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.
My current blog series is focused on experiential learning, and student-direction is an important piece of that. I encourage you to go back and read What is Experiential Learning Anyway? and What is Student-Directed Learning Anyway? before moving on.
There are many ways you can add student-directed learning to your otherwise teacher-directed activities, simply by giving students choice. But to really utilize the benefits of student-directed learning, consider making it your curriculum, not just adding a few opportunities for choice here and there. There are a few very powerful strategies for doing this.
I chose three specific learning activities to mention here, not because they have to be student-directed in order to work, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to incorporate. Check them out below!
I have tool kits for all of my go-to self-directed learning experiences, including those that I describe in this post (as single units or in a bundle). By signing up for my newsletter, you get a free project assessment e-Portfolio where students can independently manage their own learning outcomes from these self-directed learning experiences.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
Before launching into these three teaching strategies, it's important to know that there is a significant amount of overlap between them. Project-based learning and problem-based learning both fall under the umbrella of inquiry experiences. However, there are some inquiry-based learning experiences that ARE NOT PBL or PrBL. So don't limit yourself.
I would also consider project-based learning a type of problem-based learning. They both tackle real-world problems. They differ in process of gathering information and showcasing learning outcomes.
1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 11 years.
Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product. What distinguishes project-based learning from other pedagogies or projects in general is that the community plays a large role in the research process, end products must be innovative, and presentations must be authentic, meaning the information gathered or the product itself should meet and impact a relevant audience.
For details on how to start student-directed project-based learning and for PBL examples, refer back to some of my other posts on PBL.
How do you make PBL student-directed? Give students choice in as many ways as you can. Students can choose their own topic and learning objectives the flexibility is there. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in all other aspects of the project process (subtopic, research questions, sources, community experts, final product, authentic audience, how to share final product with that audience, etc.)
Teacher-directed project-based learning would mean you would be doing all of that work for your students. Not only is that a lot on you, but learners are then robbed of the opportunity to develop those important skills themselves such as networking, communication, and collaboration.
I have many PBL resources that focus on a specific theme. The guiding materials leave room for student choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit, which gives students choice in every facet of the experience. My PBL assessment e-portfolio opt-in gift is the perfect resource for to wrap up and showcase the entirety of these PBL experiences.
The photo on the left is one part of the end product of a large and ongoing student business project. The picture is of skate decks for his skateboard company, all designs by students. The photo on the right is of a student taking photos as a way of demonstrating learning. Photography was a passion of his, so taking photos to document his project was his choice.
2. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. I implement PrBL by having students investigate a problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem completely.
Again, problem-based learning has the bones to be student-directed as long as students direct the experience through a series of choices. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc.
True student-directed problem-based learning would ask students to identify and choose a problem that they are interested in and want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires specific skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all. Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.
I have a problem-based learning product line in my TpT store with a problem-based learning toolkit for student-directed experiences, as well as theme-based PrBL resources.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give students a water pollution problem about fertilizers, and take students to a nearby organic farm to talk with the farmer about how she grows crops sustainably.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning:
I use student-directed inquiry-based learning quite often because I am a science teacher. It's very fitting for science concepts, as one method of investigation is experimentation.
Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment for any concept. Inquiry simply asks a question which students investigate through whatever means available and effective.
Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum, as I said in my last post. Check out inquiry posts, including how to implement student-directed inquiry-based learning for details.
If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry. Open inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and direct their own investigations. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle.
I have a few scientific open inquiry activities in my TpT store. I also have an inquiry-based learning toolkit with the guiding materials needed for student-directed open inquiry, as well as a variety of other inquiry-based learning resources.
Share your student-directed learning experiences with us! Comment on the this post or send me an email anytime at email@example.com!
Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
Most of the inquiries that I get from educators are about experiential learning and how it can be worked into 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.
