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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?

What does it have to do with my classroom?

Most of our schools focus on teaching a set of basic skills that do not serve the needs of modern society. Traditionally, schools stressed the accumulation of information, and did not emphasize skill development or nurturing inquiry-based habits of mind. This approach to education was adequate when the United States was a largely rural society, depending on unskilled labor. Our modern society is faster paced, globally networked, technologically oriented, and requires workers who can problem solve and think critically. Today, much learning, if not most, occurs after formal schooling. Our schools must change their approach to education to produce students who can thrive in the modern world.

The traditional focus of education is no longer appropriate. The world has changed: local apprenticeships are rare, and young people must master new ways of acting and thinking. illustrationOur society is becoming increasingly larger and more complexly diverse. Young people must develop an understanding for the complexities of modern life and be able to grapple with new ethical and practical issues. We must educate our young so they can participate as responsible members in contemporary society. They also need to be given the chance to grow and develop fulfilling personal identities in settings that are relatively free of risk.

Inquiry learning can turn information into useful knowledge. It stresses skill development and nurtures the development of good habits of mind. Information, lacking a useful context, often has limited applications beyond passing a test. Learning plans and teaching materials need to include a relevant context for new information to lead to broader understandings. It is often hard for students to understand the connections between activities within a particular subject. This confusion is heightened when students struggle to understand the connections between different subjects within traditional schools.

Many traditional schools lack a coherent and simplified process for interrelating subject material between grades. There is little emphasis on planning across subjects. And not enough effort is spent defining the ultimate goals of education -- the skills and abilities students should have when they complete high school. While many subjects share information-processing skills, much more can be done to enhance the connections among them.

"Habits of mind" should be an important goal, or outcome, in education. These habits can produce a world view that incorporates different disciplines or subjects. They can be thought of as the "ground rules" for a particular discipline, and include, but are not limited to, verification and respect for data in science, the importance of beauty and desirability in art, and the role of belief and faith in religion.

illustration We are not suggesting that these habits of mind should be taught -- or even that they can be taught. They are best nurtured through appropriate modeling and experiences. Nor is it suggested that one world view is right in comparison to another, but rather the different disciplines can offer different and important perspectives. However, it is important that habits of mind are nurtured and valued for the particular discipline being studied. Habits of mind are nurtured through questioning and reflection. Questions like: How do you (I) know? Can we (I) ever know that? What is the evidence? How did you (I) arrive at that decision?

Questions, whether self-initiated or "owned," are at the heart of inquiry learning. While questions are also a part of the traditional classroom, the sources, purposes, and levels of questioning are quite different. In the traditional classroom, the teacher is frequently the questioner. Questions are usually intended to provoke feedback about a reading or activity assignment. In an inquiry classroom, the teacher asks questions that are more open and reflective in nature. Appropriate questioning techniques are important in an inquiry-based classroom, especially in the lower grades where they become a foundation for self-initiated questioning.

Dennie Palmer Wolf, in THE ART OF QUESTIONING, published by Academic Connections in 1987, suggests that there are four major types of questions: inference questions, interpretation questions, transfer questions, and questions about hypotheses.

These questions ask students to go beyond immediately available information. For example, a high-school photography teacher held up a black-and-white portrait of a machinist taken by Paul Strand and asked, "What do you know by looking at this photograph?" Through careful questioning and discussion, his students realized the image contained hints that implied a whole network of information: clues to content (where and when the photograph was taken), technique (where the photographer stood, where the light sources were located), and meaning or attitude (what Strand felt about industry and workers). To push beyond the factual in this way is to ask students to find clues, examine them, and discuss what inferences are justified.

If inference questions demand that students fill in missing information, then interpretive questions propose that they understand the consequences of information or ideas. One day, when her English class was struggling to make sense of Frost's poem "The Silken Tent," a teacher asked, "Imagine if Frost compared the woman to an ordinary canvas tent instead of a silk one. What would change?" Faced with the stolid image of a stiff canvas tent, students suddenly realized the fabric of connotations set in motion by the idea of silk -- its sibilant, rustling sounds; its associations with elegance, wealth, and femininity; its fluid motions. In a similar spirit, during a life-drawing class, a teacher showed his students a reproduction of Manet's "Olympia" and asked them, "How would the picture be different if the model weren't wearing that black tie around her neck?" A student laid her hand over the tie, studied the image and commented, "Without the ribbon, she doesn't look so naked. She looks like a classical model. With the ribbon, she looks undressed, bolder."

If inference and interpretation questions ask a student to go deeper, transfer questions provoke a kind of breadth of thinking, asking students to take their knowledge to new places. For example, the final exam for a high-school film course contained this question: "This semester we studied three directors: Fellini, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa. Imagine that you are a film critic and write a review of "Little Red Riding Hood" as directed by one of these individuals."

