What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

by | Oct 11, 2022

Middle school students in the Immerse phase of Guided Inquiry Design using maps on a historic tour of Richmond, VA. Thanks to Chesterfield County Schools for the image.

Guided Inquiry Design is a proven methodology for inquiry, and offers a comprehensive definition for inquiry-based learning.

Just Keep Scrolling

In our digital world, it is so easy to just keep scrolling. Most people are only skimming the surface of all the information out there. When do people take time to slow down and dig deep?

Inquiry is an approach to learning that teaches students the benefits of slowing down, asking deeper questions, and taking time to learn from those questions.

Inquiry Defined

Inquiry is an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic, or issue of importance. It requires more than simply answering questions or getting a right answer. It espouses investigation, exploration, search, quest, research, pursuit, and study. Inquiry does not stand alone. It engages, interests, and challenges students to connect their world with the curriculum. Although inquiry is thought of as an individual pursuit, it is enhanced by involvement with a community of learners, each learning from the other in social interaction.

Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007

Inquiry is…

According to the authors of Guided Inquiry Design,

“Inquiry is an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic, or issue of importance.

Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007

Curriculum content drives the focus of inquiry in schools. To begin, educators design inquiry to illicit students curiosity about a real problem, topic or issue. It provides structured space for students to think for themselves and make meaning.

Students use the whole school for inquiry. They are invited to the library, and guided to find information from multiple resources, and not just from classroom textbooks or a single source. Learning expands outward from the classroom into the whole school, community and beyond.

Inquiry Requires More of Our Students

“It requires more than simply answering questions or getting a right answer. It espouses investigation, exploration, search, quest, research, pursuit, and study.”

Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007

Inquiry learning is grounded in questioning. Students initial questions can also take shape as a focus that is formulated over time.

The questions of inquiry are not quickly answered, like those we ask of Siri, Alexa and Google. The questions for inquiry learning are deeper. They grow from curiosity and develop with knowledge across the process.

Instead of learning from a string of pre-planned stand alone activities, inquiry-based learning allows students to build understanding from interacting with information; exploring, researching, and studying a topic of interest.

Students Connect to Learning

“Inquiry does not stand alone. It engages, interests, and challenges students to connect their world with the curriculum.”

Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007

The optimum environment for inquiry-based learning is created by opening spaces for personal connection and curiosity. Students make relevant connections from real life to the curriculum.

Through inquiry, students become personally invested in their own pursuit of knowledge.

Most educators know the role of intrinsic motivation in deeper learning. When students have a choice in what they learn, they are much more likely to persevere through the tough stuff. As a result, students come to know themselves, and their interests. Learning in school has relevance to students’ lives and the larger world.

Enhanced by Community

Although inquiry is thought of as an individual pursuit, it is enhanced by involvement with a community of learners, each learning from the other in social interaction.

Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007

While regular classroom activities are done in isolation, together. During inquiry, students benefit from the classroom community. Inquiry is designed so students come together to think about one topic from a variety of lenses with an individual take.

When else do we get to learn in a community of care, surrounded by a variety of supportive think partners!? The school setting is a perfect place to learn how to learn within a community.

The inquiry community creates opportunities for students to learn side-by-side, collaboratively, share resources, and learn from each other.

Even the most independent inquirers and scholars benefit from conversation, discussion, time to ideate and keep track of ideas, to journal, and to reflect. The Inquiry community in the K-12 classroom replicates real-life knowledge communities, such as literary societies and scientific or historic knowledge communities who seek to understand together.

All Inquiry Learning Needs Guidance

However, without some guidance, it can be daunting.

Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007

Finally, the authors of Guided Inquiry Design remind us that inquiry-based learning requires guidance.

The process of inquiry is a bumpy, emotional path. Without guidance and support of the process and interventions that go along with it, students can be sidetracked or even give up on deeper learning (Kuhlthau, 2004).

With the right tools and know-how, inquiry learning can be carefully designed providing the supports students need at just the right time to persist, dig deeper, and become independent inquirers for life.


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