There are, however, some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
1. Myth: Experiential learning takes place outdoors.
One common misconception is that outdoor learning and experiential learning are interchangeable. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
2. Myth: Experiential learning is only for corporate team-building.
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team-building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students, and the application to learning doesn't stop at team-building.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can learn experientially starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Essential Components of Experiential Learning
The following features are essential to experiential learning. After you have read about the importance of these components, subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot to gain access to a free growing resource library. You will instantly receive an email with a password and instructions to access that library.
In the library you will find an experiential learning activity planner that includes all of the elements of experiential learning identified here. Use it to help design and facilitate experiential learning in your classroom or home learning environment. Good luck!
1. Students are Actively Involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student. Learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students Have the Freedom and Support to Make Mistakes:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners.
STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The Experience is Personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my personalized project-based learning bundle. Pair it with my free project-based learning e-portfolio when you subscribe and you will be well on your way to an experiential classroom!
4. Students See a Connection Between Content and the Real World:
Connecting an activity with real-world problems or ideas helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what they're learning applies to life.
That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students Can See Purpose in the Activity:
Do you ever hear "Why do I need to know this?" You will never hear an experiential educator respond to that question with "you just do" or "sometimes we need to do things we don't like".
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The Experience is Student-Directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
The bulk of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed, or at a minimum, student-centered. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for new resource alerts.
7. Reflect on the Experience:
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
8. Authentic Learning Experiences:
Make learning authentic by adding experiences that are real and relevant to students. If students are studying the brain, for example, connect with the neurology department of a local university to arrange for a speaker, class visit, to borrow resources, etc.
Utilizing community experts and community resources in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through a favorite activity and fill in the experiential learning planner included in E.L.D.'s free resource library to see if it is experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences.
But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners. Start with any student-directed learning activity.
Good luck! And as always, reach out anytime with questions. I would also love to showcase your experiential learning successes right here! Share your experiences with me anytime.
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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!
Check out some inquiry-based learning resources from Experiential Learning Depot, including an introductory to experimental design resource that helps transition students to self-led inquiry investigations.
Let's Walk Through an Example:
A couple of days ago my children and I were walking around our neighborhood observing the fall colors. My son noticed a bald eagle flying above us. It eventually perched in our neighbor's tree directly next to another eagle. Right at that moment we watched a battle ensue between the eagles and then heard a thump! Upon inspection we saw that the eagles had been fighting over (what we believe was) a rat.
One of the eagles flew away, while the other continued to sit in that same tree, likely waiting for us to leave so that it could snag the rat that we were standing next to. Eventually the eagle flew away, and when we came back to our neighbors yard hours later, the rat was still there. The eagle never came back to get it.
Those that observed the interaction started spouting off questions. My four-year-old said she felt sad for the rat, and my son's response was "don't eagles need to eat?" This opened the door for an inquiry investigation about the food chain and predator/prey relationships.
My son also asked why the eagles were fighting. Simply put, they were fighting over food, but this surface question could easily turn into a deeper exploration into intraspecific competition and population dynamics.
I wondered if our presence cost the eagle its meal. If we hadn't been standing there would the eagle have returned for the rat? This question could be refined into a more detailed driving question about animal behaviors, the influence of humans on local ecosystems, whether humans should interfere with natural phenomena, and how that interference may affect the natural balance of the ecosystem.
Arriving at the Big Questions:
This post is about asking those big questions that lead to big investigations. So how do students write those questions? Some questions are better than others when it comes to asking effective inquiry questions. Let's go over a few...
1) Is an eagle a predator?
"Is" - This question only gets at the surface of the concept. The student can easily answer the question with one Google search and the experience is over.
2) Do eagles eat rats?
"Do" - Same idea. Do eagles eat rats? Yes. Investigation over.
3) What do eagles eat?
"What" - This sort of question, ones that begins with "what", "who", and "when", can be answered easily with little room for interpretation. You discover that eagles eat rats, rabbits, other birds, and road kill. But the why isn't addressed, which makes the question pretty basic.
4) How did the eagle get that rat?
