Updated: Jan 9
In a typical American classroom, students are passive recipients of knowledge. They must memorize long strings of information that feel decidedly disconnected from the real world. Inquiry-based learning (IBL) provides a fun, engaging alternative to the boredom many students and teachers feel. By deeply engaging students in projects that are relevant, IBL can lure in even the most reluctant learners. Here’s how to incorporate this effective, motivational, and research-supported strategy into your classroom.
What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?
IBL turns traditional approaches to education on their head. Rather than listening quietly while reading or learning from teachers, students in IBL classrooms pose questions, think critically, and solve complex problems.
IBL lesson plans are highly flexible. Teachers can present questions and puzzles to students, or they can work with students to help students devise their own inquiries. For instance, high schoolers in an IBL classroom might research teen driving restrictions, then use that research to lobby for or against proposed legislation.
IBL takes a longer-term approach to learning. Rather than memorizing facts or filling out worksheets, students become deeply invested in solving a problem. In so doing, they master traditional skills—STEAM, reading, and writing—as well as skills that are harder to teach, such as effective communication, creative problem-solving, critical thinking, and time management.
Why Teachers Should Consider Inquiry-Based Learning
Teachers spend much of the day managing the effects of boredom. They must urge students to stay quiet, remain in their seats, and focus on the task at hand. It’s not fun for anyone. And this educational style teaches bad lessons about learning. When children think learning has to be dull and frustrating, education becomes divorced from their daily lives. It’s something they do at school, something they dislike, something to avoid.
Children can learn everywhere and anywhere. IBL helps them understand that watching birds is just as valuable as filling out worksheets. It helps them explore new ways to teach themselves, offers them control over when and how they learn and helps them connect their daily lives to what they do in school.
A child in a classroom that encourages inquiry might view a kitchen ant infestation as a chance to better understand biology and to experiment with remedies to the problem. IBL turns children into citizen scientists, critical thinkers, tinkerers, and people highly invested in solving problems.
That’s precisely the approach that 21st-century jobs demand. Thus, IBL offers a fun, engaging educational alternative that prepares kids for the future.
Implementing Lesson Plans That Inspire Inquiry
Children are natural explorers. Consider how much time a toddler can spend exploring a single leaf. High schoolers are notoriously adept at developing numerous justifications for every argument they have with parents. Your students are natural scientists. IBL capitalizes on this tendency toward critical thinking, rather than snuffing it out.
How can you create inspiring and effective lesson plans? The answer is as varied as your students. Here are some strategies that can get you moving in the right direction:
Shape a question your students are already asking into a viable lesson plan. Are they constantly asking why they can’t go to recess, why teenagers can’t drive at night, or why their parents make them go to bed? Help them turn this into a viable topic of investigation.
List your curriculum goals for this month, this week, or this year. Then consider what questions or problems those goals can address. Arithmetic, for example, is vital to making a budget. Help your students devise practical questions that engage them in curriculum goals.
Consider that students may have different home lives and socioeconomic backgrounds. Not all kids get an allowance or can save up for a new toy, for example. Ensure any home-based extensions of IBL are sensitive to this fact. Rather than asking children to save up their allowance, for example, you might instead encourage them to decide how to allocate classroom resources.
Ask your students to present their own questions after giving them a list of curriculum goals. Once students understand what they’re supposed to be learning, they may surprise you with novel mastery strategies. This independent, student-driven approach to learning often works well with frustrated and disconnected students.
Consider allowing different students to engage in different inquiries. You may also want to give students a choice between group and individual work. This helps you avoid a one-size-fits-all approach that may alienate some students.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by trying to construct the perfect lesson plan. Remember that you don’t have to tackle every curriculum goal with a single inquiry, nor do you have to follow the curriculum in order. For instance, in some cases, it may make sense for students to master division before multiplication, or to explore the plant life cycle before they are able to identify the parts of a plant. IBL is flexible by design. Students don’t learn in a linear fashion, and your projects need not be linear to be effective. The goal is to make learning relevant.
Tailoring Lessons to District Goals
IBL doesn’t have to replace traditional curricula. Teachers can use it as a supplement that draws in bored students. For instance, as part of a unit about plant life cycles, teachers might ask students to experiment with various indoor gardening setups. Showing kids the real-world effects of changes in a plant’s environment can get them more invested in something that previously felt irrelevant.
Another option is to offer students inquiries that address curricular goals. Drawing on the plant life cycle example above, you might challenge them to find plants at each stage of the cycle and assemble photos into a plant book. The goal is to think creatively. Move beyond worksheets and books to find strategies that get students moving. The best inquiries are those that give students some control over a project’s direction.
Your students don’t have to be bored. They don’t have to be quiet or sit in their seats, either. Try a new approach to learning and watch disconnected students vibrantly reconnect.