Excerpted from the YouthLearn Guide and Website, visit www.youthlearn.org for more on inquiry and project-based learning.
Inquiry-based learning is not a new technique—in fact, it goes back to education philosopher John Dewey—but it does stand in contrast to the more structured, curriculum-centered framework of today's schools.
Asking questions is at the heart of inquiry-based learning. The goal is not to ask just any questions, of course, but ones that youth honestly care about. Your role is to guide the youth in finding the answers themselves and encourage them to ask new questions along the way.
Inquiry-based learning is a style particularly well-suited for out-of-school programs because they have a freer hand to complement, enhance, and expand on the work children are doing in their K-12 classes. School-based teachers may not want to go so far as to make inquiry-based learning the core of their classroom approach. It does, however, offer a powerful option for occasional projects and lab activities.
This article explains some of the key principles of inquiry-based learning. For step-by-step information on how to create an inquiry-based project, see the article called How to Create an Inquiry-Based Project.
"Inquiry-based learning" is one of many terms used to describe educational approaches that are driven more by a learner's questions than by a teacher's lessons. It is inspired by what is sometimes called a constructivist approach to education, which posits that there are many ways of constructing meaning from the building blocks of knowledge and that imparting the skills of "how to learn" is more important than any particular information being presented. Not all inquiry-based learning is constructivist, nor are all constructivist approaches inquiry-based, but the two have similarities and grow from similar philosophies.
How is inquiry-based learning different from traditional approaches? In the traditional framework, teachers come to class with highly structured curricula and activity plans, sometimes referred to as "scope and sequence." They act as the source of knowledge and as the person who determines which information is important. There is certainly creativity and flexibility in how each teacher runs his or her class, but the topics and projects are driven and evaluated based on what a teacher, administrator, school board, or bureaucracy have decided what children should know and master.
In contrast, inquiry-based learning projects are driven by the young people. Educators act more as coaches, guides, and facilitators who help learners arrive at their "true" questions—the things they really care about. When youth choose the questions, they are motivated to learn and they develop a sense of ownership about the project.
Don't get the wrong idea, however: Inquiry-based learning projects are not unstructured; they are differently structured. If anything, they require even more planning, preparation, and responsiveness from the educator—it's just that the educator's role is different.
Educators who adopt an inquiry-based learning approach help youth identify and refine their "real" questions into learning projects or opportunities. They then guide the subsequent research, inquiry, and reporting processes. Since one role of out-of-school programs is often to enhance, support, and expand on the core curriculum of K-12 schools, it's a particularly good approach for giving youth an opportunity to learn with more freedom while reinforcing and imparting basic skills.
Inquiry-based learning has other advantages as well:
Because inquiry-based learning is premised on helping children ask questions, instructors themselves must learn the art of asking good questions. As the leader and guide, remember that you have to model the spirit of inquiry.
Practice your questioning and listening skills with exercises like this one: In your next staff meeting, have everyone pair off and ask each other the story of their name. How would you ask that question? The way you do it will play a role in determining the answer you get. After a few minutes, bring the group back together and share what you learned. Now try this activity with kids using all sorts of questions to help hone their questioning and listening skills.
What kinds of questions make for good inquiry-based projects? As we said, they must first be questions that the youth truly care about because they come up with them themselves. In addition, good questions share the following characteristics:
As we've noted, inquiry can be used in almost any kind of project or activity because it is fundamentally based on just one basic principle: involve youth in the process of making learning decisions.
Because it's such a flexible approach, there's really no way to cover all the ways you can use it. Take a look at How to Create an Inquiry-Based Project for step-by-step guidance on creating projects, but don't think that everything has to be so elaborate.