Inquiry Based Learning – A Big Deal in Education

If you do not have children in school, you may not have known about the latest revolution in how the curriculum is being taught. It is called Inquiry Based Learning, sometimes called Inquiry Based Learning, and it is shaking up how education is delivered?particularly in the K-12 system.

So what is it all about? It is a system where students no longer rely on the teacher providing information to them in the form of lectures, memorization, and rote learning. Instead, students have a degree of input into what they want to explore within the curriculum. Under their teacher’s guidance, and with collaboration with their classmates, they ask open-ended questions about a topic and then try to find the answers. Often this involves independent research.

Inquiry Based Learning, or IBL for short, is being embraced by school systems in North America because of growing awareness that the education system and today’s learners need to adapt to a rapidly-changing world. Learning through an inquiry process is both a teaching method and a study skill that harnesses the innate sense of curiosity often suppressed or lost through more rigid teaching methods. It also shifts the focus for learning toward the student and tries to use a strengths-based approach that incorporates a holistic view of student needs. As a result, it is seen by many not as just another fad or formula, but as an educational mindset that determines an overall vision for schools.

While this may seem like a modern shakeup of education, inquiry based learning has its roots further back than the age of the internet. John Dewey (1859-1952) was a former science teacher and pioneer in exploring how to improve education. He realized that the scientific method could be applied to the wider classroom community. The contemporary Brazilian philosopher Paolo Frere (1921-1997) argued against the passive model of education and sought to establish a critical pedagogy based on active dialogue. The value of Inquiry-based learning was recognized during the 1950s in response to the space race, which prompted renewed interest in how to achieve positive learning outcomes?and also ostensibly how to get ahead of the competition. Educators realized that problem solving and critical thinking were going to be increasingly necessary skills for students to have.

One of the myths surrounding IBL is that it is an educational free-for-all, that students are left completely on their own to learn what they want to learn and to leave out the parts they don’t like. But this is not true. The curriculum that is set out by the government is still in place. The achievement standards for students still remain. What inquiry based learning does is change the delivery method of the curriculum.

There are varying degrees of how inquiry-based learning is incorporated into schools. In some cases, the entire school district has chosen to use it as their preferred method of instruction, while other districts have individual schools that have adapted it as a school-wide approach. While there are many schools who do not use IBL as their primary focus, teachers within schools have chosen to incorporate aspects of the method into their individual classrooms but tailored according to what best suits their class.

The system of how IBL is delivered is based around questions and questioning. Many schools who use this have a school-wide inquiry question that sets a theme for the year and shapes the focus for learning. Or each grade might have their own question, or each teacher might even set out a subject-based question. As anyone who has studied education knows, asking questions is a skill and is not easy. Inquiry based questions tend to be open, which may lend itself to open-ended research, but teachers can also provide more structured approaches, and apply a variety of tools to gauge and assess student learning.

But the increased use of inquiry based learning is not without its detractors. Instead of solving the debate about what is the most effective way to teach and what is the best approach for modern learners, the increased use of IBL has seemed to generate more strong opinions about education than ever. Critics fear that IBL is just another experiment leading to a rapid fall in essential skills such as phonics, spelling, and key mathematic concepts such as multiplication tables, because these “traditional” skills are viewed as being abandoned for the new wave of methods such as common core or discovery math. The arguments against IBL are as vociferous as those in favour of it. Math education and falling scores on standardized tests and falling rankings on international league tables of math competency are being held up as the argument that IBL just isn’t working in education at all and there needs to be a return to a more traditional way of learning?and teaching.

The increased use of inquiry based learning is raising other issues about education: about the ideas of what true success means in education?what people value about the outcomes of learning. The adoption of inquiry based learning in the school system is fairly recent, so it is perhaps too early to know the effect on students and their learning. There is more academic research becoming available that critically examines both the methods and results of inquiry based learning. More university faculties of education are using IBL methods in varying degrees to train teachers. What the eventual outcome of students going through an inquiry-based curriculum will be is unknown. Inquiry-based learning will perhaps affect what the university system will look like in the future, but if?and how?it does is also too early to predict.

But for now, Inquiry-Based Learning is going through its growing pains. Perhaps the greatest effect IBL has on education for the time being is the growing realization that the climate of learning has always existed in the uncomfortable, unfamiliar space where humanity does not know the answer to everything, that there are still questions about everything. Inquiry based learning is highlighting this fact in a way that has not been acknowledged before. And that might very well be a very good place to be.

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Carla is a Calgary-based writer and an AU student on the homestretch of completing her BA in English can be found hanging out on Twitter @Lunchbuster.