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Inquiry Based Learning

Inquiry is defined as "a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge. An investigation, the act of inquiring or of seeking information by questioning;interrogation" ( Inquiry based learning encompasses those very skills. It involves questioning and investigating new information while constructing knowledge. It is built on the belief that seeking information and knowledge through questioning will lead to understanding and mastery of skills. Traditional school systems and teaching methods don't foster or practice inquiry based learning. Students are not encouraged to ask questions or seek knowledge through inquiry, rather as they move through their school learning they become conditioned to sit, listen and repeat whatever is presented by the teacher. Inquiry based learning requires a deeper level of thinking and true inquiry means students are not simply seeking information but they are questioning that information and investigating new ways to construct and apply their knowledge.

In a world where facts and data are readily available, memorization is not the most important skill anymore. Students can find information at the push of a button. Inquiry based learning helps students build skills that not only require the seeking of information but the evaluation of that information. What students learn is how to find, make sense and analyze mass data and information that they come across in order to build on their knowledge base. Furthermore, inquiry is not simply about seeking the right answer, because sometimes there isn't one, but rather working toward resolutions to various problems and issues.

Inquiry means a want or need to know - a seeking - it is a type of learning that teaches students to understand, question and analyze rather than simply memorize or regurgitate information. According to Joe Exline in Workshop: Inquiry Based Learning, "While questioning and searching for answers are extremely important parts of inquiry, effectively generating knowledge from this questioning and searching is greatly aided by a conceptual context for learning" (

Using Inquiry-Based Learning in the Classroom

According Joe Exline in Workshop: Inquiry Based Learning, there are four principles to help guide educators when using inquiry based learning in the classroom.

Principle 1:
All learning activities should focus on using information-processing skills (from observations to synthesis) and applying the discipline "ground rules" as a means to learn content set in a broad conceptual context.

Principle 2:
Inquiry learning puts the learner at the center of an active learning process, and the systemic elements (the teacher, instructional resources, technology, and so forth) are prepared or aligned to support the learner.

Principle 3:
The role of the teacher becomes one of facilitating the learning process. The teacher also becomes a learner by finding out more about the learner and the process of inquiry learning.

Principle 4:
What is assessed is what is valued. Therefore, more emphasis needs to be placed on assessing the development of information-processing skills, nurtured habits of mind, or "ground rules" of the discipline, and conceptual understandings -- rather than just the content of the field.

Example of Inquiry-Based Learning

One of the main principles that teachers often struggle with is the idea that they are no longer knowledge machines for students to extract information from. On the contrary, in order for inquiry based learning to be successful educators must take on the role of facilitators and join students in the questioning and investigation process.

Key Components of Inquiry Process

(elements adapted from Jeffrey Wilhelm's work on inquiry-based instruction)

Activating Prior Knowledge
  • Opinionaires
  • Engaging students in a conversation about what they already know

By bringing the students' own background and experiences to the learning table, students will find ways to connect to the topic and will have activated some basis for creating meaning with the text they are reading. The personal connection to learning increases a student's motivation to explore, read, and struggle with difficulties as they arise.
Providing Background Information
museum exhibits
audio recording
videosbook-primary source material-web site-photography. tStudents need to know something about the topic to be able to perceive and formulate meaningful inquiries.
Defining Outcomes for which students will be held accountable.
For example:

Technology: conduct research on the web; create PowerPoint presentations or web sites; communicate using e-mail; import photos and clip art for presentations; use digital camera, digital audio recorder, and video recorder.

Reading: identify main idea and authors point of view; identify key concepts; increase understanding of vocabulary; extract meaning between the lines (infer)

Inquiry: define problem question; find and gather data; analyze, compare, organize, and synthesize data; create a proposition; support proposition (facts, stats, examples, expert authority, logic and reasoning); propose solutions and action steps

Team: listen, consider others' ideas, encourage, provide coaching, affirm, question, cooperate, demonstrate individual responsibility, avoid put-downs, engage in dialogue

Project Management: set goals, agree on tasks and roles, meet deadlines, prioritize tasks. Students need to know up front exactly what's expected of them.
Modeling Design Product Outcomes (technology, art); Providing Frameworks
Show students a PowerPoint presentation, a web site, a proposition-support framework, a museum exhibit, a choreographed dance performance, etc.

Students need to see models of what it is they are being asked to do. They must have a supporting structure which provides a grounding for their creations, but doesn't limit their creativity.
Establishing a general topic or inquiry
ex- What happens when the structure around people breaks down? (unit on the great depression)
ex- How are human beings adversely impacting our planet? (exploring environmental issues which impact the Amazon Rain Forest)

A broad problem question or topic provides students with a general focus for selecting more specific inquiries.
Student teams conduct background research and define focused problem questions within broader inquiry or topic
Without a knowledge base or some degree of familiarity with the topic, it will be difficult for students to develop relevant inquiries within the broad topic area. Students need to be provided with background material and/or guided to research their own background material. This base will enable them to begin to formulate a big picture understanding of the broad topic area, and then to select a specific inquiry interest which connects to the broader topic.
Establish and communicate inquiry presentation framework.
Example: Proposition-Support Framework

a) state problem question b) develop proposition which can be argued c) provide background information d) support proposition with:

  • facts
  • statistics
  • examples
  • expert authority
  • logic and reasoning

e) propose solutions and action ideas
Refer students back to expected outcomes and inquiry framework to create alignment between their presentations and intended outcomes.
Ask students a lot of questions to help them refine their thinking and guide their research.
Support technology (PowerPoint, Web Site, Hyperstudio) and art design product creation.
Empower students to coach and train one another within their teams.
Provide a forum for student presentations which includes students, teachers, parents, and community members.
Provide vehicles for student participation in action projects which connect their learning to specific action.
Incorporate ongoing, meaningful peer and teacher assessment.
Reflect on what worked and what didn't, and try it again.


Helpful Sites for Inquiry Based Learning in the Classroom

Next up, see Project Based Learning