Inquiry-based learning: an important shift in practice

Inquiry-based learning is something that all schools should strive to deliver, says teaching and curriculum consultant Katie Trethewy

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” These powerful words, said to have been spoken by Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s, demonstrate that it has long been known that the best learning happens through students ‘doing’ and not through teachers ‘teaching’. 

However, due to pressures from students needing to succeed in exams to be accepted into top universities and schools themselves being judged on exam results, the current reality in many of our schools is much different. The focus of education now seems to be fixed on attainment instead of learning. The pressure of time, the importance of exam results, school ethos and ‘how we’ve always done it’ thinking all contribute to a school’s approach of ‘tell’ and ‘teach’, instead of learning that involves the student and puts them in the driving seat of the learning experience. 

While the structure of our education system continues to position the attainment of students as its core focus, many schools may ask, ‘Can pedagogy truly shift to an approach that increases student involvement in the learning process, while still ensuring that attainment in examinations is high?’.

It is my belief that inquiry-based learning is the solution. By incorporating inquiry-based learning in our classrooms, there will be increased opportunities for students to be ‘doing’ and, therefore, learning. 

Much research on passive and active learning has taken place over the years and it has been proven that, while people tend to remember 20% of what they hear, they remember 90% of what they do. The active nature of inquiry classrooms also tends to result in higher levels of student engagement. When students are more engaged in their learning, they learn more, are happier at school and, by default, their academic attainment is also positively impacted. 

Although frequently considered to be the ‘curriculum’ of the International Baccalaureate, inquiry-based learning is simply an approach to teaching and learning. Rather than being something that is done, it provides a framework for how things can be done, making it easier to embed within any curriculum used in a school. 

Implementing an inquiry approach means empowering students to drive the learning process; to ask their own questions, to do their own finding out, to make sense of that new knowledge and to, ultimately, construct and act on their own learning. Whilst knowledge is valued to help students move through the inquiry process, skills and understanding take an equal role in learning. By valuing the learning process itself, inquiry-based classrooms slow the learning process down, allowing students to be actively learning, rather than focusing on the quick absorption of knowledge and facts. 

For many schools and teachers that I have worked with, it is the fear of change and workload that stand as the greatest barriers to the implementation of inquiry-based learning, rather than the transition being challenging or the approach not being aligned to the current curriculum that is taught. 

Moving to an inquiry-based learning approach does not require the replacement of current practice or for schools to ‘start again’. In fact, simple tweaks to current classroom practice are enough. When I was approached by TES Develop to review their teacher training content to make it appropriate for schools implementing an inquiry-based approach, it quickly became evident that rather than needing to rewrite modules from scratch, we simply needed to adjust the existing content aimed at National Curriculum schools to promote the core principles of inquiry. 

Moving to an inquiry-based learning approach does not require the replacement of current practice or for schools to ‘start again’

An example of this tweaking of practice would be to consider adaptive teaching. It has long been known in education that adapting learning to the needs of different students is fundamental to their success. In inquiry-based learning, the concept of adapting learning is taken to the next level. Instead of solely considering the needs of the students, the interests and passions of students also direct the learning. 

Furthermore, the personalisation of learning is promoted so that even though all students will be working within the same core focus of an inquiry, the direction of that inquiry, what students produce in the inquiry and what they do with that learning will differ from student to student. Therefore, an inquiry-based approach allows students to access a more personalised education within a mainstream setting.

Valuing an inquiry-based approach also opens classrooms up to alternative models of learning. While traditional approaches to education tend to emphasise the use of the three-part lesson, inquiry models of teaching and learning provide greater variation. Take, for example, the flipped classroom model. Much like inquiry-based learning itself, this model of learning places emphasis on the use of lesson time for collaborative and hands-on learning experiences, moving direct instruction and passive learning out of the school day itself. Not only is this a useful approach to make the most of the time students are together in the classroom, but it is also an effective approach to maximise the limited time teachers and students spend face to face online during periods of distance learning.

Inquiry-based learning is a unique approach to learning. Unlike many other approaches, it offers students the opportunity to be autonomous leaders of their own learning. Students take the reins in the classroom, allowing the teacher to shift from ‘telling’ and ‘teaching’ to facilitating the learning process, a role that involves the careful construction of learning experiences, maximizing the time in lessons to observe and conference with students as they work and combining feedback from student reflections with formative assessment to identify where the learning is going next. 

In my view, it is important not to consider inquiry-based learning as an add-on or something that is ‘done’, but rather as an approach that guides teachers to implement certain practices. 

These practices focus on students being active do-ers in the learning process, within units of learning that are personalised to the students’ needs, interests and passions. Through this, opportunities for students to develop as collaborators and leaders of their own learning are optimised. With the scaffold of training to support the process, the transition to inquiry-based learning requires schools to only take a small sidestep to start, which can be further expanded over the years as inquiry pedagogy and understanding across the school further develops. 

I strongly believe that inquiry-based learning is the epitome of good teaching and is something that all schools should strive to deliver to truly give their students the skills to be lifelong learners and a meaningful chance of success in their examinations and beyond. 

Katie Trethewy worked with TES Develop to design professional studies courses for teachers to enhance their knowledge and understanding of best practice in inquiry-based learning. 

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