Practical, Time-Saving Tips for Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning has grown in popularity over the past decade. In fact, over 90% of teachers in a recent poll indicated that they have implemented, or are planning to implement inquiry-based learning in their classrooms. However, implementing a successful inquiry can be challenging to plan and facilitate. 

Implementing inquiry-based learning successfully requires teachers to create an engaging inquiry environment that normalizes curiosity, balances challenge and success, emphasizes reflection and discussion, and honours student questions.

Not only do the tips below offer teachers ways to implement inquiry successfully in their classrooms, but they also include helpful links and resources to get comfortable with facilitating inquiry learning.

1. Create an engaging inquiry environment

The more curious students are, the more engaged they’ll be with their learning. This process starts with simple provocations and invitations to get students thinking about new topics.

However, intentionally creating a classroom that fosters learning and sparks curiosity doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming.

Provocations play a big role in inquiry learning. Not only do they provide a stimulus to provoke thought and ideas, but they also give students opportunities to use their imagination without teacher interference. Provocations encourage creativity, design thinking, and problem-solving. In addition, there are usually no specific learning goals, so students have the freedom to develop their own ideas. We’ve written a complete guide on setting up powerful provocations for students to help with this process.

On the other hand, invitations are a great way to engage students as well, but they are a bit different. The idea with an invitation is that the teacher invites students to explore a new concept on their terms. Students need practice “doing” to begin conceptualizing things in a way that is meaningful to them. When teachers use invitations, the goal is getting students to engage more holistically with the materials and learn through exploration. Using provocations and invitations are both great foundations for implementing inquiry.

Additionally, we’ve created a guide on the differences between provocations and invitations, and included a helpful table (about halfway down) that outlines example topics and ideas for creating provocations and invitations in your classroom. There are also a few links to some affordable, multi-purpose supplies for use and reuse for your provocation table.

2. Normalize asking questions and being curious

It’s no surprise that teachers who value and encourage questions tend to have students who show more curiosity in their learning. Creating a culture of inquiry by initiating discussions about different topics helps to encourage students to ask questions about things that interest them. There are many ways to do this. First, encourage students to get comfortable posing questions to themselves and others. Regularly ask them what they’re thinking about, what they’re concerned about, and what makes them curious. Modeling questioning for students in this way exposes students to different methods of eliciting responses. In addition, it helps them develop stronger communication skills.

When asking questions, it is important to make sure they are open-ended. For example, instead of asking students “what happened during World War II?”, ask them “how did World War II impact life in Britain?”. Other simple question swaps can be found in the table in our article about teaching effective questioning skills.

There are a few other qualities that “good” inquiry questions should have. For example, they should come from a place of genuine curiosity. They should require a detailed analysis or investigation to fully answer. In addition, they should invite students to think deeply and provide opportunities for the development of soft skills; things like problem-solving, collaboration, and sequencing. Furthermore, a good inquiry question should require critical thinking, generate discussion, and provide students with multiple viewpoints to consider. We’ve written a short guide on how to help students form rich, high-quality inquiry questions, and created a downloadable checklist with all of these components for quick reference.

3. Balance student levels of success and challenge

At some point, students might begin to lose their spark. This happens for a variety of reasons, but is usually because they don’t feel engaged. If the students’ skills are higher than what is needed for the problem, they become bored. On the other hand, if students do not have the skills with which to solve a problem, frustration ensues. Hitting the right balance of keeping students motivated while also challenging them can be a difficult component of implementing inquiry.

In these cases, the concept of “flow” needs to be considered when designing an inquiry. A balance needs to be struck between keeping the challenges of their investigations open and accessible, and adding in elements that increase the difficulty in small increments. Doing this helps keep students motivated and eager to continue their learning. Similarly, students need frequent success and encouragement to stay motivated. While you will have some students who don’t need as much encouragement as others, celebrating mini-milestones are generally a great way to boost confidence.

Teachers who truly know their students are well-equipped to keep boredom and frustration at a minimum. If students feel overwhelmed, talk to them one-on-one. Remind them that they can modify their questions as they go along. Provide more structure by offering a checklist, graphic organizer, or other organizational tools; you can download our pack of inquiry organizers here. Let them choose what will work for them, and hopefully this will alleviate some of their stress. If students are losing motivation, talk with them about their end goals. How might they raise awareness about the issues they’ve discovered? What steps would make them feel satisfied with the work they are producing? Reorienting them will hopefully help to ease any anxiety and frustration they may be experiencing, too.

