Inquiry-Based Learning
December 2011 • Sue Jackson

In classrooms where teachers are shifting practices to meet the needs of 21st century learners, inquiry is the core of teaching. This month's tip deals with the question: What is inquiry-based learning?

"Inquiry is an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic, or issue. It requires more of them than simply answering questions or getting a right answer. It espouses investigation, exploration, search, quest, research, pursuit, and study. Inquiry does not stand alone; it engages, interests, and challenges students to connect their world with the curriculum." (Carol Kuhlthau, Leslie Maniotes and Ann Caspari, Guided Inquiry Learning in the Classroom, 2007, p. 1)

Simply stated, inquiry is about creating opportunities to engage students in active learning based on their own questions. The process is learner centred, learner driven, and cyclical. Each question leads to exploration which then leads to more questions to investigate. Inquiry involves the conceptual 'uncovering' of a topic and the active construction of new understandings. As Wilhelm suggests in his book, Inquiring Minds, "inquiry is the apprenticeship into true expertise and understanding by doing what experts do." You will find that using inquiry will promote student engagement, connections, and enthusiasm for content being studied.

As Darling-Hammond points out in her book, Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding, inquiry is fundamental to deep learning; it helps students "learn how to learn in powerful ways so they can manage the demands of changing information, technologies, jobs, and social conditions" (p.12).

The Inquiry Cycle

The inquiry cycle begins with learners asking meaningful questions which are inspired by genuine curiosity about the subject matter, and concerns from their lived experiences. Next learners investigate and gather information by researching resources, studying, crafting an experiment, observing or interviewing an expert in the field. In the create part of the cycle, learners begin to make connections and shape significant new thoughts, and ideas outside of their prior experience. Important to communal learning is the discuss section of the cycle where learners 'go public' with their thinking and share new ideas with others and ask others about their experiences and investigations. At this time, learners may be comparing notes, discussing conclusions, and sharing experiences. The final, and perhaps most important aspect of the inquiry cycle, is the reflect stage. Learners step back and take time to look at the original question, the investigation, and the conclusions made. It is at this point that new questions may prompt another cycle of inquiry.
(adapted from inquiry.illinois.edu/inquiry/process.php)

Below are several easy actions to help hone your learning environment to promote inquiry.

Teacher Actions
What the Classroom Looks Like
What the Classroom Sounds Like
Set up an Engaging Environment
  • desks or tables in clusters so students can talk and work together
  • comfortable large-group meeting places so students can be close to you and can turn and talk to each other
  • open spaces and large tables for group work (e.g., Book Club discussions, Inquiry Circles)
  • smaller spaces for students to work independently
  • easily accessible materials (e.g., labelled baskets/shelves of books, variety of writing materials, Post-It notes, inquiry notebooks)
  • technology that enhances active learning
  • displays of student work; both collaborative and independent products
  • a buzz or low-level hum of activity as students exchange ideas
Gather Great Text and Resources
  • rich, varied and intriguing books, magazines and newspapers of all sorts at a variety of reading levels
  • visuals, graphics, and videos (illustrations and photographs play a prominent role in inquiry-based learning)
  • powerful websites
  • unfamiliar objects and interesting artefacts (promote thinking and build content knowledge)
  • text sets on a topic - same information at different reading levels
  • Why is that ...?
  • Check out this picture.
  • What do you think about...?
  • I didn't know that...
  • What do you think this object might be used for? Why?
  • What did I just touch?
Hone Your Teaching Language
  • set an example by using inclusive, open language with all students
  • use language that will promote thinking and push students to justify their thoughts and come up with the big ideas
  • questions such as What makes you say that? Can you say more about that? What makes you think that? and How did you come up with that?
Provide for Rich Interaction
  • types of interactions- small group discussions, book clubs, inquiry circles, pair shares, large group discussions, partner conversations, turn and talk during mini-lessons
  • students interview knowledgeable experts and interact with specialists in the field as they investigate a topic-could be face-to-face or virtually on computer
  • anchor charts outlining discussion guidelines
  • respectful language
  • disagreeing politely
  • piggy-backing on the ideas of others

(adapted from Harvey, Stephanie and Daniels, Harvey. Inquiry Circles in Action. Heinemann, Portsmouth: NH, 2009)