Inquiry-based learning: what it is, types, and phases

Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning was born as an alternative to the traditional teaching method. Through time it proved its effectiveness in fostering problem-solving and critical-thinking skills

Take a deep dive into how this teaching method revolutionised the learning process, discovering its practical applications and advantages.  

What is inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning is an active learning method that encourages students to use questioning and exploration to investigate real-world problems. 

This teaching approach is student-centered. It pushes the individual to engage their critical thinking by creating connections between the information gathered in the classroom and their daily reality experiences. 

Following the assumption that curiosity is a powerful boost for thought, inquiry-based learning aims at captivating students. This way, teachers do not merely deliver knowledge but allow students to process and absorb it, making complex educational goals much more attainable. 

However, for this teaching method to be effective, teachers must earn a deep understanding of the subject. A traditional schooling curriculum is often a crucial support element to balance inquiry-based learning and provide students with further guidance.   

Students, instead, need to master a certain level of independent learning skills to access the benefits of this method. Eventually, they can follow their curiosity and acquire problem-solving and creative skills. 

History of Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning was born as a pedagogical approach during the 1960s. Born from the necessity to rediscuss the traditional teaching methods based on memorization and rote learning, it proved very beneficial for students of all ages.

One of the founders of inquiry-based learning is John Dewey, an American philosopher and pedagogue. Dewey believed learning and researching could be related activities, as they both focus on cognitive processes

Inquiry-based learning is rooted in the constructivist philosophy. Constructivism states that personal and societal experiences influence how human beings gather and make meaning of information.

Dewey’s theory found its perfect space at the beginning of the 60s when the US Government took action to revolutionise the American education system. The purpose was to embrace a new teaching methodology that could tackle creative problem-solving.  

This learning approach has now evolved to be declined in a plurality of different methods, all referencing the same assumptions.

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Types of Inquiry-based Learning

Although inquiry-based learning is a structured teaching method, it also presents flexibility in its practice. Specifically, this approach comprises four different types of methodologies

The types mainly differ when it comes to the starting assumption and the expected results of the task students are assigned. However, they all refer to engaging in critical thinking and problem-solving. 

The confirmation inquiry

The confirmation inquiry supplies the student with a question, a method, and a result that is already known. Students are, therefore, invited to retread the thought process to confirm the outcome. 

Thus, this teaching method provides a solid structure with established logical paths, helping students to practice their investigating skills and reinforce existing knowledge

The structured inquiry

The structured inquiry follows a similar assumption, although it doesn’t provide a result. The tools are a question and a method leading to a conclusion that is the only possible solution given the evidence. 

So, the structured inquiry still supplies students with high guidance, but it adds a challenging component by pushing them to formulate the conclusion independently

The guided inquiry

The guided inquiry elevates the difficulty by subtracting the method from the equation. Thus, students only dispose of a question that represents their starting point. Then, they are challenged to design their own investigative method to find a suitable solution.  

This teaching method expects students to master critical thinking and to be able to navigate their thought path independently. The starting question is provided but also opens a space of infinite possibilities.

The open inquiry

The open inquiry asks students to pose their own questions and select the focus of their own investigation. Then, they can design a method and a conclusion only trusting the solidity of their problem-solving skills.

This inquiry-learning method provides students with a freedom that is stimulating but also very challenging. The absence of guidance is a push toward learning improvement but requires a firm set of skills.   

Phases of Inquiry-based Learning

Inquiry-based learning is a process: it fosters intellectual curiosity while providing a learning experience at the same time. Therefore, this teaching method unravels through 5 phases: orientation, conceptualization, investigation, conclusion, and discussion

The orientation phase

The orientation phase is the input: it stimulates the curiosity of students. Teachers introduce the learning topic if the learner doesn’t establish it by themself. This step is crucial for students as they gather the key knowledge to progress with the investigation.

The conceptualization phase

The conceptualization phase happens when the learner starts to gross one or more concepts from the learning topic. When it comes to open inquiry-based learning, this step brings students to draw one or more questions. Instead – in confirmation, structured, and guided inquiry-based learning – the learner works directly on sorting the possible hypothesis.   

The investigation phase

In the investigation phase, curiosity turns into problem-solving through critical thinking. Students start shaping their questions and hypothesis into possible solutions. This step involves three sub-phases: exploration, experimentation, and data interpretation

The conclusion phase

In the conclusion phase, students get to the closure of their investigation. In this step, the learner answers the initial question or chooses a solution to the problem. The outcome can lead to further intellectual exploration.

The discussion phase

Finally, the discussion phase is an occasion to communicate and reflect. Emotional and social interaction are indeed crucial elements of the learning process. Communication enables students to structure their thought and provides an opportunity for feedback and knowledge exchange. 

How to use Inquiry-based Learning in the classroom

There are various solutions to implement inquiry-based learning in the classroom.

  • Science experiments are perfect to merge fun with a great learning opportunity. An activity that incentives questions and curiosity.
  • Field trips are another great activity to expand a learning topic beyond the classroom. This way, students can see how the knowledge they gather in school connects to the real world surrounding them.
  • While staying in school, students can be involved in projects that challenge them to develop the learning topics independently. Nonetheless, projects are also an occasion for group work to leverage the power of communication and exchange.
  • Classroom debates are also a pretty undemanding option to tackle inquiry-based learning. It engages critical thinking as it compels students to shift between opposite points of view.
  • Technology, nevertheless, represents optimal support for this teaching method. Internet access can expand the learning experience without needing to leave the classroom. And a Notebook or Chromebook provides students with a tool to collect and organize their knowledge. 

Advantages and disadvantages of Inquiry-based learning

The benefits of inquiry-based learning are multiple. As previously said, it fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills. However, it also promotes creativity, pushing students to design solutions and giving limited, if not missing, restrictions.

This teaching method helps students create connections between their personal experience, their studies, and the real world. A tool that can help them deal with complex topics and concepts.

Also, as it promotes exchange, inquiry-based learning trains communication, communication and social skills, which are essential for both education and careers.

Overall, the strength of this teaching method lies in the way it leverages engaged learning. The knowledge acquired through active exploration creates much stronger paths of thought. 

However, the benefits of inquiry-based learning come with some disadvantages. This method may be quite demanding for teachers, especially if they are undertrained. Students may also encounter some difficulties if unequipped with the necessary set of skills or not properly supported. 

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