The 21st-century classroom has undergone many changes, from the growing implementation of new tools and technologies, to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. One of these new mindsets has to do with the how much control students have over their own learning. While most classrooms have realized the benefit of hands-on activities and real-life applications, this idea can be taken even further by giving students genuine control over what they learn, and how. Inquiry-based learning gives students the ability to direct their own learning based on their individual interests.

In this interview, three education leaders—Monica Burns, Richard Byrne, and Vicki Davis—will share their takes on this innovative style of learning.

Dennis Pierce: Why do you think inquiry-based learning has gained such momentum in recent years?

Vicki Davis, full-time teacher and IT Director in Camilla, GA, and founder of the Cool Cat Teacher blog and podcast: In many ways, inquiry-based learning has been around since before Sir Isaac Newton wondered why an apple fell from the tree and hit him on the head. Indeed, many great innovations happened from questions being asked. Great teachers have used inquiry-based learning throughout the years; however, as many schools have gone to a more industrialized model, the personalized, inquiry-based nature of learning fell by the wayside. As technology gives us ways to personalize learning and grasp new research, techniques, and formative assessment tools, teachers can now use inquiry-based learning in larger classrooms.

Monica Burns, an author and curriculum and ed tech consultant, as well as the founder of ClassTechTips.com: I think inquiry-based learning has gained momentum in recent years because of a move to make classroom learning relevant and authentic for students. With tablets, smartphones, and access to computers, students can search for answers to their questions in a way that wouldn’t have seen possible a decade ago.

Richard Byrne, blogger, speaker, and former high school social studies teacher. Find him online at freetech4teachers.com: Inquiry-based learning has gained momentum because it puts students into a more active role in the learning process. There is also an element of wonder or surprise that comes with inquiry-based learning, as the outcome isn’t prescribed.

Pierce: What do you think is the biggest obstacle a school or district can face when implementing inquiry-based learning?

Byrne: Time. In an era of high-stakes testing, inquiry-based learning doesn’t fit the model of “preparing them for the test.” Inquiry-based learning can’t be scheduled into convenient 30-minute blocks the way standardized test-prep is often scheduled.

Davis: There are those who want to treat inquiry-based learning as the buzzword of the month. They want a quick half-day training and for teachers to implement and move on to the next buzzword. Inquiry-based learning must be adopted, fine-tuned, and improved. It takes time.

Burns: The biggest obstacle a school or district may face when implementing inquiry-based learning is communication of expectations. Establishing a plan for how families will support this work, how students will share their learning, and how teachers will support their students along the way, is essential.

(Next page: Supporting teachers, doubting effectiveness and classroom implementation)


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