How Inquiry Learning is Redefining Schools in the 21st Century

Traditional teaching has remained relatively unchanged for decades. Compulsory public education was established so that students could learn how to read, write, and perform math calculations. In addition, students were taught subjects such as the classics, religion, and learning how to be well-rounded citizens who stayed out of trouble. By the 19th century, the idea of school changed slightly; school took on the role of preparing students for the rigours of industrial capitalism and to prepare them for a future job and a prosperous life.

In today’s world, the basic assumptions about the role of schooling have remained virtually unchanged. In the majority of schools, learning continues to be defined by the quality and quantity of work students produce. It is measured mostly by assessments, tests, and defined rubrics. Although curriculums have expanded and teaching has become more relaxed and less secular, a lot is in need of change. Inquiry learning provides opportunities for students to demonstrate skills that are not always taken as seriously as other, more conventional skills. With a shift towards inquiry-based learning, students will become better prepared for the 21st century world, and equipped with the skills to help them succeed in it.

The Rejection of Outdated Educational Goals

In Classical antiquity, the education of citizens was a requirement to participate in public life (including voting). In Islamic cultures, knowledge and religion was emphasized. During the Middle Ages, the purpose of education was mainly to learn Latin. By the 20th century, the goal of schools changed to allow students more opportunity to improve their reasoning and mental faculties. At the time, strengthening the mind through increased difficulty and strong mental discipline was the goal.

The changing social landscape – including increased immigration and industrial development – meant that schools needed to address the issue of everyday life for all students. How would they be able to participate in the workforce with limited education? Would they be prepared for, as Herbert Spencer phrased it, “complete living”? It was his idea about a curriculum based on human needs that sparked a departure from traditional studies and the cultivation of intellect. He was one of the first proponents of the idea of holistic learning. As a Social Darwinist, he rejected religion and said that science was the only way to gain “useful” knowledge. Spencer fully believed that schools did not prepare children to live in society.

Although some of his other ideas of schooling (for example, that private schools should only be for the brightest and most exemplary students) weren’t entirely palatable, he did stress the idea that school should be a place where students interact with their environment. He believed this could be done by exploring and discovering, so that students would acquire knowledge naturally. This is similar to newer approaches of learning, such as inquiry learning, discovery learning, and the Montessori method. He opposed strict methods of learning and advocated for learning to be a pleasant experience with as few restrictions as possible.

Meeting the Needs of the 21st Century

Since then, schools have attempted to meet the ever-changing needs of 21st century students. Unfortunately, a lot of work still needs to be done; the debate about the purpose of education is an ongoing issue. Some argue that schools should prepare students to enter the workforce and adapt to the business and career world. On the other hand, others believe that schools should focus on developing all parts of the child so that they can grow up to be informed, engaged citizens who can think critically.

The sudden switch to online learning has thrown another curveball into the debate over the role of schools. Teachers are now delivering content to students over Zoom calls and online learning platforms. Parents are realizing the implications of online learning on their children and their family life in general. Moreover, the landscape is changing entirely. If students can learn the same content online without stepping foot in a school, how will this change schools moving forward? Will schools be viewed in the same way as they always have been? Will people begin to make the shift to homeschooling, or wildschooling? There are so many directions education can take, but still so many questions to address.

Some questions educators and policy-makers still grapple with include:

  • How important are life skills such as budgeting, cooking, and home repairs?
  • What skills do the majority of students know or not know how to do?
  • How are we teaching soft-skills such as problem solving and collaboration?
  • To what degree are classical and philosophical topics relevant to the modern world?
  • What are the main concerns with present-day education?
  • How do traditional and progressive education methods differ? How are they similar?
  • What core values should we be teaching students in school?
  • How responsible are schools for the holistic development of students?
  • In what ways can real, practical change occur in schools?
  • Should the school fit the needs of the child, or the child fit the needs of the school?
  • How do we define “quality teaching”? Further, how is this measured?
  • What is the importance of individualism and the development of personality?
  • How should the balance of power look in schools?
  • What should a typical school environment look and feel like?
  • How important is class size relative to deep knowledge acquisition?
  • In what ways are schools succeeding in teaching students 21st century skills?
  • What role does creativity and discovery play in knowledge acquisition?
  • How do we safely and effectively incorporate technology into schools?

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.

How This Might Look in Your Classroom

Integrating the 4 C’s of a 21st century education requires actively seeking out new ways of doing things. To change the way schools operate calls for change on a broad scale. Teachers, parents, and administrators need to work together as a school community to create change; however, teachers can take immediate and rewarding steps forward in their own classrooms to help their students succeed in the modern world.

Creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration are key elements of an inquiry classroom. Using cross-disciplinary approaches, team-based problem solving, and teaching students how to safely and effectively utilize technology can all contribute to a well-rounded classroom. With these tools, students can prepare for a variety of outcomes in the future. These can include further schooling, a range of occupations, entrepreneurship, and careers that may not even exist yet!