"How" - You do a little research about the hunting techniques of an eagle, and maybe even dig into its evolutionary history. Asking "how" goes slightly deeper than "what" or "where", but is still not quite what we want.
5) Why does the eagle want to eat the rat?
"Why" - This "why" question encompasses all of the questions asked before it. This question would take time to answer. It gets into the interconnectedness of life on earth, the food chain, animal behaviors, the eagle's evolutionary history, and so on.
6) Should humans interfere with the predator/prey relationship?
"Should/would" - This "should" question is more philosophical, but it gets at a deeper exploration of how species are connected, niche, adaptations, symbiotic relationships, the complexities of predator and prey relationships, coevolution, and yes, the role that humans play in the natural world.
This question is specifically directed toward the effect that humans might have on the natural balance of the ecosystem, if they were to protect a rabbit from the talons of an eagle, for example. This question requires critical thinking and analysis, an understanding of the predator/prey relationship, ecological communities and populations, evolutionary history, and an examination of the scientific research that is already out there as well as the varying perspectives among community members and experts. This is a great inquiry question.
Try This Exercise with Your Students:
Encourage these deeper questions by having students go through this exercise. Have them make a simple observation, such as "The leaves on the tree are turning yellow." Then they can begin to ask questions starting with basic "what", "who", and "when", then move onto "how" and "why", and finally ask those rich questions starting with "should" or "would" that can become the driving question to a comprehensive inquiry exploration.
I have put together an easy to use template for this exercise that can be copied and assigned to students digitally. You can find it in my free resource library accessible to subscribers. After you have signed up for my mailing list you will receive an email from me with the password to this library as well as a project-based learning assessment e-portfolio.
Applying Questions to Specific Learning Experiences:
Not long ago I wrote a post about teaching methods that embrace and promote inquiry. Project-based learning and scientific inquiry experiments were two of several mentioned. I'm going to stick with these two methods here.
How to Write a Project-Based Learning Driving Question:
The backbone of a project-based learning experience is the driving question. You could simply ask students to research a specific topic, but a driving question offers purpose. PBL driving questions include a who, an action, and identifies the purpose of the experience or the audience that is impacted by the experience.
1. How could my class educate the local community about, and include the community in preventing human interference with local wildlife?
The big difference between this driving question and simply researching the topic of eagles as a local predator, is in the purpose. The purpose is to bring the community together to work toward a common interest, which is protecting local wildlife.
Check out Experiential Learning Depot's guided project-based learning resources here.
How to Write a Testable Question for an Scientific Inquiry Investigation:
Scientific inquiry investigations are my favorite! I'm a science teacher, so yes, I may be biased. But experimentation does not have to be limited to science. Sometimes the best way to investigate an idea is to test it. Students can test concepts in psychology, sociology, consumerism, economics, cooking, and more.
Experiments require a testable question. Questions are developed with cause and affect in mind. How does this affect that.
For example, "What is the effect of the presence of humans on the likelihood of an eagle returning to its prey?"
I am in the process of putting together an introduction to experimental design resource. This resource includes a step-by-step guide for student-designed experiments, including writing testable questions. Students then design and conduct their own experiments on the theme of consumer products. I will be launching this resource in the next couple of days! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT to get an alert when it has been published.
Asking questions is inquiry. I hope this has been helpful in paving the way for purposeful student-asked inquiry questions that launch outstanding inquiry experiences. Reach out anytime with questions.
In what ways do your students find the questioning process challenging? What are some successes or favorite inquiry questions you have heard in your time as an educator? Share your stories!
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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As someone with a background in biology, the first place I would think to go for scientific inquiry experiences is outside. The second 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. It's also prime season for baking!
Scientific inquiry is a method of gathering information and gaining scientific knowledge by making observations, asking questions, making predictions, and experimentation. It is a student-centered way for learners to make discoveries about the world in their own way. They are not handed information. They are not given "correct" answers. They play around with ideas, draw on background knowledge to predict outcomes, experience the concepts through hands-on and authentic learning experiences, challenge prior thinking, and adjust that thinking upon the advent of new and unexpected information.
