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Inquiry-based learning

A model of learning and teaching which prepares students for the challenges of the 21st century

Along with the revolutionary changes in the world around us, taking place at great neck speed, what people need in this new reality is also changing. Naturally, education is also undergoing a fundamental change as well, as it must find new ways of preparing young people to enter and participate in the global technologically-advanced world of the 21st century.  continue reading...

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For a long time, educators and psychologists have been analyzing the processes of teaching and learning to ensure schools do a better job of preparing graduates for the real world. “The 21st century should be about giving students the tools, resources, and support they need to succeed in an ever-changing world. They need to gain confidence in order to practice these skills. Moreover, they need to make sense of the barrage of information they receive each day. Sorting, sharing, and utilizing that information is also important. Recently, the P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Learning) identified the 4 C’s of 21st century education; creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. They are themes that underpin any and all teaching in the classroom. Furthermore, they should play a role in every lesson.” (Read: How Inquiry Learning is Redefining Schools in the 21st Century).

Inquiry-based learning

These four elements mentioned above are the pillars of the approach known as inquiry-based learning (IBL).

This approach is supported by scientific research, which shows that we retain 75% of what we do, compared to just 5% of what we hear and 10% of what we read. So the more practical the learning process, the more we will remember.

Another popular—and rightly so—saying is: "Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, engage me and I will understand."

IBL builds on these assumptions because inquiry means engagement that leads to understanding. It’s also important to show students that learning is a continuous process and not just striving to achieve a specific goal.

Inquiry is the search for truth, information, or knowledge by asking questions. The process of transforming information and data into useful knowledge is complex, but extremely important and useful. Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer—because often there is none—but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues. (Thirteen Ed Online: Inquiry-Based Learning)

In IBL, the role of leaders is played by students who start with their own questions, which are at the centre of their educational path. It is an approach to learning that emphasizes students' questions, ideas and natural curiosity.

IBL is a student-centered approach in which the teacher guides students through the questions they ask themselves, the research methods they design, and the data they interpret. Through inquiry, students actively discover information that supports their research. Inquiry in education should lead to a better understanding of the world in which people live, learn, communicate, and work.

The content of particular subjects or disciplines is very important, but as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. The knowledge base in each discipline is constantly expanding and changing. No one can ever learn everything, but everyone can better develop their skills and nurture their inquiring attitudes necessary for lifelong learning. In today’s education, acquiring skills and the habit of continuous learning in life should be the most important goals.

This model is suitable for teaching all subjects, even those that are traditionally considered to be more difficult, such as the sciences.

IBL emphasizes learning by doing and mirrors the research work of scientists who actively discover knowledge in this way.

Students acquire skills that are useful not only in learning school subjects, but also in everyday life and after their schooling is completed.

Inquiry stages in IBL

Here are the steps students go through in the IBL model:

• formulation of questions;

• designing a way of researching the issue included in the question;

• identifying and collecting appropriate resources/sources;

• developing explanations based on evidence and scientific knowledge;

• sharing inquiry procedures and results;

• reflecting on the learning process and outcomes.

After students select their questions, the teacher is tasked with facilitating the students' inquiry/research process. It’s important to plan key steps in this process, set goals with students, and provide some structure.

Here are some examples of "essential questions" (source):

How can we protect our oceans?

What makes someone a good leader?

How do our senses help us understand the world?

What can art teach us about culture?

How do people influence their environment?

Features of IBL

These are some of the characteristics of this model:

• The active role of the student and teacher

In IBL, the student plays a central role and the teacher acts as a guide/adviser. The learning experience itself, however, is 'driven' by the learners as they generate questions which they then research, analyze, and discuss to find answers. The teacher, however, must control these processes.

• Increased engagement and therefore higher motivation

The traditional approach to classroom activities causes boredom and disengagement for many students. When students know that their own ideas are being implemented and receive regular support and encouragement from their teachers, their motivation, level of commitment, and thus willingness to learn increase.

• Seeing connections

The advantage of IBL is that it isn't limited to one subject. By focusing on important ideas, students' questions lead to learning from several subject areas. As students go through the inquiry process, they discover connections they couldn’t have imagined existed; in this way, they better understand the complexity of the world. This model promotes an interdisciplinary approach to learning.

• Developing curiosity

Curiosity is a natural human quality. From birth, humans have a natural tendency to be curious about the world. It’s important to maintain and develop this curiosity. Replacing simple observations with students asking questions about what they observe around them develops their curiosity about the world. Nurturing the natural curiosity of students raises further questions and engages students. The IBL model provides students with a sense of meaning and fascination with learning.

