What is inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning in action

Inquiry-based learning comes under the umbrella of inductive learning. It all begins with a challenge. Learners are faced with a question or a problem, which must be solved through investigation and research. As with all inductive learning, the idea is that content is learned and skills are developed in the process of responding to this initial challenge.

This approach promotes learner autonomy. However, it’s essential that the teacher (or facilitator) provides the appropriate level of support, especially in primary education.

In fact, this is one of the ways inquiry-based learning differs from discovery learning, which has received academic criticism for its lack of guidance.

Why use this approach?

In many traditional educational contexts, students have a passive role. They are introduced to a topic, presented with information, given activities to complete and finally, they’re tested on what they have learned.

Inquiry-based learning disrupts this model; the learners become active participants and experience many advantages including better performance in exams, deeper learning and engagement, as well as development of higher-level thinking as a result.

Although the teacher may have varying degrees of control over the research topic, learning is driven by students and their innate curiosity. They learn to set their own goals and take ownership of the outcomes of their research.

This approach is used to teach a range of subjects and is well supported by research. It goes beyond rote memory learning and promotes deeper understanding of processes and concepts.

As well as acquiring knowledge of different subjects, students have an opportunity to develop other transferable skills related to problem-solving and resilience.

What are the different levels?

The level of inquiry you choose to implement in the classroom will depend on a number of factors. The age of your students is an important consideration, as well as their level of English. Practical aspects related to your curriculum will also determine how much time you can dedicate to inquiry-based projects.

It may take some time for your learners to get used to this new approach, so it should be introduced in stages.

The following levels were outlined by Randy L. Bell, Lara Smetana, and Ian Binns in 2005:

  1. Confirmation Inquiry

This is the first level of inquiry and a good place to start if you and your learners are new to this approach. In confirmation inquiry the teacher develops a question based on a topic or theme that has already been covered in a previous class. Learners are then led through an activity that requires them to collect, record and present information. Rather than discover something new, the main aim is to confirm and deepen prior knowledge.

  1. Structured Inquiry

As with the previous level, structured inquiry starts with a question posed by the teacher. Again, the teacher is responsible for defining the procedure that the learners should follow. The key difference is that learners are responsible for coming up with their own explanations for their findings. The teacher is there to guide them through every step, but learners are encouraged to analyze and evaluate the information they collect.

  1. Guided Inquiry

Once learners have become familiar with the general procedure of inquiry-based learning, they can be given ever increasing agency. In guided inquiry, the teacher provides the initial question and learners decide how to approach it. Having designed their own method of inquiry, with the guidance of the teacher, students will collect, analyze and present their results.

  1. Open Inquiry

This final level, sometimes referred to as ‘true inquiry’, requires a great deal of autonomy and high-order thinking. At this point, your learners are fully responsible for the direction of their research, from defining the questions to analyzing and communicating the results. As complex as this may sound, with the right preparation and support, there’s no reason why primary learners can’t get involved in open inquiry.

Tips for the classroom

Try using KWL charts

KWL charts have three functions: to find out what your learners already know about a topic, negotiate learning goals, and assess learning outcomes at the end of a project.

It’s a great way to help your students understand the procedure of inquiry-based learning, set their own goals and track their progress. They can be completed in small groups to record collective outcomes or individually (changing the ‘we’ to ‘I’).

Ask the right questions

Inquiry and research is all about Big Questions. While yes/no questions can be useful for checking basic understanding, they’re not enough. Push your students to explain, speculate, summarize and justify their ideas.

Here are some examples of critical questions to ask your students:

Tell me more… How did you reach that conclusion?
What do you think? How did you get that result?
How do you know? Can you build on what _____ said?
Can you summarize what _____ just said? Who can add to that?
Can you put that in your own words? What are some other possibilities?
Do you have anything to add? Where do those ideas come from?
Do you all agree with _____? Is _____ correct? How do you know?
What do you all think about that? Why?

Reflect on the process

As a teacher it’s important to take some time to reflect on your methodology. The implementation of an inquiry-based activity could be an interesting topic for a piece of action research. At the very least, when trying out a new approach you should ask yourself some simple questions.

  • What went well?
  • Were the students engaged in the topic?
  • How did they respond to the new approach?
  • What did they struggle with?
  • What support did you provide?
  • What else could you have done?
  • What were the learning outcomes?
  • What would you change?

Researching different teaching methodologies is a great way to broaden your own approaches in the classroom. Check out the following articles to discover some new ideas and ways of thinking about teaching:

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