And, as I've already said, the kitchen is a great place to start! Below is a list of winter-inspired dessert ideas for students to bake while learning about kitchen science through the process of inquiry. My recommendation is to have students conduct open inquiry. The student directs the inquiry investigation, starting with their own question, designing an experiment to test that question, and conducting the experiment. I have a scientific inquiry tool kit in my store that is perfect for open inquiry. It includes all of the guiding materials for child-led inquiry experimentation.
Another option is to have students investigate the specific question that I pose for each recipe in this post. The same inquiry tool kit can be used for that. A final option is to just cook the food, make observations, ask questions together as you go, research the answers using a variety of resources from books to experts, and have fun with it. That is also inquiry-based learning. Just because it does not involve a scientific experiment, doesn't mean it's not inquiry. This approach is usually what I do with my own children, a preschooler and kindergarten. My high school students conduct open inquiry experiments based on their own observations and questions.
Enjoy the following winter-inspired kitchen science ideas! I have done all of these projects with either my own kids (pre-k) or my students (8-12 graders). Each is fun and doable. Happy holidays, everyone!
Oh! Check out my new maker project, "Dinner Party on a Budget", and Inquiry Bingo: Food Theme, both fun resources for the holiday season stir-craziness. For resource updates, follow Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
Winter-Inspired Kitchen Inquiry Activities
The Question: Does speed at which eggs are added to the hot milk effect texture of eggnog?
In other words, how do I make chunkless eggnog? ;) My children and I made homemade eggnog. It wasn't good. My kids despise it in general, but our final result was scrambled, so I certainly wasn't going to convince them to like it that day! The fun in this activity it the trial and error.
The Science: In order to make smooth eggnog, you have to temper the mixture, controlled heating and cooling. Pouring the eggs into the hot milk mixture too quickly is not controlled. Heat coagulates the proteins in the eggs, so adding the eggs to the heat too quickly causes them to scramble. Tempering, slowly controlling temperature, keeps the protein structure at bay.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making eggnog. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. Click here for the recipe that we used. Or they experiment with the question posed here, trying and experimenting with different methods.
2. Tye-Dye Sponge Roll Cake
The Question: Which ingredients prevent a "roll cake" from crumbling when rolled?
This was such a fun recipe to make with kids. My kiddos made two different types of cake to see how particular ingredients (or lack thereof) might impact the cake texture, making it more or less suitable for rolling without cracking. We made a roll cake and a regular white cake.
The Science: A mixture of eggs and sugar provide structure, in part by trapping air bubbles during the whipping process. In addition, adding baking powder causes a chemical reaction resulting in carbon dioxide, increasing the amount of bubbles in the batter. Proteins and starch in the flour add stability to the air bubbles, but the high ratio of sugar to flour gives it that flexibility that roll cakes require.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making roll cakes. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. They can make a variety of different types of cakes, experiment with baking powder, eliminate an ingredient from a standard roll cake recipe to see what happens, etc. I used this recipe for the roll cake.
3. Pie Crust
The Question: Which fat makes a flakier pie crust, butter or lard?
My high school advisory students started an annual holiday pie fundraiser many years ago, and part of the planning process was creating the BEST pie to sell. We asked around, talked with professional chefs, they surveyed consumers, perused caking blogs, etc. The ultimate influence was my grandmother! She said the secret to her flaky pie crust is animal lard. So we tested it.
The Science: Lard is fat. Period. Butter on the other hand, is fat plus some water. Lard has a higher melting point than butter, making it easier to handle in the making process. Lard also results in flakier crust because the 100% fat in the lard solidifies into crystals, separating the dough into layers, creating that flakiness we were testing for.
Inquiry Activity: Whether flakiness is desired is a matter of opinion. But we did find that lard, in fact, does make pie crust flakier, whether we prefer that texture or not. Learners can investigate their own questions about variables that inspire or interest them. They might investigate why pie crust recipes usually ask for cold water versus hot or room temperature water. Students might experiment with different types of flour such as whole wheat, all-purpose, and pastry flour. Students could play around with crust width, baking temperature, fillings, glazes, vents created for baking, and so on and so on. Find any number of pie crust recipes on Google.