In classrooms today, creativity does more than set students apart; I would argue it actually gives them an advantage. Creative thinking opens the door to a wide variety of discoveries, ideas, and opportunities for students to design and innovate. Combining materials, designing objects, entertaining others, innovating, and improvising creative solutions are all ways students can show their creativity in class. However, some students do not recognize their creativity; it is up to teachers to help them show their creativity in new and interesting ways. Providing students with opportunities to flex their creative muscles can help them immensely with this, coupled with positive feedback and reinforcement.

Other ways students can be creative in the inquiry classroom include:

  • Creating things that require an in-depth look at its form, function, and purpose
  • Building models, structures, and dioramas of new, known, or imaginary things or places
  • Planning and developing movies, videos, documentaries, or other multimedia projects

Take a look at some other in-class project ideas, designed to help students let their creativity shine:

Critical Thinking

Applying what they are learning to everyday problems is a crucial skill for students to learn in the inquiry classroom. How often have you heard “why is this important?” or “why do we need to learn this?” (Personally, I’ve heard this more than once in my teaching career!) Teaching students why they learn and emphasizing the importance of active, innovative learning helps them to understand the relevancy of their new learning.

Critical thinking involves a focused and careful analysis of something in order to better understand it. This can be done by analyzing information, identifying and classifying objects and ideas, and making comparisons. Defining and describing things by using descriptors such as size, shape, colour, origin, condition, location, and so on is also a critical thinking skill. Furthermore, problem solving, analyzing cause and effect, and identifying relationships between concepts and ideas are all components of critical thinking.

Here are some excellent games and toys that encourage critical thinking in the classroom:

  • iTrax: A fun game where students pull out a card and build colour-matching paths to connect their cubes and rods. It’s great for thinking quickly and making decisions.
  • Civilization VI: An amazing game that is similar to Settlers of Catan; players create and maintain a civilization by making decisions that affect things like building, science, culture, defense, etc.
  • Contraption Maker (free app): This is an incredibly fun and addicting game where students build whatever they want. It’s similar to Minecraft but focused more on smaller contraptions – for example, roller coasters, obstacle courses, pet feeding devices, mini inventions – the list is endless!
  • Settlers of Catan: One of my students’ favourite games. We play this at the end of the year when all of their work is complete and we have a few hours to spare in the afternoon. It’s also one of my favourite games to play too.

You can find more critical thinking games to play in-class here.


Being able to communicate succinctly is something that all students (especially students nowadays) should be able to do. With the bombardment of smartphones, tablets, and other devices, having strong communication skills (aside from texting at the speed of light) are important. It’s never been more important for students to learn how to communicate effectively.

Students need to be able to determine the most appropriate way to deliver a message – face-to-face, through a report, using a creative approach – or in another way. Moreover, they need to learn how to speak directly to an idea, check for engagement, and convey their thoughts in a way that others can understand them. These are all taken for granted in today’s society!

Inquiry learning can help students to cultivate strong communication skills; it’s just one of the many benefits of inquiry-based learning. In the classroom students can practice this skill in a number of ways. First, students need to be taught how to consider the subject, purpose, and context of a message in order to determine what the next steps should be. Second, practicing active listening skills, which requires paying attention, taking notes, asking questions, and engaging with the ideas that are being communicated with them are important steps in improving communication skills. This can happen through any of the fun games listed here (or here for high school students)


Classrooms that are characterized by reflection, consideration, and openness to new ideas are usually the ones where you’ll find highly collaborative students. Furthermore, being able to allocate resources, responsibilities, and decision-making are skills that students should practice often in the classroom. For example, delegating tasks, setting goals, and taking turns playing different roles in groups all strengthen student’s collaboration skills. Time management, teamwork, and cooperation are all important skills to model for students as well.

In the inquiry classroom, collaboration is incredibly important. Shifting the role of students from participants to leaders means that everyone is a co-learner. Moreover, modeling supportive language and a culture of investigation helps students to understand that nobody is “better than” anyone else, and that everyone is in the classroom to share, learn, and work together. Everyone brings something new and different to the conversation, and everyone’s ideas are valuable.

When assessing collaboration, teachers should look for the following:

  • Clearly defined group tasks and/or a management plan (for example, one that outlines the tasks that need to be accomplished, the resources they will need, due dates, etc.
  • The acknowledgement and consideration of all group members’ strengths and how they can be utilized effectively
  • Students are humble and show humility
  • Flexibility in groups (for example, flexibility when responding to obstacles, if they are listening to one another with consideration, etc.)
  • Team members are being respectful of one another and view each other as legitimate contributors to the shared goals
  • Students acknowledge new and unfamiliar ideas, encourage different points of view, and openly negotiate
  • Students can accept feedback to help each other (and the group) improve


As teachers, our job is to prepare students for the challenges and adversity they will face; both in and out of the classroom. We need to provide students with the skills they need to succeed, and help them gain the confidence and self-assurance required to develop those skills. Students today are adaptive, independent, and curious about the world around them. Inquiry learning is an amazing way to foster 21st century skills and rethink the definition of “school” and “learning”. Moreover, it is slowly changing the landscape of teaching and learning in a positive way. Hopefully as time goes on, the purpose of education will transform so that students find more value in their learning.

More Ideas:

Check us out on Instagram!

Share here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *