Intro to Inquiry Learning

A (Somewhat) New Approach to Educating and Inspiring Kids

Inquiry-based learning is not a new technique—in fact, it goes back to education philosopher John Dewey—but it does stand in contrast to the more structured, curriculum-centered framework of today's schools.

Asking questions is at the heart of inquiry-based learning. The goal is not to ask just any questions, of course, but ones that kids honestly care about. Your role is to guide the kids in finding the answers themselves and encourage them to ask new questions along the way.

Inquiry-based learning is a style particularly well-suited for out-of-school programs because they have a freer hand to complement, enhance, and expand on the work children are doing in their K-12 classes. School-based teachers may not want to go so far as to make inquiry-based learning the core of their classroom approach. It does, however, offer a powerful option for occasional projects and lab activities.

This article explains some of the key principles of inquiry-based learning. For step-by-step information on how to create an inquiry-based project, see the article called How to Create an Inquiry-Based Project.

Key Principles of Inquiry-Based Learning

"Inquiry-based learning" is one of many terms used to describe educational approaches that are driven more by a learner's questions than by a teacher's lessons. It is inspired by what is sometimes called a constructivist approach to education, which posits that there are many ways of constructing meaning from the building blocks of knowledge and that imparting the skills of "how to learn" is more important than any particular information being presented. Not all inquiry-based learning is constructivist, nor are all constructivist approaches inquiry-based, but the two have similarities and grow from similar philosophies.

How is inquiry-based learning different from traditional approaches? In the traditional framework, teachers come to class with highly structured curricula and activity plans, sometimes referred to as "scope and sequence." They act as the source of knowledge and as the person who determines which information is important. There is certainly creativity and flexibility in how each teacher runs his or her class, but the topics and projects are driven and evaluated based on what a teacher, administrator, school board, or bureaucracy have decided what children should know and master.

It may be that traditional education will start becoming more and more like inquiry-based learning over time. Why? Because an inquiry-based approach is more web-like in how students pursue knowledge, as opposed to the linear, vertical and compartmentalized structure of traditional education. As the web-like Internet increasingly permeates society and education, the traditional structures will have to adapt to the forms of the new media.

In contrast, inquiry-based learning projects are driven by students. Instructors act more as coaches, guides, and facilitators who help learners arrive at their "true" questions—the things they really care about. When students choose the questions, they are motivated to learn and they develop a sense of ownership about the project.

Don't get the wrong idea, however: Inquiry-based learning projects are not unstructured; they are differently structured. If anything, they require even more planning, preparation, and responsiveness from the educator—it's just that the educator's role is different.

Advantages of Inquiry-Based Learning

Instructors who adopt an inquiry-based learning approach help students identify and refine their "real" questions into learning projects or opportunities. They then guide the subsequent research, inquiry, and reporting processes. Since one role of out-of-school programs is often to enhance, support, and expand on the core curriculum of K-12 schools, it's a particularly good approach for giving kids an opportunity to learn with more freedom while reinforcing and imparting basic skills.

Inquiry-based learning has other advantages as well:

  • An inquiry-based learning approach is flexible and works well for projects that range from the extensive to the bounded, from the research-oriented to the creative, from the laboratory to the Internet. It is essential, however, that you plan ahead so you can guide kids to suitable learning opportunities.

  • You'll find that many kids who have trouble in school because they do not respond well to lectures and memorization will blossom in an inquiry-based learning setting, awakening their confidence, interest, and self-esteem.

  • The traditional approach tends to be very vertical: the class studies science for awhile, for example, then language arts, then math, then geography. In contrast, the inquiry-based approach is at its best when working on interdisciplinary projects that reinforce multiple skills or knowledge areas in different facets of the same project. You'll also find that although the traditional approach is sharply weighted toward the cognitive domain of growth, inquiry-based learning projects positively reinforce skills in all three domains—physical, emotional, and cognitive.

  • Inquiry-based learning is particularly well-suited to collaborative learning environments and team projects. You can create activities in which the entire class works on a single question as a group (just be sure that the whole group truly cares about the question) or in teams working on the same or different questions. Of course, inquiry-based learning also works well when you've decided to let each student develop an individual project; when doing so, however, be sure to incorporate some elements of collaboration or sharing.