Note: Lard is not required to make pie crust! Learn about your students and be sensitive to their needs. Allergies, food sensitivities, religious food practices, etc. need to be considered and respected.
4. Whipped Cream
The Question: Which milk product will result in the foamiest texture - skim milk, whole milk, or heavy whipping cream?
The Science: The heavy whipping cream turned out to be incredibly important. No matter how long we blended the skim milk and whole milk mixtures, they never became frothy. The fat in the heavy whipping cream envelopes air bubbles added from the whipping process, creating a network that stiffens the mixture. So, fat is what gives it the foamy texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making whipped cream. They can make observations, ask their own questions, and design their own experiments. This is open inquiry. Or they can design an experiment that tests the question I asked above. Click here for the recipe that we used. I let my littles played around with coloring the whipped cream as well (with food coloring).
5. Cream Puffs
The Question: Does the number of eggs affect the structure of cream puffs?
My kids and I have made many bread-type recipes, but this one called for an unusual number of eggs. We made three batches of cream puffs, some with the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, one with half of the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, and one with no eggs at all. The batch without eggs collapsed completely.
The Science: Cream puffs also have a lot of fat, so the egg protein is necessary to keep the structure. Eggs also act as a leavening agent and an emulsifier for a smooth and light final texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making cream puffs. There is so much science involved in these little desserts! For this reason, I would encourage open inquiry. Otherwise you can offer up a specific question, such as the one above. I found there to be a few unusual cooking methods in this recipe as well, such as melting the butter in boiling water and milk first. Those types of investigations are fun as well. Try this recipe. Combine this cooking activity with the whipped cream inquiry above for a really tasty treat!
6. Hard Candy
The Question: Does the temperature of the sugar mixture when removed from the heat source impact the hardness of the final product?
This is a question that my high school students and I investigate every year. I am hesitant to make hard candy with my own children, who are 3 and 5, because of the burning risk. I burned myself making this candy three days before my wedding and it wasn't cool! This recipe is probably more appropriate for older learners, but regardless of age, safety should be a priority and taken seriously.
The Science: Hard candy ingredients include only sugar and water (and flavor extracts and food coloring if you wish). You combine the sugars and water and boil the mixture until it reaches 300° F (hard crack). Boiling the mixture to this specific temperature results in the evaporation of most of the liquid, leaving behind a lot of sugar, thus it sets as hard candy. If the mixture only reaches 250° F, in contrast, not enough water will have evaporated to harden the sugar, leaving a softer consistency such as that of toffee (hard ball), or 270° yielding a taffy-like consistency (soft crack). If the mixture over-evaporates, reaching 320° F, for example, the liquid sugar will caramelize. Temp is critical, and evaporation is the reason for that.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore different evaporation times (cooking temperatures) to test the question that I mentioned above. They could also investigate their own questions and experiment with variables other than temperature such as ingredient quantities or types of sugar (raw sugar vs. white, glucose syrup vs. corn syrup, etc.) Click here for the recipe that we use. I always add flavor extracts to get into the winter spirit, such as peppermint and cinnamon.
7. Gingerbread Cookies
The Question: Does the amount of time that the cookie dough chills in the refrigerator impact the shape and texture of the cookies?
This was a question asked by my kindergartener, only it was more like, "why do we have to put this cookie dough in the refrigerator, I want to make them now!" We were able to explore this question together with my assistance. We simply made two batches of cookies, one with dough that we didn't chill and one with dough that was refrigerated for two hours. It would have been better if we added a couple more batches, one chilled for 20 minutes and one for 12 hours, for example.
