What Inquiry Based Learning 100% is (and shockingly isn’t): Best Practices

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So many people come to me asking specifically what inquiry based learning is in layman’s terms. With so much educational terminology that gets thrown around anymore, it isn’t a surprise that teachers are confused with what is what….and what it all means for them and their students.

So with all this gray area, how do you define what inquiry based learning is?

What is inquiry based learning? Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a teaching method in which students explore topics of personal interest by posing questions and designing investigations. This approach encourages them to make connections between ideas, things, and processes. Inquiry-based learning is also known as problem-based learning or project-based learning.

Inquiry-based teaching has been described as ‘educating the heart, mind, and hands’.

During inquiry-based teaching students are encouraged to ask questions about topics of interest they have defined for themselves. The process of recording and responding to these questions leads to significant learning. Inquiry-based teaching helps students make sense of their world by encouraging them to pose their own research questions, collect the data needed for answering those questions, and interpret what they find.

It also requires that teachers set aside the role of expert – at least temporarily. Rather than supplying all the answers, teachers guide students as they work together to form questions and design investigations to answer those questions.

At the core of inquiry-based learning is a process by which student teams learn about topics that have captured their interest by posing their own research questions, gathering information from all available sources (both print and digital), forming ideas based on this information, and testing these ideas in the form of projects and reports.

Inquiry-based teaching can be implemented in any subject area and at any grade level, and that is the beauty of what inquiry based learning is in terms of implementing it in our classrooms.

question mark on chalkboard with question, "how to define inquiry-based learning"

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What Inquiry based learning is (as defined)

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a philosophy and approach to instruction that emphasizes student-generated investigations within the context of a specific topic or subject area. The instructor’s role in inquiry-based lessons is to guide and support students by posing questions, providing resources, and helping them make sense of their findings. The result is an engaging, student-driven classroom that has the power to engage all learners.

So what does it mean….to you? It means that instead of teaching a topic or skill by telling students how to do something, students need to discover for themselves how to do it. The scientific community has been using this style of learning since the early 1900s and we as educators can see why they choose this method of instruction:

In inquiry-based learning, the students design a study and record their findings. They make sense of what they learned by asking deeper questions about what they found. This is where true learning happens. The deeper understanding comes from questioning why or how things happened as they did.

This is a critical skill that students need to hone in school. They will use this skill time and again as they grow up. Many studies have shown that inquiry-based learning can be effectively used with all students. All students need to engage and make sense of information. This is true for special needs students as well and really helps define what it’s important to know what inquiry based learning is.

Some people think IBL means hands-off instruction, but it actually requires more from teachers than telling students what to do all the time. For example, if a student wants to learn about some animal that they saw on TV or online, as an instructor you need to help the students understand what they should be looking for when doing research. You can’t just let them go find information about an animal without directives or questions to guide their search.

That would defeat one of the main points of IBL which is to teach higher-level thinking skills by having students think critically and ask questions in order to make sense of what they are doing, hence what inquiry based learning is to our students.

What Inquiry Based Learning 100% is

Hands-On, Not Hands-Off

In inquiry-based learning, the students design a study and record their findings. They make sense of what they learned by asking deeper questions about what they found.”

This is where true learning happens. The deeper understanding comes from questioning why or how things happened as they did and is the epicenter of understanding what inquiry based learning is.

IBL is a huge shift from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning. Teachers need to be prepared for the change in not only their classroom management but their role in an IBL lesson. This is why schools are really exploring this style of teaching…because teachers need skills to get kids actively engaged and asking questions so that they can make sense of the information for themselves.

What does that mean in terms of what inquiry based learning is and how to implement it? It means that IBL is about giving students an opportunity to explore topics of interest without merely memorizing facts and figures along the way. Instead, students develop essential skills in creative thinking, higher-order thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication by asking questions and making discoveries through hands-on investigation.

