Last week's blog post was all about how to coordinate and implement self-directed project-based learning. Whether the experience is teacher-led or student-directed, writing a driving question is often the first step in PBL design.
As someone with a background in biology, the first places I would think to go for scientific inquiry experiences is outside or in a lab. Next would be the kitchen. Winter weather in Minnesota can get extreme and those extremes tend to last awhile. Cooking is an indoor activity that is loaded with learning opportunities, particularly in science. Edit: Throw covid shelter-in-place orders in there, and it gets even more appealing!
There is so much to say about student-directed learning. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed, as are students. Self-led learning experiences, in short, give students choice, voice, and autonomy.
These learning experiences can also be done just about anywhere on earth - in a classroom, remotely, out in the backyard or school yard, on the road, traveling around the world, and more because they are designed around personal interests and circumstances.
What is experiential learning? What is experiential learning in a classroom, and what does that look like? How is experiential learning defined? What is experiential learning theory? What are some experiential learning example? Why is experiential learning important and what are the benefits? I get these questions a lot.
Most of the inquiries that I get from educators, however, are about how experiential learning can be worked into K12 curriculum. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components.
Blog Post: Why I Became an Experiential Learning Educator
How to Write Deep and Meaningful Inquiry Questions
Introducing Driving Questions for Inquiry Activities:
Last week's blog post was about making detailed observations to inspire inquiry investigations. These observations lead to driving questions.
But what is an inquiry question? How is it different than any other kind of question? How do you write questions that lead to a deep and meaningful inquiry learning experience? Keep reading!
Experiential learning is student-centered. The child learns from experiences that are personalized, hands-on, meaningful to the child, and student-led. They construct meaning through exploration of their own passions and ideas. Inquiry is a great experiential learning activity that hits these points.
Questions steer inquiry-based learning experiences. For example, a testable question is needed for a scientific open-inquiry experiment, a driving question is a catalyst for project-based learning experiences, and so on. But developing a good driving question starts with observations. Look back at this post to learn more about great inquiry-based learning experiences such as project-based learning.
Making observations seems like a fairly straight forward concept. "What do you observe?", right? But children need a little scaffolding and direction. There are ways to set the stage for successful observation-making, which ultimately motivates driving questions that students care about (next weeks post will be about asking questions for inquiry-based learning experiences).
If you're looking for ways to get students making detailed observations that lead to inquiry learning experiences, then you've come to the right place.
Click here for inquiry resources + my latest resource on student-led experimental design.
Making Observations that Lead to Inquiry-Based Learning Experiences
Practice Making Detailed Observations Using Senses
You could simply say, "Okay, take a look around. What do you notice? What do you see?" That's great, and might work for a minute. But kids tend to focus on the obvious at first.
"I see walls", for example.
Okay, what do the walls look like? What colors are the walls? Are they tall or short? Are they all the same length? Are there windows? Is there anything on the walls? Does anything about the walls surprise you? Now feel the walls. Describe the texture. Are there any inconsistencies in the texture? Are they hot or cold? Tap on the walls. What sound do you hear? Does the sound change when you tap on different spots?
You get the point. It's easy to say "I see walls". Yes, your student is technically making an observation. But what question(s) could that lead to? Help them practice making detailed observations so that asking questions for future inquiry investigations becomes more fluid and natural.
How to do this:
Scaffold and Facilitate
A huge part of teaching students how to make observations is to be there to support the process. The job of an experiential educator, and therefore, facilitator of inquiry-based learning experiences, is not to tell students what to observe, but to help them develop the skills to make these discoveries on their own.
How to do this:
Set the Stage
Ideally you would spark observations by setting up a stimulating environment. Sure kids could observe their school walls, but there are much more interesting ways to engage learners in making observations.
How to do this:
Check out these other posts on inquiry-based learning from Experiential Learning Depot, as well.
Where do you struggle with inquiry-based learning? What holds you back, prevents you from doing more, or presents the biggest challenge?
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I went through my teaching licensure program in 2007. At that time, the main objective was to train us to be leaders in inquiry-based learning. I never questioned why inquiry was so heavily emphasized, I just did what I was told (ironically).
Inquiry allows learners to construct an understanding of the content or concepts through observation, questioning, exploration, experimentation, and so on. As you saw in my last blog post, there are many ways to implement inquiry-based learning experiences into your curriculum.
