What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?

What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?
The Editorial Team December 1, 2023

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Imagine a classroom where questions spark the journey of learning, where curiosity reigns supreme, and students become the architects of their own knowledge. How does inquiry-based learning transform education in this setting?

Inquiry-based learning is an unorthodox method in the typical classroom. This style actively engages students in every stage of the learning process. It works well across multiple subjects in increasingly diverse classrooms, and your students choose the topic to be covered. As the teacher, you assume the role of a guide or facilitator to student-led discussions, ensuring students remain on-task and aligned with the goal of the lesson.

The five guiding questions of inquiry are:

  1. What?
  2. So what?
  3. Now what?
  4. How?
  5. Why?

In a standard classroom, most instruction occurs in a passive format through lecture, videos, or workbook-style assignments. Your students are the receivers of the information presented, not collaborators. Assessment of their retention is through objective questioning and assignments.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Educational Resources (CER) supports devoting time to active learning projects as one way to get your students sharing information in your classroom. They publish a series called The Innovative Instructor, which explores ways to incorporate this teaching style into your instruction. In our ever-evolving knowledge-based society, the skills fostered and utilized through inquiry-based learning help cultivate independent thinkers and prepare students for success.

Benefits of inquiry-based learning

Students who are invited to engage in inquiry-based learning often become adept at critical thinking. Using this method in your classroom can be an effective way to cultivate independent thought and allow your students to take ownership of their path to learning.

More specifically, inquiry-based learning:

  • Promotes critical thinking: Students ask questions, analyze information, explore possible solutions, and assess information.
  • Improves comprehension: Exploration and discovery help students gain a deeper understanding as they connect a theory to real-world applications.
  • Enhances and encourages creativity: Nurtures natural curiosity, as no question is off-limits and students can explore all avenues of possibility.
  • Develops research skills: Includes information gathering, evaluation, and synthesis, which are valuable in both academic instruction and life beyond the classroom.
  • Allows for customized learning: Can be adapted to accommodate the diverse needs and learning styles of your students, making education more inclusive and personalized.
  • Prepares students for real-world challenges: Mirrors problem-solving in the real world, where individuals must seek answers, analyze information, and make informed decisions independently.
  • Strengthens communication skills: Students collaborate, discuss their findings, and present their results, improving their ability to articulate their thoughts effectively.
  • Fosters intrinsic motivation: Students have more autonomy in their learning, which develops a deeper interest in the subject.
  • Encourages lifelong learning: Empowers students to be self-directed, setting the stage for a lifelong commitment to education and personal growth.

This student-centered approach can take various forms, from small-scale classroom discussions to larger research projects. It can be used in science and social studies classes, along with literary discussions and civic responsibility. The key lies in you being willing to relinquish some control to allow your students to lead the discussion.

Students highly value instruction that partners them with their peers. They love the opportunity to become the expert and assume the role of the examiner who asks the questions, and motivated students almost always learn more.

How inquiry questioning compares to rote teaching

Inquiry questioning presents a contrasting style to the rote teaching method used in most classrooms today. The latter was developed to streamline the educational process and create a more efficient way to impart information. Unfortunately, it has also led to a lack of interest and engagement in the learning process and a reduction in the development of critical thinkers.

The inquiry-based questioning method:

  • Focuses on understanding: Students explore and analyze underlying concepts and principles rather than merely memorizing them.
  • Is student-centered: Places them as the lead, as the teacher acts as a facilitator, guiding students to ask questions along the way to discovering knowledge.
  • Involves open-ended questions: Encourages and celebrates exploration and critical thinking as students grasp the significance of the content being discussed.
  • Engages students: Actively participating in the learning process produces an eagerness to learn and allows students to take ownership of their education.
  • Customizes the approach: Accommodates diverse learning styles and interests and catering to individual differences.

Contrasting these features is the rote method of teaching, which:

  • Focuses on memorization: Dwells on being able to recite or recall facts and figures without understanding the context or relationships.
  • Is teacher-centered: The teacher is the primary source of information, and the students are the receivers.
  • Involves objective responses: Assessment typically focuses on multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests as measurements of comprehension.
  • Creates passive learning: Can be a more efficient use of time when covering a large amount of information quickly.
  • Rarely changes: Students all receive and process the same information delivered in the same manner for the purpose of memorization and retention.

The effectiveness of each method depends on the educational goals, subjects being taught, and learning preferences of the students, as well as your unique teaching style. There are five fundamental styles most teachers use, but as our world is changing, many are adjusting their approach.

The inquiry method vs. the Socratic method

One approach that has lasted hundreds of years is the Socratic method of instruction. In a lot of ways, inquiry-based learning shares a similar foundation to this method in terms of critical thinking and student engagement. However, they differ in approach and application.

Inquiry-based learningSocratic method
StructureQuestions, investigations, and collective discoveryDialectical dialogue between teachers and students
GoalProblem-solving and deeper understanding of conceptsPromoting self-discovery of knowledge
Teacher roleFacilitator and guideQuestioner
EngagementActive participation through investigations and explorationDynamic discussions and deep thoughts
ApplicationHands-on activities and research projectsPhilosophy, ethics and thoughtful discussions
FormatExperiments and problem-solvingDialogue and conversation
AdaptabilityHighly adaptable and applicable to multiple learning environmentsAssociated with philosophy and more suitable to specific disciplines
AssessmentPresentations and real-world solutionsQuality of reasoning

Inquiry-based learning is broader in scope and applicable to various subjects, while the Socratic method is more focused on philosophical and ethical discussions, employing a specific form of dialogue to stimulate intellectual exploration. 

Inquiry-based learning examples

Inquiry-based learning can take on various forms depending on the educational content and grade level of the students. Here are some inquiry-based teaching approaches and ideas for implementing this method:

  • Open-ended inquiry: A free-form approach often used in humanities and based on student interests.
  • Structured inquiry: Sequential in nature and ideal for scientific reasoning, mathematical solutions, and engineering.
  • Guided inquiry: Teacher-led with encouragement to help students develop their critical thinking skills. You typically find this approach at the elementary and middle school levels.

A few ideas for incorporating inquiry-based learning in your classroom might be:

  • Science experiments
  • Group work
  • Classroom debates
  • Literature discussions
  • Field trips
  • Art exploration
  • Research projects
  • Environment studies

Students can always do these activities individually, but you’ll achieve the greatest benefit from this method through collaboration and interaction. Encourage your students to engage with the world around them and employ their critical thinking skills. It might be a challenge at first, but with continued use, your students will become adept at thinking for themselves and coming to informed conclusions.

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