What Is Inquiry-Based Learning? (IBL)

What Is Inquiry-Based Learning? (IBL)

It’s no secret that student engagement matters. And inquiry-based learning is just one of many ways to better engage students in what they’re learning. 

As part of our ongoing work to rethink high schools, we decided to create a series of long-form posts that seek to explain education topics central to our core work. In the first installment of this series, we are looking at the importance of inquiry-based learning and offering suggestions on how to implement it in your classroom. 

What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

According to education researchers, inquiry-based instruction is “a teaching method that combines the curiosity of students and the scientific method to enhance the development of critical thinking skills.” 

Inquiry-based learning promotes engagement, curiosity, and experimentation. Rather than being ‘instructed to,’ students are empowered to explore subjects by asking questions and finding or creating solutions. It’s more a philosophy and general approach to education than a strict set of rules and guidelines.

Components of Inquiry-Based Learning

Although teachers can approach inquiry-based instruction in a variety of ways, a few basic components are important:

1. Orientation/ObservationThe teacher introduces a new topic or concept. Students explore the topic through research, direct instruction, and hands-on activities.
2. Question/ConceptualizeStudents develop questions related to the topic, make predictions, and hypothesize.
3. InvestigationThis is the lengthiest part of inquiry learning. Students take the initiative, with appropriate teacher support, to discover answers, to find evidence to support or disprove hypotheses, and to conduct research.
4. ConclusionHaving collected information and data, students develop conclusions and answers to their questions. They determine if their ideas or hypotheses prove correct or have flaws. This may lead to more questions.
5. Discussion/SharingAll students can learn from each other at this point by presenting results. The teacher should guide discussions, encouraging debate, more questions, and reflection

How to Apply the Components of Inquiry-Based Learning

There is a lot of room for flexibility within the inquiry-based structure. Educators often start by applying inquiry-based learning to science instruction, but the approach can be applied to any subject and any lesson. For example, imagine a world history class using the COVID-19 pandemic as a touchstone to study and investigate pandemics of the past. A group inquiry lesson might look like this:

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  1. The teacher introduces the events and history of the 1918 Spanish Influenza as a short lecture or a video. Reading assignments are another way to introduce the topic.
  2. Students then split into small groups to discuss how this pandemic is similar to the current one. The teacher encourages them to develop questions about ways people may have reacted differently then and/or the same as people today.

    Sample questions:
    1. How well did society understand the plague and what caused it?
    2. Did people resist quarantining measures then, and were there any political implications?

The teacher can also encourage students to branch out and think deeper. Students can brainstorm questions that interest them and that touch on topics that excite them.

  1. Presenting students with thought-provoking questions empowers them to investigate solutions using available resources like the library, trustworthy online research, and historical databases. This helps provide the context students need to create a connection between the similarities and differences of the Spanish Flu and the coronavirus pandemic.
  2. Students can use what they learn to answer the initial questions you presented. And teachers can encourage students to use their research to support their claims.
  3. Each group of students can present their findings to the class and invite questions. And the teacher can help to guide the discussion, correcting any errors, and presenting additional questions.

A Literary Example of Inquiry-Based Learning

Students in 10th-grade English at Vista High School, located just outside of San Diego, enjoy a unique learning experience when studying the classic novel Lord of the Flies

(For those who haven’t read this novel, it describes the experience of a group of boys stranded on a desert island. Without adult supervision, they descend into disturbing chaos trying to create their own society.)

Teacher Stuart Easton leads the lesson on the novel with an inquiry-based approach. He empowers students to recreate the experience from the book, minus the violence, and desert island. 

Easton leads the class in a discussion of the novel and its themes: 

  • Societal collapse
  • The challenge of remaining human in the face of that collapse
  • The potential for evil in all people

He then asks them to create their own society. He asks them to come up with societal rules and a social structure they believe is important to running a society amongst themselves. Just like the boys in the novel, the students must figure out how they would exist in a society without authority figures.

The real catch, though, is that Easton leaves the room. Without going completely abandoning them, he lets the students truly engage with the idea of being without adult supervision. They must figure out how to create a small, stable society without him.

The research and inquiry here are direct experiences. The students taste independence and find out what they will do with it. There are no right or wrong answers—only learning and engagement. In one recent class, Easton’s students experienced some initial chaos but ultimately formed committees, elected leaders, and created a society that worked.

Easton reports that students not only learn the material and better understand the work of literature, but they learn other important lessons too. All students participate, learn how crucial it is to work together, and take ownership of their learning. Most importantly, this natural engagement leads to a decline in discipline problems.

The Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning

The example from Mr. Easton’s class provides a case study for the benefits of this kind of learning. Here are some testimonies from his students:

“We got to make our own story, based on what we learned, and apply it to real life,” said Deelilah Aivao, a 10th-grader in Easton’s class. “We had power over the outcome of the project…It gave us the opportunity to do something on our own rather than being forced to do it.”

This is a powerful statement about why inquiry-based learning is important and beneficial. Inquiry-based learning puts more power into the students’ hands and allows them to take responsibility for their learning. This increases engagement and interest and snowballs into many proven benefits.

Mr. Easton’s lesson provides anecdotal evidence that inquiry-based learning is a great way to foster meaningful, engaged learning. There is also plenty of research that this kind of learning and teaching benefits students:

Inquiry-Based Learning Improves Student Engagement

This kind of instruction is student-led and requires meaningful participation and promotes student engagement. Research shows several positive outcomes from improved student engagement at the high school level, including:

  • Students are more likely to finish high school
  • Students perform better on standardized tests
  • A more positive school community and learning environment
  • school culture that promotes academic achievement and deters boredom
  • Engaged students are more emotionally, behaviorally, and intellectually invested in their own learning

Teachers Get to Observe Students

Allowing students to take center stage in a lesson gives teachers the valuable opportunity to observe. Inquiry-based learning doesn’t mean the teacher completely steps aside. They stay near the students, watching and guiding as needed.

In a more traditional lecture lesson, teachers have fewer chances to watch students work. This means they have fewer opportunities to correct inaccuracies or misconceptions and fewer chances to guide skill development and learning.

For example, a math teacher can see how students work through problem-solving during inquiry lessons. Teachers in math may demonstrate how to solve problems, but by watching students come up with solutions, they’re able to get a better understanding of the steps it took to get there.

It allows the instructor to correct and guide. But it also lets them see how each student views a problem and its solution in a unique way. Teachers are then able to gain a deeper understanding of how their students think and learn.

Inquiry-Based Learning is an Opportunity for Authentic Assessment

Assessment is all about determining what students know. But traditional tests provide limited insight into student learning. There are many more ways to find out what students know, inquiry lessons included. As teachers observe students working on their projects, they are able to assess where students are in their learning and can find more ways to put that learning into context.

This provides another way to include more students in academic achievement. A student may perform poorly on tests. That same student may demonstrate mastery of skills or knowledge while doing hands-on work instead of taking a test about it.

Students Achieve and Demonstrate Mastery

When students explore and discover rather than only listening to lectures, they develop greater mastery of concepts and skills. Using math as an example again, a teacher can show students an algorithm for solving an algebra equation. 

However, real mastery occurs when students are asked to develop their own algorithms. They must construct solutions using creativity and problem-solving. This takes more time but deepens understanding of a concept. 

Student Interests Drive Inquiry-Based Learning

Too many students describe school as boring. This is a common refrain and a challenge to educators. Learning can be boring. It’s a fact. But it doesn’t have to be. The power of inquiry learning is that it harnesses natural curiosity. And that is never boring.

People of all ages can cultivate curiosity to learn. By letting students engage in and take more control over what and how they learn, interest increases. Suddenly school isn’t so boring. The time flies by as students explore, research, and answer their own questions.

At New Harmony High in New Orleans, all students dive deeply into environmental education in several inquiry-based ways:

  • Instructor Fernando Wagner asks probing questions like, “What would happen if the Mississippi River stopped flowing?”
  • Students work together to answer questions like this one.
  • Wagner lets student interest influence lessons on environmental subjects and the questions they explore.
  • The students also get their hands dirty. They start recycling campaigns, make compost, and turn discarded plastic into art.
  • Wagner describes his students as engaged. He says they come up with more questions than they can answer.
  • Most importantly, Wagner’s students are not bored. They have fun while learning.

Inquiry-Based Learning Promotes Teamwork

Team-based learning and projects are perfect for inquiry. An inquiry lesson could be done individually, but many are centered on small groups within the larger classroom. Collaboration and discussion help students learn from each other. Teamwork also provides students with the opportunity to teach each other. This in itself is a powerful learning tool. 

At XQ, generous collaborators for tough problems is just one of the XQ learner goals we believe all students need to thrive in college, career, and life. 

Improved Knowledge Retention

Studies have shown that many of the elements of inquiry-based lessons promote greater retention of what students learn. Mastering and learning new things in the classroom is essential, but students must be able to recall that information later. When they go deep into a topic or subject, collaborate with others, and work through questions instead of being given answers, retention improves.

In one study, researchers tested biology and physics with ninth-graders before, during, six weeks after, and 12 weeks after inquiry lessons. Students retained more knowledge from the projects, even 12 weeks later.

Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning in the Classroom

It’s important to recognize the powerful potential in inquiry-based learning. Studies show that support for teachers and educator attitude toward inquiry-based learning are important for student outcomes.