After 13 years in education, I now understand why my professors were obsessed with inquiry. I knew the what and the how; what inquiry was and how to facilitate inquiry learning experiences. But I didn't know why, and I didn't ask.
But the "why" is equally as important. If you don't know why you're doing something, why would you do it at all? I trusted that my professors had a great reason for harping on inquiry, and I'm glad I did, because the "why" is powerful, especially when it comes to teaching 21st-century learners.
Inquiry-based learning offers so much more than content development. It creates opportunities for building skills that are CRITICAL to thrive in this fast-paced, technology heavy, information inundated society that we live in. This picture that I've painted is the now and it is the future for our students.
So the "why" do inquiry-based learning for me lies heavily in the skills that come out of it. Inquiry experiences help students build a hefty portfolio of skills, but I'm going to go over a few of my favorites. Before getting into this post, it might help to go back and read my inquiry intro post.
Top Five 21st-Century Skills Gained Through Inquiry-Based Learning
Inquiry encourages resourcefulness. The process requires students to gather information on their own rather receive information through direct instruction. Some inquiry experiences, such as project-based learning, ask students to explore topics and investigate questions by reaching out to community experts and organizing authentic learning activities. Utilizing and collaborating with the community is one way to practice being resourceful.
This is absolutely one skill that cannot be acquired through didactic instruction. For students to be self-directed, they need to self-direct, to make their own choices as part of the learning process. Inquiry-based learning sets the stage for self-direction. Students can choose their questions and determine how they will gather information. This is especially true with self-directed project-based learning and scientific open-inquiry investigations.
3. Critical Thinking:
This 21st-century skill comes up often. Critical thinking is arguably the most important 21st-century skill because it applies to so many facets of life. Inquiry-based learning is an effective way to advance critical thinking skills. Problem-based learning, scientific experimentation, STEM, and project-based learning all pave the way to questioning. They encourage students to challenge what they think they know. Students objectively evaluate their experiences, observational phenomena, and real-world issues.
I often hear people say that they're not creative, they weren't born that way, or they're not the creative one in the family. This just isn't true. Creativity is a skill that can be developed with practice and opportunity. Inquiry-based learning is that opportunity. STEM and maker education are two great learning experiences that promote creativity.
For example, one of my STEM challenges is for students to develop a plant prototype that can successfully "cross-pollinate" with "wind". Students design and build their own prototypes, try them out, fail, make creative adjustments, and try again. There would be little opportunity for creative thinking if I had given a PowerPoint presentation on wind pollinator adaptations instead of facilitating this STEM activity.
There are so many great learning experiences that promote problem-solving, problem-based learning being the most obvious. With PrBL, students heavily investigate and assess one issue, question people on a spectrum of perspectives related to the issue, and figure out the most effective way(s) to solve the problem. STEM and design thinking are also great inquiry activities that utilize problem-solving skills. Students investigate the concepts and put those concepts into practice. If something doesn't work as they thought, they ask how the problem can be solved and fix it.
Before I go, check out this simple inquiry activity. The video below shows a mixture of cornstarch and water. When handled, it feels like a liquid at times and a solid at other times. It is a non-Newtonian fluid. A Newtonian fluid is one described as having the properties of an ideal liquid. A cornstarch and water mixture is not that! This challenges our observations and experiences around states of matter, inspiring questioning and the desire to explore the concept!
This video along with the guiding questions is an example of an inquiry activity that offers the opportunity to practice resourcefulness, self-direction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving, among others. Try it out and use it as inspiration for your own inquiry activities!
If you appreciate this kind of guiding prompt, subscribe to my email list to gain access to my free experiential learning resource library, which includes short activities like this one. You also receive a free Project Assessment e-Portolio that students can use to showcase their cumulative work in one space.
1. What do you observe?
2. What does this video make you wonder?
3. What do you believe the mixture is made of?
4. Does the content of this video remind you of something else or an experience that you have had in the past?
5. Do you think the material is a liquid, solid, both, neither, something else entirely?
6. If you aren't sure, how could you find out?
There are so many more skills that can be refined by doing inquiry-based learning. I encourage you to check out my 21st-century skills portfolio resource (printable and digital options) where students can compile evidence of skill-building and showcase their achievements. Inquiry activities could be that evidence!
