WNET Education
Home About The Series Resources
Explanation Demonstration Exploration Implementation Get Credit

What is inquiry-based learning?
How does it differ from the traditional approach?
What does it have to do with my classroom?
What are the benefits of inquiry-based learning?
How has inquiry-based learning developed since it first became popular?
Another perspective
What are some critical perspectives?
How can I use inquiry-based learning in conjunction with other educational techniques?

How does it differ from the traditional approach?


Jane Morton, who teaches grades 2 and 3 at Ardmore Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington, thinks rote learning doesn't equal understanding for her students.
In general, the traditional approach to learning is focused on mastery of content, with less emphasis on the development of skills and the nurturing of inquiring attitudes. The current system of education is teacher centered, with the teacher focused on giving out information about "what is known." Students are the receivers of information, and the teacher is the dispenser. Much of the assessment of the learner is focused on the importance of "one right answer." Traditional education is more concerned with preparation for the next grade level and in-school success than with helping a student learn to learn throughout life.

Traditional classrooms tend to be closed systems where information is filtered through layers to students. In general, the use of resources is limited to what is available in the classroom or within the school. Use of technology is focused on learning about the technology rather than its application to enhanced learning. Lesson plans are used to organize the various steps in the learning process for the whole-class approach. On-target questions that would tend to cause deviations from the plan are met with, "We will get to that later."

The inquiry approach is more focused on using and learning content as a means to develop information-processing and problem-solving skills. The system is more student centered, with the teacher as a facilitator of learning. There is more emphasis on "how we come to know" and less on "what we know." Students are more involved in the construction of knowledge through active involvement. The more interested and engaged students are by a subject or project, the easier it will be for them to construct in-depth knowledge of it. Learning becomes almost effortless when something fascinates students and reflects their interests and goals.

Part 1 of 2 Part 2 of 2
Tim O'Keefe of the Center for Inquiry elementary school in Columbia, South Carolina, uses a hands-on, inquiry approach to excite his students about a botany unit.
Assessment is focused on determining the progress of skills development in addition to content understanding. Inquiry learning is concerned with in-school success, but it is equally concerned with preparation for life-long learning.

Inquiry classrooms are open systems where students are encouraged to search and make use of resources beyond the classroom and the school. Teachers who use inquiry can use technology to connect students appropriately with local and world communities which are rich sources of learning and learning materials. They replace lesson plans with facilitated learning plans that account for slight deviations while still keeping an important learning outcome in focus. They meet on-target questions with, "How do you suggest we investigate that question?"

Another issue regarding inquiry-based learning has to do with a misconception about when to do inquiry. Inquiry is not only done in laboratory or group work -- it can also be done in lectures that provoke students to think and question.

Teachers often discount the fact that when they are giving talks or lectures to students, the students, if engaged, are applying listening and observing skills -- using their senses. If teachers focus more on "how we come to know" by presenting evidence and information and encouraging student questioning, then talks can even become powerful inquiry models for students. Collaborative meaning-making can take place through discourse.

For example, when discussing the internal structure of the earth, a teacher will often give the students information about just the names and sizes of these earth layers, or the "what we know." But what really is important and intriguing for the student is the "how do we know?" about these structures. No one has been down there, and physical probes have only scratched the surface. To enhance inquiry learning, the teacher should explain that indirect scientific evidence, mainly the transmission and reflection of different kinds of earthquake waves, provides much of our understanding about the internal structure of the earth. This approach provides the student with the opportunity not only to learn the names and sizes of the structures but, more importantly, to ponder and question the nature of indirect scientific evidence as well. Thus, an inquiry approach can help students connect science with the scientific method. Students learn to apply the method to various fields of study while coming to understand their content.

Perhaps a good way to summarize the important difference between traditional learning and inquiry learning is: Traditional learning focuses more on LEARNING ABOUT THINGS, while inquiry learning focuses more on LEARNING THINGS! Another useful way to contrast the two might be: Thinking WHAT as opposed to thinking HOW.


Workshop: Inquiry-based Learning
Explanation | Demonstration | Exploration | Implementation

Concept to Classroom | About the Series | Resources | Sitemap | Credits

Thirteen | Thirteen Ed Online | thirteencelebration.org