Inquiry Lessons Begin with the Teacher

Students own a great deal of responsibility for learning during inquiry lessons. But teachers are still the leaders, the guides. The role teachers play in inquiry-based learning encompasses several factors:

  • Teachers begin the inquiry process by introducing topics and encouraging questioning.
  • They promote and guide focused dialogue and discussion among students attempting to answer their questions.
  • The teacher leads students between small-group and whole-classroom discussions. They determine the transition.
  • Teachers pay attention to discussions and clarify misconceptions. They add information to further develop students’ understanding of the material.
  • Teachers model inquiry behaviors for students.
  • They bring student experiences into the discussion to make learning more relevant.

The amount of guidance and leading a teacher provides may vary. Teachers are able to make changes on the fly to adapt to particular lessons and concepts. Additionally, by knowing how their students respond teachers can create truly engaging learning experiences.

The Guided Discovery Model

One model for creating and leading an inquiry-based lesson is known as guided discovery. This is a more structured method with heavy teacher guidance. It begins with a preparation session in which teachers provide materials, information, and questions for students to answer. Given these resources, students develop strategies to experiment and answer the questions.

Guided discovery works well for science lessons. For example, a teacher introduces the concept of mixtures and solutions in a chemistry class. They offer students several mixtures and solutions and ask students if they can separate out the components and ask them to provide the details of how they do it. Students must use what they know about chemical and physical properties to solve the problem.

The teacher provides background information and all the materials needed, and students discover and explore. As they strategize and experiment, the teacher circulates and provides leading questions and assistance as needed.

The 5-E Model

Another way to approach an inquiry lesson is through the 5-E model. Each step in this type of lesson leads to the next.

STEP 1EngagementThis is a preparation phase. The purpose is to introduce concepts and pique student interest. This is when teachers encourage students to begin developing their questions.
STEP 2ExplorationDuring exploration, students begin actively experimenting and strategizing to answer questions. Teachers observe and guide as students work in small groups.
STEP 3ExplanationWith potential answers to the questions, students then report to the class. They show evidence for their answers and explain how they arrived at them.
STEP 4ElaborationTo develop a deeper understanding of concepts and connect them to others, discussion continues. In the elaboration phase, the class discusses new questions that arise. The teacher may also introduce related concepts to encourage the students to find connections.
STEP 5EvaluationTeachers informally assess students throughout this process. They can also evaluate student learning with a more formal assessment. The culmination of the lesson or project may be a test, a report, a presentation, or some other type of assessment.

Tips for Teachers Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning

These examples provide a framework to help teachers begin experimenting with inquiry-based lessons. You can expand on these, use them as a point of inspiration, or create your own lessons and projects. If inquiry learning is new to you, these tips may help:

  1. Resist the urge to answer all student questions. Remember that this is student-focused learning and exploration.
  2. Limit the time spent introducing a concept or lesson. A lecture can quickly become boring and unengaging. Provide only what students need to get started in their own exploration.
  3. Be prepared to be flexible. Classes and students are different and require more or less guidance. Some strategies for a lesson may seem perfect when you start but fail partway through. Be willing to adapt and adjust to keep the inquiry going and engagement strong.
  4. Let your own curiosity unfold, too. Model lifelong learning and engagement by asking your own questions and exploring them with students. They’ll appreciate it.
  5. Make time for reflection at the end of every inquiry lesson. This may be a discussion as a class or a period of quiet journaling. Reflection should include the concepts learned, but also the learning process. Ask leading questions like “How did exploration deepen your understanding?” or “Was it frustrating to not get immediate answers?”

The Importance of Teacher Training to Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry is an exciting way to teach and learn. If you have never done this before, it can be intimidating. You may not know where to start or what to do next. That’s why teacher training and professional development are so important to not only inquiry-based learning but also student success.

Schools must provide training for teachers to implement these lessons successfully. A study of teachers going through inquiry training found several important results:

  • Teacher training positively impacted student engagement.
  • Training also improved teacher attitude toward inquiry-based instruction.
  • Having the right resources created a positive attitude toward inquiry lessons.
  • Training boosted teachers’ belief in their own abilities to guide these lessons.
  • Teachers still found that systemic restrictions hampered their ability to use inquiry learning. They need administrators and school culture to embrace this style of learning.

Inquiry-based learning provides so many benefits to students. Most importantly, it increases student engagement. When students are engaged, when they are empowered to guide their own learning, great things happen in classrooms and schools.

How do you create meaningful and engaged learning experiences in your classroom? Do you want to learn more about implementing inquiry-based learning? Check out the meaningful, engaged topic page on the Rethink Together Forum.