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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. Check out my introduction to experimental design resource to prepare students for student-led open-inquiry experimentation. Down the line they conduct open-scientific inquiry experiments by choosing their own topics. Check out my open-scientific inquiry tool kit. This is for students that ALREADY have the skills to design their own experiments.
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.
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In short, inquiry-based learning is a student-centered instructional method that promotes learning through discovery. Rather than have "correct answers" delivered directly from teacher to student, the learner explores the world around them, asks questions, and investigates.
Inquiry-based learning exists on a spectrum from teacher-directed to entirely student-directed. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know which end of the spectrum I stick to. If you're new here, I believe student-directed learning is where it's at! An example of teacher-centered inquiry would be a recipe science lab where students follow prepared instructions and the outcome is predictable and uniform. Student-directed inquiry-based learning, on the other hand (open inquiry) gives learners the freedom to make choices in question, experimental design, etc. The student leads the experiment, they do not follow one created for them.
In my opinion, teacher-centered should only be a starting point, not the norm. It's an okay place for beginners to start, but in time, learners should gain the confidence and skills to direct their own inquiry learning experiences. When the activity is student-led, learners gain content knowledge in addition to a hefty portfolio of skills essential for life in the 21st-century.
The role of the educator changes in student-directed inquiry (or anything child-led for that matter), from director of learning to facilitator of learning. You have an important job, which is to scaffold and guide. Use the questions on the graphic below to encourage students to come to conclusions on their own. There are so many other questions you can use to scaffold. The idea is to help learners lead their own quest for knowledge.
Check out the list of inquiry-based learning resources from Experiential Learning Depot below, and use the questions in the graphic to help with implementation. You can also look back at some of my other blog posts on inquiry-based learning for more implementation tips and inquiry details.
Inquiry-Based Learning Resources for 21st-Century Learners
**Note: The resources below were designed with high school students in mind.***
1. Inquiry Bingo
Inquiry bingo is basically trivia, but the questions are obscure; they cannot be answered with one Google Search. It's an exciting way to practice a plethora of 21st-century skills. Students have to think outside of the box, dig in obscure places for information, and potentially communicate with experts. They also gain a portfolio of resources that they may not have been aware of prior to this experience. Click on the photos below for links to inquiry bingo.
2) Ocean and Climate Inquiry Stations
How does climate work? There are so many variables at play when it comes to what influences climate, making this topic fairly complex. It would be difficult to make complete sense of the role that the ocean plays in global climate if conveyed through lecture. This resource encourages learners to make discoveries on their own by connecting their experiences, observations, and background knowledge to real-world scenarios. This particular resource is a series of mapping stations. Click the photo to get to this resource. This activity is also included in a bigger bundle on the science of climate change.
3. Scientific Open Inquiry:
Scientific open inquiry is experimentation that is entirely led by the child. The student asks the question, makes a prediction, designs an experiment, and conducts the experiment. You can start with a specific topic or theme and let students develop questions and experiments around that theme, or you can leave it completely open-ended, similar to a science fair project.
STEM, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and maker education are all forms of inquiry as well. Students start with a driving question and interview experts, collaborate with community members, line up authentic learning experiences, conduct experiments, and so on to answer that question. Find these resources at Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
You also don't have to be a science teacher to do inquiry-based learning with your students. Most of the resources listed above are scientific in nature because I am a science teacher. But inquiry crosses-disciplines. It doesn't matter if your students are learning about climate or economics; if they are exploring and examining the world by asking their own questions and coming to conclusions on their own, then it is inquiry, regardless of the topic.
This list is always growing, so check back with Experiential Learning Depot on TpT occasionally. I will also try to keep this post updated as more resources are added to my store. For free tips and resources on inquiry-based learning continue to follow along right here.
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There is one critical teacher question to ask students consistently:
"How can you find out?" This is one of my favorite answers to student questions. Resourcefulness is an important skill for children to have heading into adulthood in the 21st-century. I often have students that don't know how to answer this question when I ask it. They don't know where to go to get information.
A parent in my neighborhood recently shared with me that he himself reached out and networked in the community to secure a summer internship for his son, a requirement for his son to earn his college degree. His son is in his 20's. This parent wanted to be helpful. He wanted his son to graduate. The problem is not really with the parent. It's not even with the son. The problem is that his son up to this point had rarely needed to inquire, ask questions, find information, collaborate with community members, or create his own learning opportunities. He had been given answers, given resources, given teacher-directed lessons. He didn't know how to get an internship, a real-life learning experience, because he had never been asked to do anything like that before.
