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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?

How has inquiry-based learning developed since it first became popular?

Inquiry has always been a part of education. It predates Socrates and his method of leading students to self-knowledge through agressive questioning. John Dewey 's 1 reform of the educational system led to the first inquiry-based learning methods in the United States. Dewey advocated child-centered learning based on real-world experiences. For a deeper look at the history of inquiry-based education, which is deeply intertwined with the history of Constructivism, see our Constructivism workshop.


In 1961, the Educational Policies Commission published a position paper on the central purpose of American Education. The commission suggested that students needed to develop "ten rational powers." These were: recalling and imagining; classifying and generalizing; comparing and evaluating; analyzing and synthesizing; and deducing and inferring. These are also some of the fundamentals of inquiry learning.

imageSpurred by fears that the Russians were gaining a technological and military advantage over the U.S. in the fifties, the educational establishment became particularly interested in helping students become creative problem-solvers.

Then, in the sixties, there was a movement toward the so-called alphabet soup curricula. These had such titles as Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), the Chemical Education Materials Study (CHEM Study), the Science Curriculum Study (SCIS), the Elementary Science Study (ESS), and the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC Physics) -- hence the name "alphabet soup."

These efforts seriously attempted to turn the traditional "cookbook" approach to science education into hands-on involvement with a focus on developing reasoning abilities. Unfortunately, the hands-on approach never fully turned into a truly engaging approach to learning. Critics charged that students were spending too much time "messing around" with materials and too little time on analysis.

These problems were due in great part to the nature of the school-community system into which these programs were introduced. Then, too, they focused mainly on only one element of the school-community system: the teacher.

While these programs did not bring about the change anticipated in the era in which they were introduced, they did produce other fallout and unanticipated changes. They brought significant change in the ways that science, mathematics, and social studies textbooks were developed. Textbook publishers began to give more consideration to ways to actively involve students in the learning process.

The Whole Language 2 movement was a very positive development in the history of inquiry-based learning. The recognition of the roles that reading and writing play in learning began to change attitudes and practices in the schools.


Systemic change is the latest and most significant effort that has the potential to impact inquiry learning. In 1984, a conference at the National Academy of Sciences brought together top scientists, educators, business leaders, politicians, parents, and others, in direct response to a report entitled "Nation at Risk" that detailed the failings of American schools. This conference led to what was to become an attempt to reform the U.S. system of education in order to achieve a status of "first in the world by near the end of the twentieth century." Much of this effort was and still is directed toward getting students involved in the process of learning and meeting the needs of modern society by changing the educational system.

If one examines critically the evolution of frameworks set forth for education, it becomes evident that many of the ideas in these frameworks are still valid in today's educational efforts. It's now really a matter of doing more to implement the ideas, rather than reinventing them. The efforts toward systemic reform in particular have much promise, but there are also a number of factors that promote resistance to them.

There are at least two important factors in the systemic-reform effort that make it difficult to implement in the current climate. One of these factors is that the effort is focused almost exclusively on mathematics and science education. It will be difficult to change a school-community system that is focused on only two disciplines in the school curriculum. A second factor is that many educators have little experience in evaluating the important systemic elements and aligning them with outcomes for students. For example, when students do not perform well on statewide tests, we generally react with attempts to "fix students" by demanding that they try harder, rather than fix the system. But lack of student motivation is often symptomatic of a larger systemic problem.

A Systemic Alignment Model
Concept by Joe Exline
Illustration by Sabina Daley

Click here to see how a variety of systemic elements work to support inquiry based learning

The diagram to the left shows the relationship between inquiry learning (outcome for student) and the systemic elements that should surround and support inquiry learning.

The center of this model represents student outcomes. The center determines the alignment of the various systemic elements, which in turn surround and support the student outcomes.

Inquiry-based learning today, however, can be integrated into your classroom and school system gradually -- as teachers, principals, parents, and other community members become aware of its importance in preparing students for the postmodern world.


Workshop: Inquiry-based Learning
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