But the big question is: How do we get started? First, it’s important to gather equipment and supplies that will be needed for the learning experience that you choose. Next, plan a lesson around your inquiry topic. You might want to follow these steps:

  • Gather information about your topic
  • Create questions based on your topic
  • Brainstorm materials and supplies needed for the project
  • Gather tools and equipment
  • Plan and prepare for each step of the process
  • Conduct your experiment
  • Record, document, and evaluate results
  • Ask deeper questions about what you learned. After all is said and done, ask yourself: What did I learn? How did I learn it? What can I do to ensure that next time I learn this topic, I will retain the information better?

Project-Based Learning

Looking at this other term, it is easy to see that “projects” are the focus of this model. What exactly does that look like, though? According to the Buck Institute for Education (if you don’t follow them, do yourself a favor and do so. They have some GREAT information on Project-Based Learning!), “Students work on a project over an extended period of time – from a week up to a semester – that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question.”

Getting the students to buy in is the biggest piece of having them LEARN and not just REGURGITATE. If they have something relatable that sparks their curiosity, they are more likely to take their learning to another level (without even realizing it…it’s a beautiful thing!).

The buy-in factor of project-based ‘earning sounds a whole lot like what inquiry based learning is, doesn’t it? That’s because according to Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s post on Edutopia, “Inquiry-based learning is more than asking a student what he or she wants to know. It’s about triggering curiosity. And activating a student’s curiosity is, I would argue, a far more important and complex goal than the objective of mere information delivery.

Nevertheless, despite its complexity, inquiry-based learning can be somehow easier on teachers, too. True, it’s seemingly easier because it transfers some responsibilities from teachers to students, but it’s really easier because releasing authority engages students.”

As I mentioned in my post here, student-led learning is putting the responsibility of learning on the student, and that is fully what inquiry based learning is.

The teacher is not the “sage on the stage” telling them exactly what they need to know and anticipating that the student spitting the information back to them is representative of actual learning. 

The teacher is the FACILITATOR. They are responsible for telling the students, “Look, here’s the concept that we are going to study…here are all the i’s that we need to dot and t’s that we need to cross via the curriculum and the standards….but how do YOU want to do that?

The Human Nature Behind IBL

This method works, pure and simple, because of human nature.

Think of your own interests. How many of us have lost the love or passion for something….or straight up just never gained interest….because we were forced to look at it from a specific perspective or it was presented in a way that just didn’t do it for us?

Now think about things that you are passionate about….SOMETHING sparked your interest at some point. It might have been because you stumbled upon it or maybe because it was presented to you in a way that made you want to learn or do more.

In a world where content is literally at our fingertips, shouldn’t we be presenting it to our students in a way that makes them want to dive in and THINK about it as opposed to merely having the ability to Google it or YouTube it and call it a day?

A GREAT book that looks into student engagement and how we can help as educators is Teach Like a Pirate (ad) by Dave Burgess (follow him on Twitter here. I promise you won’t be sorry! Also, check out the book on Amazon here (ad).

If you haven’t had an interaction with him before, you are in for a treat. He is probably one of the most passionate, awe-inspiring leaders in education that you will see in the field and definitely defines what inquiry based learning is. 

He has a series of books, but the explanation for Teach like a PIRATE says it all:

His book offers inspiration, practical techniques, and innovative ideas that will help you to increase student engagement, boost your creativity, and transform your life as an educator. You’ll learn how to: • Tap into and dramatically increase your passion as a teacher • Develop outrageously engaging lessons that draw students in like a magnet • Establish rapport and a sense of camaraderie in your classroom • Transform your class into a life-changing experience for your students This groundbreaking inspirational manifesto contains over 30 hooks specially designed to captivate your class and 170 brainstorming questions that will skyrocket your creativity. Once you learn the Teach Like a PIRATE system, you’ll never look at your role as an educator the same again.” 

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the book!!

If nothing else, looking at different avenues to help you define what inquiry based learning is and what it could look like in your own classroom is essential. It is easier to “show” what inquiry based learning is to your students by having them do it as opposed to just learn about the concept.

Understanding What Inquiry Based Learning in with the 4 Keys

Implementing what inquiry based learning is isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement. There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.

If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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