I have noticed since starting this blog and connecting with so many amazing educators from around the world on social media, that there is a huge push toward pedagogy that teaches skills like this - knowing how to find information and opportunity. I do think that things are changing drastically. Educators are doing some amazing things. Project-based learning, problem-based learning, STEM/STEAM, and Inquiry-based learning are a few examples. Inquiry-based learning is a powerful method of setting the stage for development of the very important life skill of resourcefulness; the ability to answer the question "How can you find out?"
Note: A while ago I published two posts, both of which include details on inquiry-based learning that I won't get into here - "Getting Started with Inquiry-Based Learning" and "3 Transformational Approaches to Student-Directed Teaching" . Check out these posts for details on inquiry and great guiding questions to ask students throughout the process if it's a route you choose to try.
"How can you find out" in action:
My children and I recently spent a few days at my parents home, which is on a lake. There is a wetland, which we call "the lagoon", behind their home where my children spend a lot of time. Wetlands are full of life, and they really come to life when you stop and observe. My children noticed hundreds of green balls floating in the water that they had never seen before. My two-year-old daughter thought they were balloons. My 5-year-old thought they were fish eggs. I thought they looked like the tapioca pearls that you'd see in bubble tea, which of course they were not. My kids asked the question, "What are those?" My answer: "Great question. How could we find out?"
We started by scooping a pan full of these mysterious balls and making observations. My kids noticed that they could pop the balls, so the balls were in fact filled with gas. This opened the door to a conversation about gases/solids/liquids. I used a balloon as an analogy. They then made the observation that the balls were green. I asked them what other natural feature is green. They said trees. They were then able to determine that the bubble shape was probably created by a plant. This discovery segued to plant anatomy.
I asked my son where he could learn more about plants, how he could find out why plants are green, and he said with books. So we headed to the library. We looked at several kids books on plant anatomy and water plants.
Then I asked my son who might know a lot about plants. He said a "plant doctor" so I brought him to the DNR building in town, the next best thing! He looked through brochures and showed a picture of the balls to a DNR employee. She gave my son a business card for their wetland ecologist. We later contacted her and she clarified that the balls were in fact algal blooms.
This is inquiry.
My child had a simple question. "What is this?" He was able to find out the answer by asking around. He investigated by making observations, asking experts questions, rifling through informative books that he located (with the help of the librarian), and drawing his own conclusions. He constructed his own knowledge by actively seeking out information. He led this learning experience. Of course I had a role to play and that was facilitator. That is the job of a student-directed educator.
The lessons learned here are appropriate for a 5-year-old. He learned the difference between solids, liquids, and gases. He learned how to differentiate between plants, animals, insects, etc. based on physical features. He learned how to observe using all of his senses. He even learned that plants, including algae, make their own food. Most importantly, in my opinion, he practiced locating resources to find the answer to his question, a need that will come up in his life over and over again.
If this same observation were to be made by an older student you could launch into exploring photosynthesis with them, wetland ecology, ecological health, water pollution from fertilizers and more. I had dozens of questions when I saw these balls floating around. Not "What is it?" I knew what they were. My high school students, particularly my environmental science students, would likely know what they were. My questions were more along the lines of why those algal blooms were there at all, if they were impacting ecological and/or human health, recreational fishing, or the economy, and if so, what could be done about it?
Each of those questions could be turned into inquiry-based learning opportunities for students by conducting scientific inquiry experiments (check out my inquiry-based learning toolkit, geared toward middle and secondary students); contacting community experts; visiting sites; inviting speakers to the school; digging for publications; interviewing people from varying perspectives such as the DNR, other conservation groups, farmers, city planners, scientists, golf course managers, and more. When asked "how could you find out?", those are some ways, and our students need to have this skill. They need to know HOW to learn.
Take a peek at these other inquiry-based learning and student-directed learning resources for middle and high school students at Experiential Learning Depot:
- Student-Directed Learning Toolkit Bundle (Inquiry, PBL and PrBL)
- Student-Directed Scientific Inquiry - Water Pollution Bundle
- Water Pollution Unit: Student-Directed Learning Bundle
- Water Pollution Community Action Project
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.