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What is inquiry-based learning?

21 July, 2015 - 18:37
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Inquiry-based learning is an active, learner-centered, structured but open-ended approach to education.

Traditional teacher-centered schooling methods rely on lectures, textbooks, and rote practice to give students a standardized set of knowledge and skills. Although such methods are efficient and convenient for educators and curriculum designers, many influential educators, psychologists, and philosophers have noted that this approach does not fit well with the way that people learn naturally. Humans have a strong innate interest in learning how their world works, what is going on around them, and how to do things. Think of a toddler who asks questions about everything around him, a child who wants to join in an activity she has been watching, or an adult who takes up a new hobby. All of them are experiencing learning as enjoyable and interesting. Unfortunately, standardized lecture-and-textbook approaches are typically too general and abstract to engage this natural inclination to enjoy learning, because they are not well-connected to the students' immediate, specific curiosities about the world around them. If students do not make those connections for themselves, the information and skills seem to be useless and irrelevant in "real life" and are soon forgotten. In this view, education that is more explicitly connected to the students' lives, and to their natural impulses to understand their world and be capable of acting in it, should be more effective as well as more enjoyable.

Based on these ideas, a variety of learner-centered teaching methods have been developed that take into account what the students in a course already know and understand, what engages their interest, and what they might want to be able to do with the thing-to-be-learned. Since learner-centered methods are often active learning methods that feature learning-through-doing, they are sometimes categorized according to what the students do: for example, a course might be described as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, case-based learning, or role-playing.

When a teaching method is described as inquiry or inquiry-based learning, it typically involves active learning in the setting of an open-ended investigation inspired by a specific question, problem, or project. The point of such an investigation is not to arrive at a "correct" answer that has already been determined by the teacher. Instead, students are expected to consult a variety of resources, investigate possible solutions, gather data, think critically about what they find, create a response that demonstrates what they have learned, seek dialogue and feedback, and be aware of new questions and problems that arose during their investigation. The last step is key; a good inquiry leads to more questions as the students discover that there are other questions, skills, and areas of knowledge that they would find useful, relevant, or interesting. In this way, instead of teaching students a preset or standardized body of knowledge, inquiry teaches them how to be the kind of person who can discover, understand, use, and discuss that kind of knowledge.

What do these ideas look like when put into practice? Here are a few examples of inquiry-style activities:

  • Students in a social studies class investigate a local controversy, with the aim of understanding its historical roots, the viewpoints of various sides, and the possible effects of proposed actions. As a class, the students produce a video presenting what they learned in a documentary or news-item format.
  • In a computer programming course, students are expected to create a working video game. Students are encouraged to play each other's games and provide constructive critiques.
  • In biology, students study a local park or natural area, forming teams that may choose to investigate its plants, insects, birds, terrestrial animals, or aquatic life. Each team's findings are presented to, and discussed by, the entire class.
  • To study harmony, each student is expected to choose a favorite tune and harmonize it, writing an arrangement of it that is playable by the members of the music class.

Although each of these inquiries is designed to introduce students to a particular type of knowledge, there is also room for students to engage with the task in a way that makes sense to them personally. For example, one young programmer may focus on creating amusing animations and sound effects for her game, while another is more interested in how to create multiple difficulty levels. The ability of the students to have an active part in choosing the direction of the investigation is intrinsic to true inquiry. For example, the music assignment gives the students room not only for musical creativity, but also for creativity in posing and solving the problem. One student might choose a short, simple tune and harmonize it in four different ways in the course of the arrangement, while another works on creating a jazzy instrumental version of a favorite pop ballad. By the end of the assignment, the first may know more about (and be more interested in pursuing) voice leading and cadence types, while the second has developed an interest in orchestration and jazz harmonies. In contrast, an assignment to "write a two-part invention for piano in the style of Bach" allows a music theory student a degree of musical creativity, but is not sufficiently open-ended to be considered inquiry.

In the short term, the educational results of inquiry are not standardized, because arriving at a standard "correct" answer or acquiring a particular bit of knowledge is not the point. From the viewpoint of inquiry-based learning, a student who responds to the social studies investigation by deciding which side is "right," or by memorizing a list of "facts" about it, has not learned as much as the student who can demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the causes of the controversy, including an appreciation for the concerns of all of the stakeholders and the possible positive and negative effects of any proposed actions.

If the goal in the social studies class had been that all students know particular information - such as important dates - inquiry might not have been the best approach. If it is important that all of the students in the music theory course master the rules of Baroque counterpoint, then the Bach study may be the better assignment. However, if the goal is students who grasp the implications of historical and current events, or who are capable composers and arrangers, the inquiry assignments may be better; the students who have connected the knowledge to their everyday life and their own pursuits are more likely to remain engaged and eventually become genuinely interested in understanding history or writing good counterpoint.

In this way, allowing the students the intellectual "space" to develop a personal interest and connection with the materials eventually serves the long-term goals of the curriculum. For example, following the biology investigation, one student may know more about birds, while another has become something of an expert on local plants. However, both have also learned a basic process that they can now use to learn what the other knows, when they want to or need to. In addition, if the project leaves the class wondering why a park has many different kinds of birds but very few aquatic species, the new investigation that follows will be much more meaningful to the students than it would have been if the teacher had given a lecture on bird migration routes or water quality, and meaningful information is easier to remember and to apply to new situations.