in the classroom.

Inquiry-Based Learning Lesson Plans

There is no one right way to write an inquiry-based lesson plan, yet there are proven strategies for promoting inquiry skills that are helpful to consider.

When lesson planning, start by defining the desired outcome of your lesson. Then, think about what kinds of materials you will need to provoke your students to ask meaningful questions. This might mean using a K-W-L chart, having students do a short reading or watch a video as a prompt, taking students on a trip, or involving them in an observation activity. Next, make time and space to chart and otherwise document any questions the students come up with.

A second or third lesson will involve getting students into research or work groups to determine the relevant answers. Often, inquiry-based learning will also perpetuate itself by leading to another new set of questions. Inquiry-based learning lessons can be different from other lessons in that they do not necessarily have a strong endpoint. You are teaching students that inquiry is an ongoing and iterative process, and that there are always more questions to ask in the world.

The Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning

There are many benefits to inquiry-based learning, including:

  • Students in an inquiry-based environment know that their voices matter and that their curiosity is important to their teacher. Their questions go a long way toward guiding the curriculum!
  • Because inquiry-based learning starts with questions, students are often very authentically motivated to learn. Since they are driving the learning, they are studying the things they care and wonder about the most; they will also acquire many other skills along the way.
  • Inquiry-based learning is easy to differentiate because it is accessible to students at a wide range of levels. All students have questions, and it is important to help students find appropriate materials to answer their questions.
  • An inquiry-based classroom environment is also very inclusive because everyone is able to access learning through the questions they are asking.

Taking part in inquiry-based learning means learning how to learn - how to formulate insightful questions and go about pursuing answers to them.

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