Inquiry-Based Learning for an Effective 21st-Century Education



An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) for an effective 21st-century education.


Inquiry-based Learning (IBL), broadly defined, is an educational approach that puts students at the center of their learning. Instead of being passive recipients of the teacher’s knowledge, students take an active role in their educations by asking questions, conducting research, and creating arguments based upon the evidence. This approach challenges traditional norms of the teacher-centered classroom in which the teacher is the source of all knowledge or the “sage on the stage.” Instead, in an inquiry-based classroom, the teacher is the “guide on the side.” In other words, the teacher facilitates and advises the students as they “discover” the answers to questions and construct their knowledge and understanding of the world. Through active inquiry and discovery, students become motivated to learn because they seek answers to questions that interest them rather than facts that have to be memorized. Additionally, Inquiry learning usually takes place in small cooperative learning groups, so students gain valuable experience working as team members. Collaboration is an essential 21st-century skill that builds students’ communication and decision-making skills and their ability to contribute ideas and energy to support the group.


There are many forms of IBL, but an analysis of the inquiry process such as those found at the Harvard Social Studies Project and the Amherst Project, researchers have identified three main components of inquiry instruction, they are questions, tasks, and sources (Swan, Grant, & Lee, 2019). Good questions drive the inquiry process. The discipline-based questions can come from either students or the teacher. According to Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their book Essential Questions (2013), they are essential because “the use of questions signals to students that inquiry is the goal of learning in your class, and makes it more likely that a unit of study will be intellectually engaging.” Additionally, “the use of questions forces us to clarify and prioritize what is truly important in terms of learning outcomes for our students.” In other words, for teachers to be successful in this approach, they must be reflective and thoughtful practitioners and reduce into its simplest form the main learning objectives in terms of knowledge and skills. For students engaging in the inquiry process, questions help ignite their curiosity and generate interest in the task. Questions drive the project, and it helps the student answer the question: “Why are we doing this?”


Tasks in the inquiry-based classroom are used to monitor and assess student learning. Formative tasks provide teachers with information about student learning and understanding during the inquiry process. They can help teachers keep students on the right path of inquiry in terms of knowledge and skills. If students begin to veer off-topic, the teacher can quickly respond and help the students regain focus. In inquiry learning, formative tasks are usually in the form of supporting questions. Some other formative tasks include student-led discussions in either small-learning groups or the whole class setting. Student portfolios, learning journals, and self-reflections are other practical formative tasks that can give teachers immediate feedback on student progress. Conversely, Summative tasks require students to demonstrate their learning by responding to the driving question posed at the beginning of the unit of study. Ideally, the summative assessment will be an authentic application of the knowledge and skills learned in the lesson that will allow students to exercise judgment and innovation while completing a real-world task.


The last component of inquiry learning is sources. Source evidence for inquiry learning should consist of primary sources. Primary sources were created during the period under investigation or created afterward by someone who witnessed the event. Some primary sources include newspaper articles, governmental documents, official and unofficial correspondence, maps, speeches, memoirs, music, art, photographs, movies, documentaries, audio recordings, and interviews. Using various sources from multiple viewpoints is crucial because it helps students understand the complexity of their topic by engaging them in historical thinking and authentic learning. Interpreting Primary sources requires students to think about the importance of authorship, intended audience, bias, and purpose of the source. Further, primary sources let students reach their conclusions about a historical event rather than be told about the event in a textbook. However, secondary and tertiary sources such as encyclopedias, books, and articles can be appropriate, especially at the beginning stages of research when students try to gain an overview of the topic.


Inquiry learning is flexible enough to meet the needs of almost every teacher and learning scenario. The approach can be used in all subjects as the primary vehicle of instruction or an add-on to the traditional curriculum. There are four types of inquiry that teachers can implement depending on their students’ academic needs, experience, motivation, and ability to work independently or as collaborative teams. The four types of inquiry are limited inquiry, structured inquiry, guided inquiry, and open inquiry (Banchi & Bell, 2008). Limited inquiry is the least complex because it requires the teacher to construct and lead their students through the inquiry with a predetermined procedure and outcome. The next type of inquiry is the structured inquiry and is similar to the confirmation inquiry except that the final product is unknown. In a structured inquiry, the teacher prepares in advance all driving questions, sources, and explicit step-by-step instructions at each stage of the inquiry. Students will then think critically to arrive at an answer to the driving question. Students The last type of inquiry is the open inquiry. In this type of inquiry, students develop the driving question, formative and summative performance tasks, and locate all source evidence for the investigation. The teacher’s role is to support their students along the way by acting as a guide or mentor. Open inquiry is the highest expression of student learning because the student is responsible for most of the heavy intellectual lifting. They ask their questions and find answers to their questions independently.


With the continued emphasis in American schools on standardized test scores, data-driven instruction, and other quantifiable measures of student learning, many educators may be reluctant to incorporate IBL in their classrooms. The fear is that time taken away from the traditional curriculum based upon rote memorization and drill and practice approaches will lower test performance. Research indicates, however, that incorporating inquiry learning increases student test scores and did not lower them. For example, a study of 7th and 8th-grade students in the Detroit Public School system examined the impact of a project-based inquiry science unit on student achievement. The study revealed significant gains in science content and the scientific process and measured by state standardized science tests. The increases in learning have been attributed to greater student interest and participation in the topic, especially for traditionally underserved urban students (Geirt Et al., 2008). Another study analyzed IBL’s impact on students’ critical thinking skills in science and technology. Students who engaged in an IBL based lesson were shown to increase their critical thinking skills and their overall positive attitude towards science and technology (Duran, & Dökme, 2016). Further, students who engaged in IBL have been shown to experience upwards of 40% growth according to pretest/posttest analysis (Witt & Ulmer, 2010). These findings are not an aberration but represent the literature that consistently supports the positive impacts of IBL and constructivist approaches on student learning.


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