The Science: Turns out that the fats in the butter solidify when chilled, giving it more structure. This was important to keep its shape during the rolling, cookie cutting, and the baking processes. You can see an obvious difference between the cookies that were chilled and those that were not. The non-chilled cookie dough cookies were essentially shapeless blobs. It also takes longer for the butter fat to melt in the chilled cookie during the baking process, making the final product slightly chewier and softer.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of gingerbread cookies. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments to test the questions. Click here for the recipe that we used.
The Question: What gives marshmallows their smooth, foamy, stretchy consistency?
Making marshmallows came up once by accident while my students and I were making hard candy (mentioned above). Our candy thermometer was broken. We significantly underestimated the temperature of the sugar/water mixture when removed from the heat source, which resulted in a squishy, stretchy substance comparable to marshmallows. After some investigating, students discovered that marshmallows have a key ingredient, however, that other types of candies lack.
The Science: That ingredient is gelatin. Water, sugar, and corn syrup are heated on the stove. Some of the liquid evaporates. The remaining sugar/water combo is removed from heat, slowly added to a gelatin/water mixture, and beaten, which adds air bubbles to the mixture. As this blended foam cools, the corn syrup prevents crystallization and the gelatin turns from a liquid to a gel, trapping bubbles inside. This special and specific combo of ingredients and cooking method gives marshmallows their structure and consistency.
Inquiry Activity: Students can ask their own questions about marshmallows and conduct open inquiry experiments. Or they could explore something specific such as the importance of temperature, sugar quantity, gelatin quantity, the timing of adding gelatin in the making process, the type of sugar used, and more. They can even experiment with marshmallows that they have already made, such as the hot chocolate temperature required to melt a marshmallow, or how the amount of time in a microwave affects the shape and consistency of a marshmallow. Click here for the recipe that we used. There are many others!
The Question: Does the the blending speed impact the stiffness of meringue peaks?
My students and I discovered the answer to this question by pure accident. My high school advisory students participated in a school pie-baking contest. They decided on lemon meringue, but we didn't have a blender on hand. We hand-whisked the egg white mixture. It took a very, very, very long time, but we did eventually get those peaks. But I wouldn't call them stiff. I have made many meringues since, but used a blender. I highly recommend it.
The Science: As you blend egg whites, air bubbles form. The proteins from the egg whites break up from the blending and rearrange themselves, surrounding the air bubbles and securing them, leaving a foamy consistency. By blending too slowly or weakly, the proteins will not "denature", and thus will not incorporate the scaffolding necessary to keep air bubbles in place. Or by whisking limply, you may not be adding any air bubbles to the mixture at all! You can absolutely hand-whisk very quickly, but expect a labor of love!
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of meringue (cookies, pies, etc.) They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments, such as why sugar is added slowly, the result of overwhipping, using whole eggs instead of egg whites, leaving out cream of tartar, the ideal baking temperature, etc. Click here for the recipe that we used.
10. Chocolate Dessert Bowl
The Question: Does the quality of the chocolate affect the texture after it has been tempered and hardened?
My own children and I tried to make a chocolate bowl using a Pinterest recipe, and it didn't work out. At all. We wondered where we went wrong, and if the type of chocolate matters.
The Science: There is cocoa butter in chocolate, which is fat. The fat forms crystals when the chocolate is tempered (controlled heating and cooling of the chocolate). Tempering chocolate breaks up crystals made from the fat and creates a new, more orderly crystalline structure, giving it a glossy look in the end. We wondered if a higher quality chocolate, one with better or different amounts of cocoa butter would make a difference.
Inquiry Activity: We never tested our question, but think it would be a great way to start kitchen inquiry, especially for beginners. For those that have more experience with inquiry science, encourage open inquiry investigations. Ask students to explore chocolate in general, not necessarily a specific recipe. What gives it its shape? What is the difference between chocolate syrup and the chocolate on a candy bar? How is chocolate made?
I mentioned on Instagram that I would be adding ice cream inquiry to this post. I decided against it because it is just not wintery! I'll save that for summer-inspired kitchen inquiry in a few months! Well, nine months ;) Happy holidays, all!
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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
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!
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.