Inquiry based learning is a fantastic tool, placing students’ questions and ideas at the centre of the classroom, and structuring learning around discovering answers rather than distinct subject areas. The teacher acts as a more passive guide who facilitates learning, meaning that the process requires students to use creative, collaborative and critical thinking skills to reach new depths and solve the problems at hand.
Although it’s a rich method of learning that fully integrates students into the learning process, problems arise when educators don’t fully understand the skills required to complete a successful inquiry unit. It’s a big contrast to everyday learning. Students are no longer given a simple ‘fill in the blanks’ activity, but have to independently navigate through open-ended questions. This takes far more skill than educators sometimes realise. Consequently, the inquiry process can be overwhelming. In lower education, teachers tend to limit projects to factual questions and distinct sets of source material. Therefore, most students aren’t fully aware of the inquiry process until their final years of education. By this point, the classic, rigid learning approach has already been cemented into their learning habits. However, by supporting students, who can focus on one skill at a time, teachers can effectively guide students along the way.
Students commonly struggle with formulating good inquiry questions. Unlike factual questions like “How many people live in Paris?”, an inquiry question should be open-ended and involve drawing conclusions from evidence, such as “What factors have led to the sizeable increase of the population of Paris, France?”.
If you want to help students develop their own inquiry skills, teaching them how to formulate questions is a crucial part of the process.
For a first project it is helpful to focus on one component and to build this particular skill with students. Giving a particular element priority over other elements allows students to build skills incrementally, as well as giving teachers the opportunity to pinpoint areas of improvement. This will reduce the risk of overwhelming students with both complexity and expectations.
It is also a good idea to include many “check-ins” for students; essentially dividing an extensive project into manageable chunks. Apart from making the project less daunting, this helps to teach time management skills. For instance, a teacher can assign a due date for the inquiry question, followed by a separate deadline for research notes. Students can then focus on completing one component at a time and not worry about the project as a whole. This small support often improves the quality of their work.
There are many skills that students will need to practice, from note taking and research to source criticism, citation and collaboration. This list is by no means exhaustive, so it’s vital that teachers remain observant.
It’s up to teachers to recognize which skills their students need to work on, what to assess and when, and which skills need further practice before assessment. Over time, this kind of conscientious monitoring will help to make students proficient in the inquiry process.
Teachers can then increase expectations and gradually reduce support structures surrounding students’ work, eventually allowing them to work independently with minimal support. However, the path is long and teachers should think of the development of inquiry based learning as a continuous process.
Successful introduction of the inquiry process depends on a strong but flexible support system, the gradual removal of which allows students to become increasingly competent and independent in their learning. The goal is to develop strong critical thinkers who can communicate effectively and possess transferable skills that are crucial tools for academic success at university.
The sooner students become familiar with inquiry based learning, the better. However, if the shift becomes too abrupt it is likely to temporarily stifle their development and might result in a loss of motivation, since talented students are suddenly faced with tasks that they have difficulty tackling. It is the duty of the teacher to prevent this, through applying a gradual transition into this more mature way of learning.