  • An inquiry-based approach can work with any age group. Even though older students will be able to pursue much more sophisticated questioning and research projects, build a spirit of inquiry into activities wherever you can, even with the youngest, in an age-appropriate manner.

  • The inquiry-based approach acknowledges that children, especially children from minority and disadvantaged communities, have what researcher Luis Moll calls "funds of knowledge" that are often ignored by traditional curricula. An inquiry-based approach validates the experience and knowledge that all kids bring to the learning process.

The Art of the Question

Because inquiry-based learning is premised on helping children ask questions, instructors themselves must learn the art of asking good questions. As the leader and guide, remember that you have to model the spirit of inquiry.

Be aware of how a question can either shut down or open up a conversation by the words you choose and the prejudices you reveal. For example, consider the different responses you'd get to the question "Nobody here has ever created a Web page, have they?" versus "Has anyone made a Web page before?" versus "What do we know about creating Web pages?" The second question is at least a more positive version then the first, but it still will only get you yes or no answers. The third invites constructive input and validates prior knowledge. Listen to how people ask you questions.

Practice your questioning and listening skills with exercises like this one: In your next staff meeting, have everyone pair off and ask each other the story of their name. How would you ask that question? The way you do it will play a role in determining the answer you get. After a few minutes, bring the group back together and share what you learned. Now try this activity with kids using all sorts of questions to help hone their questioning and listening skills.

What kinds of questions make for good inquiry-based projects? As we said, they must first be questions that the kids truly care about because they come up with them themselves. In addition, good questions share the following characteristics:

  • The questions must be answerable. "What is the poem 'Dream Deferred' based on?" is answerable. "Why did Langston Hughes write it?" may be answerable if such information exists, or if the students have some relevant and defensible opinions. "Why did he choose this particular word in line six?" is not answerable because the only person likely to know such a specific answer is Hughes himself, now deceased.

  • The answer cannot be a simple fact. "In what year was Lincoln killed?" doesn't make for a very compelling project because you can just look it up in any number of books or websites. "What factors caused the assassination attempt?" might be a good project because it will require research, interpretation, and analysis.

  • The answer can't already be known. "What is hip-hop music?" is a bit too straightforward and the kids are not likely to learn much more than they know already. "What musical styles does hip-hop draw from and how?" offers more opportunity for exploration.

  • The questions must have some objective basis for an answer. "Why is the sky blue?" can be answered through research. "Why did God make the sky blue?" cannot because it is a faith-based question. Both are meaningful, valid, real questions, but the latter isn't appropriate for an inquiry-based project. "What have people said about why God made the sky blue?" might be appropriate. Likewise, "Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?" is ultimately unanswerable in that form because no humans were around to know for sure, but "What do scientists believe was the reason for their extinction?" or "What does the evidence suggest about the cause?" will work. Questions based on value judgments don't work for similar reasons. You can't objectively answer "Is Hamlet a better play than Macbeth?"

  • The questions can not be too personal. "Why do I love the poetry of W. B. Yeats?" might inspire some level of internal exploration, but in most cases that's not your most important goal. Get the kids to focus on external research instead.

When working with younger, shy, or alienated kids and with those unused to this sort of approach, you may have to ask leading questions or even spoon feed them questions to get started. Don't get discouraged. Once they catch on, you'll see their enthusiasm and curiosity grow.

Using the Inquiry-Based Approach

As we've noted, inquiry can be used in almost any kind of project or activity because it is fundamentally based on just one basic principle: involve kids in the process of making learning decisions.

Because it's such a flexible approach, there's really no way to cover all the ways you can use it. Take a look at How to Create an Inquiry-Based Project for step-by-step guidance on creating projects, but don't think that everything has to be so elaborate. In the lesson called Using Maps for Pattern Writing, for example, you'll find inquiry used in the most elementary way to keep kids excited and engaged in a vocabulary-building exercise. How? Simply by determining a few patterns beforehand, then involving them in the process of making learning decisions.