Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Almost every learning experience that I facilitate with my own children and my high school students centers around inquiry. Direct instruction is rare.
Inquiry-based learning is a powerful learning tool for so many reasons. It is a child-centered learning experience where students construct their own explanations of variety of concepts. Students do this by making observations, drawing on their own experiences, identifying assumptions, asking questions, experimenting (in some cases) and comparing their personal assessment of the information to current expert thought.
The benefits? Students are engaged. Isn't this THE educator conquest, to engage students? My kids' eyes glaze over when I talk at them. Talk with them, or better yet, don't talk at all. Let them do the talking; the exploring. Inquiry is an experience. Lecture is not.
If children are not experiencing the content, they're not invested. The passion for learning fizzles and students become disinterested, apathetic, bored, and yes, disengaged. My goal as a teacher is to create a learning environment for my students that offers the exact opposite of all of those barriers to deeper learning.
So let's take a look at exactly what inquiry-based learning is, and some great activities to get you started.
Before moving on, let's clarify the different levels of inquiry. Inquiry falls on a spectrum.
If you and your students are new to inquiry, it often helps to start with structured experiences, then move onto guided, until they are confident and ready for open. That's one way to do it. Or they can just dive right in and embrace the trial and error!
So without further ado, let's go over some awesome instructional methods that emphasize inquiry.
5 Game-Changing Inquiry-Based Learning Activities
Inquiry is at the heart of each of the following instructional approaches. These are the ones that I use the most often, but there are certainly others. Peruse your options and try out a few that get you excited. Good luck!
1. Project-Based Learning:
Students investigate a topic, which includes asking a driving question, reaching out to community experts, and arranging authentic learning experiences. Students demonstrate learning in an innovative way and present their information to an authentic audience. Get PBL details by perusing these posts.
Students are not given information directly from the educators mouth during PBL. They make their own discoveries by engaging with the community in a deep and meaningful way. My PBL advisory students spend the bulk of their time doing open-inquiry PBL. They determine the project topic, design the experience, and lead it from start to finish. I do more guided-inquiry PBL experiences in my subject classes, such as env. bio. I offer a theme or set of standards to focus on, and the students plan the rest of their experience. Check out some of those resources here.
I commonly use scientific-inquiry in my science classes. Rather than give students a recipe lab experiment, where they follow step-by-step instructions and the results are uniform and expected, students design and execute their own experiments based on their personal observations and questions.
This is not a strategy reserved exclusively for science classes. I have a psychology PBL resources that includes conducting an experiment and writing a lab report as a final product option. I also have an intro to inquiry resource coming out this week about consumer products.
An example of a guided-inquiry experience would be asking my psychology students to design and conduct experiments that fall under the theme of social norms. My students do this to practice experimental design. Down the line they conduct open-scientific inquiry experiments by choosing their own topics. Check out my open-scientific inquiry tool kit if you prefer to go the open route.
3. Problem-Based Learning
Problem-based learning is when students investigate real-world and relevant issues in an authentic way. They talk to people from every point of view, question experts, research old and new strategies for tackling the issue, and add novel ideas of their own. They formulate a hypothetical comprehensive plan to solve the issue, or if you choose, it does not have to be hypothetical.
These experiences make a profound and lasting impact on students because they have become such a part of the issue. You can take it a step further and have students conduct community action projects, where their plans become a reality rather than a hypothetical.
Again guided vs. open is simply a difference in the guidelines that are offered. To see an example of a guided-PrBL experience, check out this one on invasive species. For open-PrBL experiences, check out my tool kit.
4. Making/Design Thinking:
Making has become one of my favorite inquiry activities. Sometimes you just need a quick, but powerful learning experience. This is it. Maker education is more than crafting or DIY. The experience should incorporate principles of design thinking, which includes building, yes, but takes it a few steps further than that. Students make a prototype, test it out on a relevant audience, tweak their design, test it again, and the cycle continues until they have a useable, effective final product.
Inquiry comes in as students create their prototypes and during the trial and error phase. They ask questions while researching effective designs. They ask questions while creating their prototypes: "what is working well?; what isn't working well?; "what could I change or alter to make my prototype more effective?"; and so on.
For more information about maker education and design thinking check out these posts. You can also check out my guided-inquiry maker projects and my open-inquiry maker tool kit.
STEM is another instructional approach that incorporates inquiry. STEM activities can span several weeks of deep exploration or cover a one-hour class period. I like the flexibility of STEM.
STEM activities follow a similar pattern as the one I described in #4, maker/design thinking. During this process of trial and error students ask questions and test their prior understanding of a concept. Their assumptions get flipped upside down. What they thought they knew is challenged. Your students then alter their line of thinking based on what they're experiencing, and this goes on and on until they have constructed an understanding of the concepts on their own, without you having to deliver it verbatim.
For more on STEM, take a look at these posts. For an example of a STEM resource, check out my students' favorite STEM challenge, Wind Pollinator Adaptations.
There are other ways to execute inquiry-based learning beside the ones that I mentioned here. I have an inquiry activity about climate drivers that does not seamlessly fit into any of the categories included above.
Inquiry does not function on strict rules. That is the beauty of it. Do what you want! Try some things out. Look for what inspires curiosity and gets your kids excited. Organize learning experiences that ask students to actively think, explore, and investigate, vs. passively sitting back while information flies through one ear and out the other. You will not regret it!
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Visit us next week or our second post in our inquiry-based learning series.
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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.