Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Getting Started with Student-Directed Inquiry-Based Learning
I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old. These two little ones are at prime ages for questioning. I get 1,000 questions per day, at least. Yesterday I was baking a cake and my son asked me why I was putting eggs in the batter. I turned this simple question into an inquiry-based learning activity.
Rather than tell my son why cakes need eggs, he investigated his own question. I guided him through a simple experiment. We made one cake with all of the listed ingredients (control) and another cake with all of the same ingredients except for eggs. He observed raw eggs before using them by moving the yolk and whites around with a fork. He noticed the consistency; that it was slimy and stretchy. He commented on the color. I asked him to tell me about his experience eating eggs. What do cooked eggs taste like? Feel like in your mouth? Do scrambled egg fall apart when handled? Based on what you're seeing here, what differences do you think you will see between the baked cakes? His prediction was that the cake with eggs would taste like, look like, feel like, and smell like scrambled eggs and the cake without eggs would taste like cake ;) And why wouldn't it? My four-year-old is drawing on his observations and previous experiences.
We then made the two versions of the cake and observed the final products in the same way that we observed the raw eggs. I asked if they looked how he expected and to observe the differences in taste, color, smell, texture, etc. My son thought that the one with eggs tasted better than the one without. The one without eggs fell apart when handled. The one with eggs was brighter yellow. So we determined (with open ended questions from me) that adding eggs to cake batter is probably important for structure, color, and taste.
This is an example of inquiry-based learning.
What is inquiry-based Learning?
Inquiry is simply finding information through questioning. Inquiry-based learning then is a constructivist approach to learning where students develop knowledge by investigating a question rather than through direct instruction (lecture.) Students ask a question based on an observation or are given a question by the instructor. Students then thoroughly investigate that question. The investigation could include experimentation, interviews with community experts, digging through literature such as books, publications and journals, experiential activities, PBL, PrBL, etc.
What are the different approaches to inquiry-based learning?
Inquiry-based teaching spans a broad spectrum from teacher-directed structured inquiry where the instructor gives students the driving question to investigate and designs the investigation, to student-directed open inquiry where students ask their own questions and plan their investigations. Varying levels of guided inquiry lie between the two extremes. An instructor might give students the driving question, for example, but the students plan their own investigations. You might guess, if you are an avid reader of my blog, which end of the inquiry spectrum my learning activities lie.
For more information on student-directed learning, go back to some of my previous posts. I am in the middle of a series on student-directed learning. All of my posts in this series so far can be found by clicking here.
How can I shift to student-directed open-inquiry?
The bulk of my teaching career has been at an experiential learning, student-directed school. I often had students come into my classes mid-year, some 18 years old, that had up until that point experienced a very different kind of learning environment, one where direct instruction was the norm, worksheets were handed out in abundance, and a lot of value was placed on having the correct answers. Throwing students directly into student-directed open inquiry, especially those that are accustomed to being handed "answers", may feel uncomfortable at first. This is especially true with high school students, as there is a shift in mindset that needs to happen.
You can tackle this problem one of three ways:
1) Start at the teacher-directed end of the spectrum and gradually move to the student-directed end of the spectrum. As much as I advocate for student-directed everything, I also understand that there is a learning curve. Making the transition gradually might work best for you and your students.
2) Another way to shift that thinking is to dive right into open inquiry. Be patient and forgiving with students at first, and watch their struggle and confusion transform into a profound learning experience. This is what I usually do. Student-directed open inquiry is where it's at.
3) If I have a population of students that are floundering with open-inquiry after diving right in, I might take a baby step toward the other end of the inquiry spectrum temporarily, providing guided inquiry experiences. This is what I did with my son and the egg experiment. He asked the question. I designed the experiment because, hey, he's 4.
Benefits of student-directed inquiry-based learning?
Why not just Google the answer? If I want to answer a question like why eggs are used in baked goods, I could look it up and find the answer in seconds. The purpose of inquiry-based learning, however, is not finding the correct answer, or finding an answer at all for that matter. The benefits of inquiry-based learning come out of the process, not the results.