4. Emphasize the importance of a circular process

Most students are used to methods of teaching where they work towards achieving the “right” answer. Getting it “right” is often used as a benchmark for success; once they’ve gotten the right answer and completed the work, they feel satisfied with their efforts. However, inquiry-based learning doesn’t typically rely on traditional teaching and assessment methods. Preparing tasks and activities with highly structured assessment models doesn’t always work well. Many students have a hard time determining if they are on the right path or if they’re “doing it right”. This is one of the most common problems with implementing inquiry-based learning.

To troubleshoot this, ensure that students understand that the emphasis is on the process rather than “getting it right”. Discuss the soft skills they will develop during the inquiry process; for example, teamwork, organization, and responsibility. The inquiry process is highly personalized, and therefore, learning goals also need to be personalized. Students need to understand that collaboration is more valuable than competition, and seeking feedback and advice is not a guise for failure.

Conference regularly with students to provide them with structure and deadlines, which many of them need to feel secure and on-track. Co-create and share success criteria with students to help them stay accountable for their learning and keep them focused on achieving their specific goals. Shirley Clarke’s book “Outstanding Formative Assessment” is incredibly useful for implementing inquiry by teaching students how to articulate feedback and become confident with self-assessment. Students will know they are successful by consulting with their learning goals, communicating with their teacher, regularly reflecting on their process, and asking questions when needed.

5. Teach directly on a need-to-know basis

Because inquiry-based learning is mostly student-led, students need to be taught skills that will enable them to work with minimal assistance. However, it isn’t useful to teach every student how to manage their time, work collaboratively, research, or organize their information all at once. Naturally, some students may already manage their time well, while others may be a whiz at using graphic organizers.

Teaching skills on a need-to-know basis is a good choice for a few reasons. Firstly, it helps to keep students focused. Teaching a skill or concept on the spot helps them stick to their line of inquiry without interrupting the flow of learning. It is also highly personalized and therefore relevant to what that student is working on. Second, some skills don’t require a full-blown lesson to convey the point. For example, students may need to know how to read a map. A brief teacher-directed overview on the parts of a map and how to use one would suffice in this case. This way, students are given more time to explore the map as opposed to listening to an entire lesson on map decoding.

It can be challenging to make the switch from teaching the entire class to teaching individual students when implementing inquiry learning. If you are struggling with this, a good solution is to keep a small notebook of a few generic skills-based lessons that take 5-10 minutes to scaffold to students. This way, if students get stuck with common roadblocks such as skimming and scanning, sorting their ideas, or narrowing down their searches, you are prepared to troubleshoot the problem with them in under 10 minutes. This simple roadmap for implementing inquiry learning is useful for teachers who are just starting out with inquiry learning. 

6. Honour student curiosities and contributions

Students can always tell when adults are genuinely interested in something and when they’re not. While every inquiry might not be awe-inspiring to you personally, showing care and excitement for students is important for morale and confidence. Furthermore, helping students see the value in their contributions is also important in adding meaning to student work.

Approaching inquiry with an open and excited mind is a great way to show interest. Think about how exciting it must feel for your students to be given the opportunity to explore topics and problems that are important to them. Envision the ways they will light up and enjoy their learning when given the chance to take ownership of their own work. Take joy in the idea that this may be the most exciting opportunity they’ve ever had at school to do something that really matters to them.

Sharing your own curiosities and admitting to students that you don’t have all of the answers can catch students off-guard. Chances are, it’ll make them feel excited and eager to learn more so that they can teach you. Imagine how great that would make a child feel!

Another great way to honour student curiosities is by sharing their ideas and discoveries around the room. For example, hang frames or clipboards on the wall and display student work; it doesn’t need to be correct or perfect, it just needs to showcase student effort. In addition, hang whiteboards in the shape of thought bubbles on your walls and encourage students to share their questions and wonderings.

These magnetic thought bubbles from Amazon are a great choice for metallic surfaces, but these speech and thought bubble boards from Discount School Supply are a far cheaper alternative, and come with two boards instead of one.

7. Provide encouragement, prompts, and discussion

This seems like an obvious tip, but be your students’ biggest cheerleader! Embrace challenge and difficulty with students; celebrate mistakes. Frame mistakes as helpful and encourage students to share their mistakes so they can provide a learning opportunity for everyone. In doing this, students feel like they are contributing to the learning of the entire class. It’s also important to remember that students are not always going to get it right; neither will teachers.

Three things are important to remember when giving positive praise and reinforcement. First, using the names of your students in your praise makes a huge difference. Students love to hear their names in the classroom for positive reasons. Furthermore, it makes the praise feel more personal and genuine when you include a name. Second, I’ve always found it helpful to tell students that I won’t lie to them – if they’ve done a poor job, I’ll let them know (politely). Any praise that I give them comes from a genuine place, and is based more so on effort, not necessarily skill. Finally, make sure the positive reinforcement is specific. Finding something specific that a student has done well and making an effort to notice it is far more meaningful than a generic “good job”.

8. Check in with students and model reflection

Some students will take off and fully immerse themselves in their questions and feel confident in the inquiry process. They will tackle challenges, persevere, and remain determined. However, many students will probably need some level of reassurance as they work through their inquiries.

Making time to teach students about metacognition and reflective thinking is important. Discuss with students why we talk about our learning. Emphasize the fact that learning is more beneficial when we plan for it and keep track of our progress. Give students some time each day to reflect on how they’re progressing, how they’re dealing with problems they encounter, and how they are moving forward. In addition, talk to students 1:1 or in small groups by asking questions such as “what is your current understanding?” or “what are the next steps moving forward?”. There are more guiding questions in the Capacity Building Series document as well.

In addition to self-reflection, teach students how to hold each other accountable and provide support to one another. When students are invited to take part in all steps of the learning process, they feel a greater sense of agency and responsibility. Furthermore, this will help students begin to understand that learning is an ongoing process, and does not necessarily have end points or conclusions.

Not only is reflection important for students to engage in, but it’s also crucial that teachers do this regularly as well. Taking time to continually assess what’s working and what needs your focus is important for professional development reasons as well as to provide a more enriching experience for your students.

9. Enjoy the process and learn to let go

Inquiry-based learning is led by students. It is based on student questions and curiosities. While this doesn’t mean you should let students have total, uninhibited free-reign over the classroom, it does mean that your role as a teacher shifts a bit. Instead of being the deliverer of knowledge and knower-of-all-things, a teacher becomes someone who simply facilitates the process of student discovery and knowledge-curation.

This may be a difficult role to transition into for some teachers. In the past, I have personally struggled with letting go of rigid expectations and relinquished the need to steer students on the path I thought was the “right one”. Instead, I’ve come to embrace the process and enjoy it for the ride it is. Students are incredibly capable of co-construction knowledge, working together, and sorting out their differences. Sometimes, of course, they need some help; we’ve written a guide on effective strategies for managing conflict in inquiry learning for some guidance on this.

Key Takeaways for Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning:

(1) Implementing inquiry-based learning successfully requires teachers to create an engaging inquiry environment that normalizes curiosity, balances challenge and success, emphasizes reflection and discussion, and honours student questions.

(2) Create an engaging inquiry learning environment by sparking curiosity and utilizing provocations and invitations when possible.

(3) Normalize asking questions and teaching on a need-to-know basis. This will ensure that students retain their motivation to explore and challenge themselves.

(4) Balance student levels of success and challenge by keeping tasks and learning fresh, meaningful, and set at the right level of difficulty to achieve a state of “flow”.

(5) Emphasize the importance of a circular process. In other words, normalize mistakes, provide encouragement, and remind students that learning doesn’t necessarily have an “end point”.

(6) Honour student curiosities and contributions by showcasing student work in your classroom, expressing joy and excitement, and being your students’ biggest cheerleader.

(7) Check in with students and model reflection. Supporting students wherever they need it and modeling daily reflection will help boost student confidence and make them feel secure.

Do you have any tips to add to this list? How have your experiences been implementing inquiry-based learning? Comment below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

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