Inquiry-based learning: harnessing children’s natural curiosity

What is inquiry-based learning?

inquiryInquiry-based learning is an educational strategy that builds on something we all do: ask questions about the world around us. Children are particularly curious and full of wonder. As educators, we can harness that natural curiosity within our students and help them to learn and grow from those questions.

The inquiry process is connected to this process of asking questions. However, it is much more complex than merely asking questions and finding answers. It is a process by which we encourage students to find the information they are seeking, and then help them to turn that information into something useful and directly related to them.

Inquiry is about expanding the minds of our children, beyond the basic content of the curriculum.

Ideally, what we want to do as educators is use the inquiry process to help students create personalized learning experiences. This involves asking the questions, then seeking, organizing, changing and communicating that information to broader audiences.

Inquiry is:

  • student-centered – it is about personalizing teaching practice to meet the needs and curiosities of students
  • personalized – it allows for student input into the curriculum and lesson planning, and it helps students present their findings in new and creative ways.
  • teacher-guided – it is about teachers using the strategies that help students to investigate their curiosities in meaningful ways to them
  • integration of technology – it allows students to use various technology to seek out, collect, collaborate and present their new knowledge.

Inquiry-based learning isn’t just about students asking question—teachers are learners too!

It is important to remember that the teacher is not the ‘sage on the stage’, but is learning alongside the students, guiding them with appropriate strategies. This strategy complements traditional teaching methods and helps teachers to differentiate their lessons (differentiated lessons are lessons created to meet the needs of specific students instead of teaching using one method for all).

Inquiry-based learning connects student interests to multiple areas of the curriculum, as well as to the real world. It helps students to learn about how they think, which is also known as metacognition. Educators should encourage students to ask more questions and hone in on those that are most important.

We all learn more effectively when we ask questions that feed our natural curiosity about the world.

Putting inquiry-based learning into action

When using inquiry-based learning, educators should do a quick checklist to make sure everyone is ready and on the same page for the assignment.

Inquiry-based learning checklist:

  • Are group norms established so that learners understand appropriate ways of interacting with others? For example: Discuss how respect looks and sounds, explain how to appropriately disagree with someone without hurting feelings, and work out how your group will effectively collaborate.
  • Are learners familiar with information processing and research models?
  • Have you done a diagnostic assessment to find out what learners already know?
  • Have you used information from your diagnostic tool to determine what background information needs to be taught or reviewed first?
  • Have learners had the opportunity to use, manipulate, practice etc., with key curriculum concepts, information or skills?
  • Will the inquiry be done as a class, small groups or individually? And, how will learners narrow down choices?
  • Choose your inquiry.
  • Decide upon success criteria/evaluation criteria.
  • Create a plan (not unlike the scientific method): identify your inquiry question, materials and resources needed, procedure and plan for finding information. How will it be manipulated?
  • How will learners gain access to all required resources to carry out their inquiry?
  • How will learners record their findings? Technology? Pen and Paper? Graphic Organizers? Worksheets? Journals?
  • Revise/Edit. What formative assessment tools will be used, and who will use them?
  • Decide on the best platforms for sharing findings. Consider the audience.
  • Share your findings/presentation.
  • What summative assessment tools will be used, based on success criteria/evaluation criteria?
  • Look for transferability of skills to other subjects and curriculum.

Students in my Grade 3 science class are aware of group norms and have had experience with the scientific inquiry2method. We decided to conduct a series of experiments, including:

  • building the tallest structure out of newspapers without it falling over;
  • building the strongest Lego structure that won’t break when it is dropped;
  • experimenting with toothpicks to determine which shapes are the strongest.

During this time, students were able to test out key design features of structures and work together without any pressure to get anything right. They were not expected to know anything yet, just to work together to see if they could figure out and articulate key design feathers through experimentation.

We used talking circles before and after experiments, KWL charts, and I asked a lot of key questions as I moved inquiry3from group to group to guide reflection and knowledge building. I used Evernote to track reflections, take notes and take pictures of work. I set up specific folders in Evernote to organize this information.

We also included some multimedia videos/presentations and used KWL charts to consolidate some of their information and fill in some gaps.

When the students have developed background knowledge and understand about strength, stability, shape and other key design features from the curriculum, we then worked in small groups to come up with our own inquiries for further learning and consolidation of key concepts regarding building structures.

inquiry4After the learners record their wonderings and collaboratively decide on their inquiry, we determined specific evaluation/success criteria, we made our plans (in this case, begin to fill out our scientific method), and set to work in finding out the answers to our inquiries.

We recorded our learning throughout and determined the best ways to present and share our projects.

4 thoughts on “Inquiry-based learning: harnessing children’s natural curiosity

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