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!
When you subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot you get instant access to a growing free resource library. There you will find inquiry prompts that inspire curiosity! Subscribe to receive a welcome email with the library password.
Visit us next week or our second post in our inquiry-based learning series.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for new resource alerts and Pinterest & Instagram for more on experiential education.
My very first teaching job (my one-and-only) was at an experiential school, where we used project-based learning as the dominant "instructional" approach. I had zero training in project-based learning when I started.
Because my project-based learning experience was limited, I didn't have a choice but to launch PBL on the first day of my teaching career, whether I was experienced or not - whether I was ready or not. Not surprisingly, it all worked out. Here I am, 13 years later, trying to encourage you take the same plunge.
There are several common reasons that make educators reluctant to try project-based learning: 1) they don't know how to coordinate PBL experiences, 2) they lack the confidence to facilitate PBL, 3) they wonder how it can work for a variety of learners, 4) they worry about the time-commitment, and 5) they struggle to work in all of the required standards.
Even after ten years as a project-based educator, I still get it wrong sometimes. Often, if I am being honest. Like anything in teaching (or in life, for that matter), we learn as we go, and the biggest hurdle is getting started.
Getting Started is the hardest part. I have taken it upon myself to myth bust the excuses that prevent educators from getting into project-based learning. Check out the commonly sited hesitancies below, and how to get around those concerns
Common Worries About Starting Project-Based Learning
1. "I don't know how to do project-based learning.":
There are specific components of PBL that are important to understand before undertaking the process with your students. Project-based learning is very different than a project. The short explanation is that PBL incorporates the community, emphasizes real-world topics or issues, and includes authentic learning experiences from how students demonstrate learning to who they share their new skills and knowledge with.
What can you do right now to learn more about PBL?
2. "I'm don't feel confident starting project-based learning."
I understand this feeling. It is hard to be confident about something that is new to you. On the upside, the worst that could happen is that something doesn't go the way you thought it would. If this is the worst thing that could happen, you are right on track. Trial and error is a good thing! To get better at something you have to try it and learn from it.
What can you do right now to gain confidence?
3) "How do I differentiate project-based learning?"
Project-based learning, when student-directed, is personalized by nature. It works for AP and IB students, homeschool learners, kids that are schooling on the road, distance learners, ELL students, and more. Students design their own projects based on their interests, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges, and more.
For example, if you are focusing on ecosystems, each student could choose one type of ecosystem as their project topic, choose how they will gather information, demonstrate learning, who they will share their new skills and knowledge with, and so on. Choice in process and outcome is what differentiates the experience.
What can you do right now to make PBL work for YOUR student population?
4) "Doesn't project-based learning take a lot of time? I don't think I could fit in in."
This a common perception from educators about many experiential learning activities, including PBL, that they take too much time away from checking off the mandatory standards (look at #5 for more on standards).
Yes, project-based learning experiences can take weeks. That is because they require students to dig deep, which is a good thing! You could lecture, give students a worksheet, or even assign them a project that is not an authentic PBL experience, but students would likely forget the information quickly, and that is if they ever absorbed (or even heard) that information to begin with. It is necessary and IMPORTANT that PBL takes time.
The question still remains, then, how can you fit it into your day?
5) "How can I cover all of the required standards and do PBL at the same time?"
I wish that this didn't have to be a concern for teachers, but it is the reality - in the U.S., anyway.
So how do you incorporate standards into a project-based learning experience AND cover the unrealistic number of standards that is expected of you?
Design one project that covers an entire "unit" of standards. For example, my environmental science students do a PBL experience on endangered species every year. Their objective is to put together a comprehensive species protection plan for their chosen species. To do this successfully, students would have to learn about the natural history of the species, their behaviors, threats, habitat, territory, and more.
Because endangered species are largely the result of human activity, this PBL experience covers a large number of - if not all of - the NGSS's "Earth and Human Activity" standards - six of them (HS-ESS3-1 through 6) as well as others about ecology, evolution, climate, and more.
