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)
Pierce: How can administrators support their teachers in implementing a new learning model?
Burns: Proving space to try something new, promoting partnerships among colleagues, and offering timely feedback and encouragement are just a few things administrators should consider.
Byrne: One thing that administrators can do is to recognize that inquiry-based learning isn’t always a quiet and predictable process. Empower teachers to take a risk to use a new method, and support teachers with research-based models that they can study as they begin the inquiry-based learning process.
Davis: First, I think administrators need to support and understand inquiry-based learning. Many administrators feel comfortable evaluating teachers who are using direct instruction techniques (lecture, worksheets, etc.). Traditional means are easier to see and evaluate, but inquiry-based learning is more personal and unique. Teachers tend to be guides and coaches in this learning process. Second, I think that as teachers create personal growth plans of their own, administrators can model inquiry-based learning as teachers create these growth plans, based on the teacher’s needs and interests, making time for exploration and learning.
Pierce: What would you say to someone who doubts the effectiveness of inquiry-based learning?
Davis: Inquiry-based learning is not a method to be used by a teacher who wants to put their feet up on their desk. Instead, we as teachers must learn the methods for promoting inquiry-based learning. There are techniques and strategies for this (Visible Thinking comes to mind).
Byrne: “Inquiry-based” doesn’t mean that teachers don’t provide guidance and or intervene when a student is so far off-task that classroom time is being wasted. Inquiry-based learning does allow for extensive exploration and application of math skills and scientific knowledge. A brief look at the work of Dan Meyer will illustrate that inquiry-based learning can work well in mathematics classrooms.
Burns: I would encourage doubters to step back and think about what the world will look like 10, 15, or 50 years from now. What skills will we want our leaders of tomorrow to have? I would add to that list critical thinking, problem-solving, and engaging in discussion, all of which you’ll find in an inquiry-based learning model.
Pierce: How can teachers incorporate inquiry-based learning in their classrooms?
Byrne: It’s a process that begins with a question or problem that prompts students to investigate a concept or topic at deep level. In an ideal setting, the students develop these questions or problems on their own. The teacher then uses his or her skills and knowledge to aid students in the inquiry process.
Davis: To me, this is very different from teacher-created questions. We want to spark curiosity and help students learn. Masterful teachers can help students ask their own questions or can introduce them to rich tools that encourage inquiry. Sometimes teachers give students guiding questions, which is great. However, when are students allowed to ask questions and explore answers? Do teachers stop to ask students about their questions? Do teachers adjust lessons and learning based on student inquiry? These are all reflective questions that help me drive more towards inquiry-based learning in my classroom.
Pierce: Why is it important to let students direct their own learning based on their interests? How does this prepare them for a future career?
Byrne: Take a look at how many times the phrase “self-starter” appears in job postings and you will understand how good inquiry-based learning environments prepare students for a future career.
Burns: Giving students the space to explore their own interests help them understand what problems they would like to solve beyond the classroom. These types of authentic experiences spark students’ curiosity, and can influence their decisions on future topics to study and careers to investigate.
Davis: The cure for cancer is not a multiple-choice answer. You can’t Google how to negotiate a peace treaty. The answers we need haven’t been invented yet, and don’t show up in search results. Greatness is reserved not only for those who can answer the right questions, but for those who can ask the right questions. A student can’t be treated like an automaton for 20 years and then suddenly be able to ask questions. Inquiry-based learning helps students ask questions and find answers.
Monica Burns, Richard Byrne, and Vicki Davis will be continuing their discussion on inquiry-based learning in an upcoming webinar, entitled 10 Ideas for Excellent Inquiry-Based Learning.
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