As the COVID-19 pandemic has left many schools doing virtual or hybrid learning for the latter part of 2020, it is clear how we think about teaching and learning has changed. The pandemic has not only challenged us to keep students engaged, but it has also forced us to think about how to make learning meaningful while at a distance.
One of the many ways educators are making learning meaningful is through inquiry-based learning. “Inquiry-based [learning] is a student-centered approach where the [teacher] guides the students through questions posed, methods designed, and data interpreted by the students,” (Alper, 2018). This approach to teaching places students in the driver’s seat of their learning and makes teachers the facilitator of that learning. It allows students to have a voice without the pressures of traditional school or learning norms. With that said, I believe we need to embrace the power of inquiry-based learning and understand its importance. Not just in remote learning, but in all learning. There is no question that education will never be the same post-pandemic, but how we choose to pivot and build on practices like these will determine where we go.
Why Inquiry-Based Learning?
True inquiry-based learning allows “students [to] follow a trail that begins with their own questions [which] leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often ultimately leads to generating new questions, testing ideas, and drawing their own conclusions,” (Larmer and Mergendoller, 2010). It engages students in the purest form of the learning process, and positions teachers as the guides of that learning. This is important because as we have seen during remote and hybrid learning, we are struggling to engage students in meaningful, long-lasting learning experiences. While there are several factors that account for students’ disengagement, one of the reasons is definitely how we still structure instruction around a “sit and get” model for learning. Rather, educators need to focus on engaging students in the process of learning and guide them through the natural journey of discovery and innovation. This is why inquiry-based learning needs to find a place in classrooms. Learning sticks when students feel connected and have a sense of ownership over their work.
The Essential Components
When thinking about how to incorporate inquiry-based learning into your instruction, there are three big areas to keep in mind. You can find a more comprehensive list of Essential Project Design Elements on www.pblworks.org, however for the purpose of this post I want to focus on three big areas I feel are essential to any type of inquiry learning or project.
- Focus learning around a problem or essential question. When engaging students in inquiry and discovery, it is important to pose a question or problem first. This is important because at the beginning of any kind of learning process, there is always a question or problem that must be solved first. This is what we want to teach students. We want them to understand that when questions arise, the natural process of discovery occurs, and that questioning and discovery lead to innovation.
- Connection to content learning. Another area you will want to consider with inquiry-based learning is how it will connect with content learning. New learning sticks best when students feel connected to it and have ownership over it. So when starting new units or topics in class, consider how inquiry can be embedded so as to create authentic learning experiences for students.
- Students have an opportunity to share and defend their project. Finally, like with most projects, you want to consider how students will share the results of their inquiry projects or learning. This is essential because “schoolwork becomes more meaningful when it’s not done only for the teacher or the test,” (Larmer and Mergendoller, 2010). So any kind of opportunity where students can present to their peers or families will be beneficial. It also creates a sense of ownership which helps make the learning last. Consider using platforms such as Zoom, Flipgrid, or SeeSaw if students are presenting projects remotely. Whatever you choose, remember to keep it SIMPLE.
We are at a critical turning point in education right now. We have witnessed firsthand the challenges of keeping students engaged in a remote learning environment. However, the challenge that still awaits us is when students return to classrooms full-time. How will we bridge learning gaps? How will we ensure new learning lasts and keeps students engaged? While we may not have the answers to these questions yet, what we can do is change how we engage students in learning. Now more than ever is the time we need to be responsive to students’ needs. It is time to evolve and reinvigorate our instructional practices to make them more student-centered, and inquiry-based learning can do just that.
About the Author:
Mannu is an experienced educational professional with a demonstrated history in both instructional and leadership roles. She is a former intermediate teacher, interventionist, and instructional coach. Her areas of strength include project management, instructional coaching, educational technology, and school-wide instructional planning. Mannu is also an ASCD Emerging Leader, Class of 2019.