• Skill development

The most important thing in the 21st century is no longer information accumulation, often through memorization. Learning facts is a lot less useful in today's highly complex world. Facts change and nformation is readily available today—you need to understand how to get what’s useful and how to wade through the enormous mass of data that surrounds us.

In inquiry-based learning, teachers need to go beyond information gathering and focus on students finding answers to questions and solutions to problems that are important to them and the world around them. As such, it’s crucial to nurture the development of inquiry skills, which require a range of competences, e.g., critical thinking, problem-solving skills, analysis, self-reflection, and collaboration. Students develop cognitive skills in the area of ​​asking questions, reasoning, and evaluating acquired knowledge. They improve their social skills through collaboration and presentations. They practice reading, writing, they learn to question and investigate—not to reproduce from memory. They also develop a lifelong love of learning because the activities are interesting and they themselves play an active role in the exploration process.

• Building the student's self-esteem and relationships with others

As each student chooses his or her research path, it’s much easier to achieve success. High self-esteem helps in learning and in life. IBL also gives students the opportunity to develop stronger relationships with classmates, improve their own communication skills, and increase confidence in their own ideas and the value of their own contribution to the team.

Traditional model and IBL

Traditional learning focuses more on LEARNING ABOUT THINGS, while inquiry learning focuses more on LEARNING THINGS! Another useful way to contrast the two might be: Thinking WHAT as opposed to thinking HOW. (Inquiry-based Learning)

In the traditional model, the teacher conducts the lesson and the students listen to the information presented to them. The goal is for them to acquire and remember knowledge—facts, definitions, dates, names, which is then checked by quizzes and tests. Learning is usually predetermined with specified goals.

However, in IBL the process is open-ended. Students decide what aspects of the problem interest them and then actively investigate them. Since each student looks at a topic differently and presents their findings, learning goes far beyond what they might have learned from a textbook.


Changing the paradigm is not easy. Why? Because traditional face-to-face teaching is more structured, more measurable, and gives the teacher more control, and because that's how the teachers themselves were taught.

What do you need to understand and internalize to fully benefit from the IBL model?

• You need to give up control and accept freedom

It's not about getting to the right answer, because problems can have many solutions. So one has to free oneself from a certain rigidity and accept the freedom of students taking ownership of constructing their own knowledge. And it is not “whatever goes” because they are still held accountable by being required to provide evidence regardless of the solution chosen. This change allows teachers to differentiate and support their students’ individual needs—increasing interaction with those who have had difficulties and asking provocative questions to challenge the more advanced students’ understanding of the topic.

• The emphasis needs to be shifted from content to process

The answers are only part of the learning goal—the process is important, as in scientific research. If students understand the inquiry process better, the content will uncover itself along the way. More important than content-related questions are questions such as: “Are students able to formulate a hypothesis and justify it with evidence?" and "Can they evaluate the data in order to look for patterns and regularity?"

• You need to let go of avoiding discomfort/struggle and embrace it

In the traditional model, it’s known in advance what the expected results are. This causes oversimplifications to avoid the discomfort of not knowing. Many teachers already know that it’s detrimental to students as a false representation of the world and of scientific practice. The IBL model also causes anxiety at first, especially in high-achieving students who feel more confident with the traditional model. Teachers have to explain to them the nature and source of this discomfort and how to overcome it.

When the myth of the only "right" answer is no longer present, students will realize that struggling with messy and open-ended reality will allow them to understand the content more deeply.

In general, the effectiveness of inquiry-based learning depends on the guidance given by teachers. IBL without proper or with only minimal guidance may not work for students who have less prior knowledge or skills in a particular area. When the demands of learning activities exceed students' abilities, the learning process can be blocked. That’s why it’s so important to prepare teachers to act as guides in IBL: to develop good questions to be examined, to monitor students' research process, and to provide guidance when they encounter difficulties. Teachers should also provide feedback to their students on an ongoing basis and encourage them to continuously evaluate their own learning.

Other similar approaches

Questions arise about the differences between three approaches to learning: inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning and project-based learning. They are all approaches with similar assumptions, coming from the same philosophy, with only slight differences in emphasis.

Inquiry learning centers around the basic question and is more about the discovery process. Problem-based learning challenges students to solve real problems and develop solutions. Project-based learning aims to produce a useful, tangible product.

All three, however, allow students to learn things that are relevant and interesting to them, while also helping them to develop a variety of useful soft skills.

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