A lot of teachers struggle to implement inquiry-based learning because it takes time. What's cool about student-directed inquiry-based learning is that it's multidisciplinary. Many concepts and skills are rolled into one activity vs. direct instruction where ideas are split up into discrete units. Take the egg/cake experiment for example. We practiced counting, colors, and for older students, fractions. We practiced a variety of skills such as communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and even fine-motor skills. We covered a variety concepts in chemistry and math.
The idea is to get students asking questions and finding information as one would in the real-world. Inquiry-based learning experiences provide students with opportunities to use higher order thinking skills such as making observations, asking their own questions, designing experiments, analyzing ambiguities of conflicting information or unexpected results, working through obstacles and coming to solutions to overcome those challenges. Those are skills that are important in life. Inquiry-based learning is a slam dunk when it comes to practicing the 6 C's as well - collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, citizenship and character development. Student-directed open inquiry teaches students the skills necessary for lifelong learning.
What do you need to start student-directed open inquiry?
Teacher-directed structured inquiry is easy. Pull out a recipe lab and ask students to do it. Open inquiry, however, requires that you provide input. If you want your students to ask their own questions and design their own investigation, you need to set a stage that stimulates the flow of observations, questions, and ideas.
You also need to be prepared to scaffold NOT give answers. Scroll to the bottom for a list of great go-to questions when facilitating a student-directed open inquiry activity.
Finally, student-directed open inquiry does not have to be and should not be chaotic. Structure is allowed and encouraged, especially for beginners. Students should have clear expectations and guiding materials. For example, I personally think it's important for students to reflect on their inquiry experience. Providing reflection questions doesn't dilute the learning experience for your students, it just adds an element of structure that some students need or desire.
Where can I find student-directed open inquiry resources?
I recently added a student-directed inquiry product line to my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I currently have two high school level open inquiry projects in that line on water pollution in lieu of upcoming Earth Day. One is an investigation of water pollutants and their sources and the other is the impact pollutants have on aquatic life. Students will ask their own questions based on materials laid out and what they already know, design an experiment to test their questions, analyze results, and draw conclusions. These resources provide structure and guiding materials for students and teachers in what could otherwise be an overwhelming experience, especially beginners.
I hope to add more inquiry-based learning resources in the near future, including a student-directed open inquiry toolkit that would provide the guiding materials for any open inquiry project that is experimental in nature.
What questions can I ask to guide students through the inquiry process?
1) What do you think?
2) Why do you think that?
3) What do you predict will happen if...?
4) Why do you predict this will happen?
5) What would happen if you tried this instead?
6) How could you find out about this?
7) Who might know the answer to that question?
8) Is this source of information credible? How do you know? What source could you use that would be credible?
9) What does this information mean to you?
10) What does this remind you of?
11) Where have you seen this before?
12) What if you tried this?
13) What did you observe then? What do you observe now?
14) What else does this make you wonder?
15) How does this connect to that?
16) How is this different from that? How are they the same?
17) Tell me about what you're doing here and why you're doing it.
18) What could you do next?
19) What is another way you could ask that question?
20) What could you do next?
Who can implement inquiry-based learning?
My inquiry-based learning resources primarily focus on life science, as that is my licensure and background. Inquiry-based learning can be applied across the board, however. If students are asking questions, doing investigations to answer those questions, and constructing knowledge based on the experience, it's inquiry. You can even see that people of all ages can do inquiry-based learning activities. My resources are geared toward high school students, but I do inquiry all the time with my toddler and preschooler at home.
I would love to hear how educators are using inquiry-based learning across disciplines and age groups. How can you apply inquiry in a high school social studies class, reading class, or math class? How do you use inquiry-based learning in early childhood learning environments?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources including project-based learning, maker resources, and now inquiry. I have a few problem-based learning resources in the works, and am excited to get that product line out in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for following!
Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.