The world of tomorrow will look nothing like the world of today, and to be successful, students need to develop the skills and knowledge to become innovators and problem-solvers. Inquiry-based learning is well suited to help students achieve this, as it places them in the centre of the learning experience. It also encourages educators to create a culture of learning where students are challenged to wonder, create, test, and question. In the spirt of these ideas, here are eight simple ways to support inquiry-based learning from Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms.
1. Think about the learning environment
In 1940’s Italy, Loris Malaguzzi founded the Reggio Emilia approach to learning. The premise behind it went as follows: students first develop through interactions with the adults in their lives, then through their peers, and then ultimately through the environment in which they live. Malaguzzi called the environment the “third teacher,” because, like the other two elements, it has the potential to either enhance—or detract—from student learning.
The learning environment also depends on context: it’s important for educators to create a classroom where everyone feels welcome and safe—where students can see that their cultural, linguistic, family structure and socio-economic backgrounds are accepted. The environment also needs to be dynamic so it can meet the unique needs and changing interests of all students.
How classroom space is utilized is yet another consideration—depending on the situation, does it provide for individuals, small groups, and the entire class? And are classroom materials and resources easily accessible for students?
2. Start with students’ questions
As human beings, we have a natural need to make sense of the world around us. Inquiry-based learning capitalizes on this instinct by providing students with opportunities to find interesting answers to questions that are relevant to them.
Educators can use students’ questions and interests to provide real-world contexts in which curriculum can be integrated and addressed. In turn, students can develop as self-directed learners by applying relevant skills, developing a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, and making new discoveries.
3. Foster curiosity in your classroom
Curiosity is a powerful motivator for students—it provides the incentive to observe and question as children explore their world. Educators can take advantage of a student’s natural curiosity with the use of a curiosity table, designed to engage them in active inquiry and learning.
A curiosity table allows educators to provide children with unfamiliar objects and materials meant to provoke questions.
When children are at the curiosity table, they are provided with tools and given time to explore objects. Then they are encouraged to record their “I Wonder” questions so they can be used to guide further inquiry.
Educators can use this opportunity to encourage deeper learning: “I wonder what else this could be used for,” or “I wonder how we can find out.” By nurturing students’ curiosity, educators are encouraging their desire to learn.
4. Be a co-learner: let’s find out together
Student expectations are continuously evolving in the 21st century, and the role of the educator is changing as well. And while former models did emphasize collaborative techniques, they were too teacher-centric rather than student-focused. The role of educators remained largely that of a transmitter/facilitator of content.
Current models now place educators in the role of facilitator, collaborator, and co-learner. For them to be truly effective with digital-age learners, they must move away from models of teaching and learning as isolated endeavours.
Educators must become comfortable as co-learners with their students and colleagues. Today, teaching is less about knowing everything—rather, it’s more about learning new information together with students, and organizing that information into meaningful branches of learning.
The best answer an educator can offer their students is to say, “I don’t know the answer, let’s find out together.” When an educator takes the role of a co-learner, the focus is not on showing students how much they know, rather it’s asking students to reveal how much they know!
5. Think like a scientist by exploring and discovering
We are all born scientists—from birth onwards we use our innate curiosity to understand the world around us. In more formal learning settings, however, this curiosity can help us explore the world in meaningful, personal ways.
It is important that students of all ages have opportunities to participate in learning experiences that are engaging and challenge them to try new things, go to new places, and interact with new people—not only at school but also at home and in their communities.
These unique experiences can kick-start curiosity, and lead to exploration and discovery. Educators can further encourage this curiosity by bringing in mystery objects, visiting an unfamiliar place such as a community water treatment plant, inviting a special guest speaker such as elder from a local indigenous group, or by asking students to analyze issues through the diverse lenses of science, technology, society and the environment.
Breaking away from the everyday is a powerful way to promote exploration and discovery not only for students, but also for educators.
6. Think like an engineer
Engineering concepts and processes provide students with the tools to understand how technological systems work. They also offer the opportunity to become familiar with design principles, properties of materials and their fabrication.
Thinking like an engineer helps students develop methods of visualization, creative thinking, collaboration, analysis, and problem solving—all habits of mind vital for success in our current world. Schools and educators can foster these habits by providing students with opportunities to design and build on a regular basis, such as in a makerspace.
7. Focus on skill development
Inquiry is an approach to learning that uses a series of skills to explore questions and discover solutions. The skills of inquiry are organized under four main steps: Initiating and Planning, Performing and Recording, Analyzing and Interpreting, and Communication and Teamwork. These steps are not always linear, but more often they exist as a cyclical series of events.
Skills such as communication and collaboration are integral to the inquiry process. Other skills, such as classifying, comparing, contrasting, and recognizing data patterns, are particular to certain stages of inquiry.
Many of these skills may be reinforced in other areas of a curriculum, such as language, social studies, and mathematics. Conversely, when inquiry skills are learned in science and technology classes, they can be applied to areas such as language, the arts, social studies, and health and physical education.
8. Look for cross-curricular connections
Integrated learning provides students with a meaningful context in which they can apply skills and have an opportunity to develop their ability to reason. Furthermore, they can transfer knowledge and skills from one subject area to another.
An obvious example is the connections between math, science and technology, where students apply data management skills to graph, collect, organize, and display data. In integrated learning, educators ensure that students have the unique knowledge and skills from each of the subject areas required for learning.
Supporting inquiry-based learning in the classroom gives students the space to think critically and learn by questioning rather than simply memorizing facts.
Let’s Talk Science’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 resources provide educators with tools to introduce inquiry-based learning into their classrooms.