Commentary: Inquiry-based Learning and Teaching, pp. 2 of 7

What is inquiry-based learning?

To understand what IBL is, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that at an early age, children are natural-born inquirers, a bit like junior scientists and social scientists, a point made by Dewey (1902) in The Child and the Curriculum. In this treatise, he argued that it might be more productive to see the child and the disciplinary expert on a continuum, that both are fundamentally engaged in sense-making and that for those working in the disciplines it is more a matter of utilising rigorous, systematic methods to build warranted knowledge – knowledge that is justified, tested, proven and valid based on reliable methods in a community of practice (i.e., other scientists, historians, social scientists, etc. who have developed expertise in the field of knowledge). Dewey also highlighted the importance of problems as core to inquiry and to thinking. For Dewey, we only think when confronted with a problem, when there’s some unease, a disruption, a feeling of discomfort, disequilibrium or confusion, where things are amiss in our experience in some way. This problem, whether it be something we directly experience or hear about affecting others second hand, whether it be a social issue or a personal problem, whether it is something in the physical world that is perplexing or that we wonder about, prompts us to engage our faculties to figure it out, to understand what’s going on, and to explore how it might be addressed, solved or managed. Problems, then, prompt inquiry, whether it be for the child or the expert. What experts, whatever their field of study, are especially good at, in fact, is identifying and defining problems and asking really good questions that enable them to investigate problems in ways that lead to new knowledge or solutions. As educators, we hope to instill similar kinds of dispositions with students, encouraging them to identify problems in their experience and ask questions about what they are experiencing; or by helping them become genuinely curious and interested in problems we might pose to them and helping them ask really good questions that will lead them into the problem in an educative way.

Based on what has been discussed above, we might understand inquiry as grounded in experience. If we think about this, problems are core tensions and felt problems arising from experience that drive the need to pursue more knowledge and experience (Dewey, 1938). According to Costes-Onishi, et al (in press), effective IBL is grounded in students’ experiences in some way to provide powerful and expansive learning opportunities. Based on a review of studies about IBL, these authors argue that effective IBL engages students experientially and collaboratively in solving real-world problems, problems worthy of authentic inquiry in which students are engaged in the search for meanings, actively questioning, and sharing and communicating their understandings throughout the process. Doing so, requires building an inquiry culture, inquiry mindsets and social practices that support inquiry (Costes-Onishi, et al, in press).

If we move from a naturalistic view of inquiry, to one that highlights the more methodical aspects of inquiry, we tend to start with particular processes that make inquiry more structured and systematic. First, we might note that there are multiple definitions of what constitutes IBL across different subjects. While a number of models of inquiry can be found in different syllabuses, inquiry has been taken to mean authentic, often discipline-based intellectual work, such as geographic fieldwork, issues-based inquiry (focused on the study of significant societal issues or public policy issues), model-based inquiry (e.g., based on inquiry into scientific models and representations), as well as more interdisciplinary forms of inquiry, such as project-based inquiry and design-based inquiry that promote self-directed learning (Kwek, et al, 2019). Inquiry, then, can take many forms with multiple models of the inquiry cycle offered as ways to engage students in structured inquiry-based learning processes when taken as a whole. While each subject may have its own particular inquiry model, such as the Humanities Inquiry Cycle of “Sparking Curiosity, Gathering Data, Exercising Reasoning and Reflective Thinking,” examining other models of inquiry can contribute to how educators might think about and practice inquiry in classrooms. Sharing different approaches to inquiry from different subjects can add to the repertoire of understandings and practices teachers might employ in their classrooms. As teachers, an inquiry into inquiry, or sharing different conceptions and effective approaches to IBL by others across subject areas can enhance our own professional learning. For example, instead of model-based inquiry in the sciences, humanities teachers might develop case studies for students to investigate as models of causation in history or geography, or as cases of Social Studies issues that might show how different societies understand and address particular issues that are shared across most societies (like inequality or climate crisis).

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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