If possible, create a list of concept map of the standards that need to be met, and design projects using my PBL tool kit that incorporate many of the standards at once.
Self-directed project-based learning is not reserved for homeschoolers and project-based learning schools. It is for everyone. Those of you that are tied to specific curriculum may have to do some convincing to higher-ups, but I assure you, it's worth it.
If you cannot make project-based learning the norm in your learning environment, try to slip a few PBL experiences in here and there. You won't regret it.
Good luck to you all! Let me know how I can help, any questions I can answer, and what you need to get rolling on PBL.
Yes! We have arrived to our final post in our distance project-based learning series. It has been fun, but I'm ready to wrap it up. What better way to do that than with assessments and reflections? Makes good sense.
A newbie to project-based learning asked me this week how I test my students on content after project-based learning experiences have wrapped up. The very short and sweet answer to that question is that I don't. Testing does not improve quality of work, assess skill-development, incorporate personal and/or academic growth, or intrinsically motivate students to learn.
I understand that some educators are required to test their students, and if that is a must, then go for it. But ALSO complete project rubrics (some student-generated), provide narratives, and help learners develop project portfolios as they go. Thankfully, all of this can be done virtually using Google Apps.
My project-based learning digital resources are Google Slides that can be assigned and monitored using Google Classroom, Canvas, NearPod, and exported to Powerpoint. Unfortunately, my expertise lies in Google Classroom, so that will be the focus of this post.
I you have purchased some of my digital resources, go back and peruse the last 2-3 posts that offer step-by-step instructions and tips on assigning them using Google Classroom and communication and feedback using Google Apps.
You can also go back a bit further to look over project brainstorming, final products, community experts, and authentic presentations digitally.
How to Assess and Evaluate Project-Based Learning Experiences Digitally
So let's go over some of the project-based learning assessment strategies that I use and how to apply them virtually.
1. Project Rubrics
Self, peer, and community expert assessments are encouraged in project-based learning, and not just at the end of a project. My students use their project rubrics to self-assess throughout the project experience in order to stay on track and produce quality work.
All of my digital project-based learning resources include a generic project rubric that students can evaluate right on the slide. When peers, experts, and teachers evaluate student progress or project outcomes, students simply duplicate the rubric slide.
Students and teachers can communicate about assessments right in the Google Slides resource. Look back at last weeks post for tips on virtual communication and project feedback.
If you're only looking for project rubrics, check out my generic PBL rubric and my student-generated rubric, which works well for self-directed learning experiences of all kinds, not just PBL.
2. Project Narratives
This is an important piece of project-based learning as well. Providing a letter grade is fine, but illuminating specific strengths, challenges, and areas of growth is difficult to accomplish with a test alone. Observe students as they work. Make note of their personal accomplishments.
My students develop a personal learning plan at the beginning of the session/class. They then look back on their PLP's periodically throughout the PBL experience and again at the end of the project to reflect on whether they've met their goals, where they've improved, what they've gained from the experience, and more.
My personal learning plan is an editable Google Slides. Use this as one method of including a teacher narrative and student-reflection piece to project-based learning experiences.
3. Project Portfolio
Rather than demonstrate learning through testing, which I would argue gathers an inaccurate depiction of learning, have students add their project outcomes (evidence of skill-building, photos of final products, standards met, videos of students working with experts, project rubrics, student reflections, teacher narratives, etc. ) to their portfolio throughout the course of a class or learning session.
My (free) project-based learning assessment portfolio is an editable Google Slides that can be completed right online or printed and assembled into a binder. Subscribe to my mailing list and get this critical PBL assessment resource on the house.
If you have a second, I would love to learn more about you and get a better understanding of what brings you to Experiential Learning Depot. Are you looking for resources? Training? Tips? Inspiration? Ideas? Please fill out this short survey!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest & Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
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.