Typically, questions based on what can be predicted and tested are thought of as belonging to sciences and other "hard" pursuits. But, in fact, predictive thinking matters in all domains. When we read a novel, we gather evidence about the world of the story, the trustworthiness of the narrator, the style of the author, all of which we use to predict what we can expect in the next chapter. Far from letting their students simply soak in the content of dances, plays, or fiction, skilled teachers probe for predictions as a way of making students actively aware of their expectations.

In this simplified model the outcomes are:
1. content of subjects;
2. content in a larger conceptual framework;
3. information processing skills; and,
4. nurtured habits of mind.

Teachers need to keep these four things in mind while developing plans for learning. These four outcomes are the essence of inquiry learning and should be the "essence outcomes" for modern standards of education.

Concept by Joe Exline
Illustration by Sabina Daley

Click on the interactive button to the left to see a dynamic representation of how the known and the unknown interact.

An inquiry classroom is quite different from a traditional classroom. These differences become increasingly pronounced as the teacher and students become more comfortable and experienced with inquiry learning. It can often be difficult to locate the teacher in an inquiry classroom, because she is rarely found in the traditional spot: behind the teacher's desk. Students also move around the classroom as they interact with others and locate the appropriate materials and resources for their work.


What does inquiry-based learning look like? Much of what is said about science and inquiry learning can be applied to all subjects. The following list describes some of what inquiry learning looks like in practice.

icon Students view themselves as learners in the process of learning.
  • They look forward to learning.
  • They demonstrate a desire to learn more.
  • They seek to collaborate and work cooperatively with teacher and peers.
  • They are more confident in learning, demonstrate a willingness to modify ideas and take calculated risks, and display appropriate skepticism.

icon Students accept an "invitation to learn" and willingly engage in an exploration process.
  • They exhibit curiosity and ponder observations.
  • They move around, selecting and using the materials they need.
  • They confer with classmates and teacher about observations and questions.
  • They try out some of their own ideas.

icon Students raise questions, propose explanations, and use observations.
  • They ask questions (verbally and through actions).
  • They use questions that lead them to activities generating further questions or ideas.
  • They observe critically, as opposed to casually looking or listening.
  • They value and apply questions as an important part of learning.
  • They make connections to previous ideas.

icon Students plan and carry out learning activities.
  • They design ways to try out their ideas, not always expecting to be told what to do.
  • They plan ways to verify, extend, confirm, or discard ideas.
  • They carry out activities by: using materials, observing, evaluating, and recording information.
  • They sort out information and decide what is important.
  • They see detail, detect sequences and events, notice change, and detect differences and similarities.

icon Students communicate using a variety of methods.
  • They express ideas in a variety of ways, including journals, drawing, reports, graphing, and so forth.
  • They listen, speak, and write about learning activities with parents, teacher, and peers.
  • They use the language of learning, apply the skills of processing information, and develop their own "ground rules" appropriate for the discipline.

icon Students critique their learning practices.
  • They use indicators to assess their own work.
  • They recognize and report their strengths and weaknesses.
  • They reflect on their learning with their teacher and their peers.

This is a modified list based on "Inquiry-Based Science, What Does It Look Like?" published in CONNECT MAGAZINE, March-April 1995.


icon The teacher reflects on the purpose and makes plans for inquiry learning.
  • He plans ways for each learner to be actively engaged in the learning process.
  • She understands the necessary skills, knowledge, and habits of mind needed for inquiry learning.
  • He understands and plans ways to encourage and enable the learner to take increasing responsibility for his learning.
  • She insures that classroom learning is focused on relevant and applicable outcomes.
  • He is prepared for unexpected questions or suggestions from the learner.
  • She prepares the classroom environment with the necessary learning tools, materials, and resources for active involvement of the learner.

icon The teacher facilitates classroom learning.
  • The teacher's daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly facilitation plans focus on setting content learning in a conceptual framework. They also stress skill development and model and nurture the development of habits of mind.
  • She accepts that teaching is also a learning process.
  • He asks questions, encouraging divergent thinking that leads to more questions.
  • She values and encourages responses and, when these responses convey misconceptions, effectively explores the causes and appropriately guides the learner.
  • He is constantly alert to learning obstacles and guides learners when necessary.
  • She asks many Why? How do you know? and What is the evidence? type of questions.
  • He makes student assessment an ongoing part of the facilitation of the learning process.

    This list was developed by Joe Exline.

Ultimately, the importance of inquiry learning is that students learn how to continue learning. This is something they can take with them throughout life -- beyond parental help and security, beyond a textbook, beyond the time of a master teacher, beyond school -- to a time when they will often be alone in their learning.


Workshop: Inquiry-based Learning
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