Commentary: Inquiry-based Learning and Teaching

Why inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is now considered the gold standard in curriculum and classroom practice. If we consider inquiry to be the methodical building of evidence-based claims and arguments, it is central to authentic intellectual work, disciplinary reasoning, developing an informed and participative citizenry and 21st century skills, such as critical and creative thinking, problem-solving and even empathy. Inquiry is a method for building knowledge and is fundamental to learning. However, despite calls for everyone to jump on the inquiry bandwagon, and it is difficult to find anyone not in favor of the inquiry approach in education, it does seem that IBL is challenging to enact in classrooms.  Research focusing on IBL in Singapore indicates that inquiry instruction remains teacher-centric and teachers are unsure about how to use inquiry as a core pedagogical approach (Costes-Onishi, Baildon, & Aghazadeh, in press). What might account for some of these challenges?

First of all, perhaps educators have set the bar too high for what inquiry should look like in classrooms. Maybe we need a more charitable and age-appropriate view of IBL. Inquiry actually is quite fundamental to being human. Even as infants we begin to inquire about the world; we use our senses to experience both the physical and social world around us, and with the help of knowledgeable others (e.g. our parents or other family members) we begin to make sense of our experience and ourselves. Eventually we learn to ask questions, to wonder, to experiment and to make meaning from experience. As we go through life, we might even engage in fairly significant inquiries about who we are, what kind of person we want to be, how we might contribute to society and what will make our lives meaningful and purposeful. To get good at something in work or play, likely requires some degree of inquiry into the field of interest in order to develop the necessary knowledge, skills and dispositions to perform well in that field. As citizens, we inquire into societal concerns by reading about a public issue, talking with others about it and getting enough information to be able to develop an informed position. The point is, inquiry might be considered part and parcel of so many facets of our lives that we tend to forget that inquiry is what we are doing in varying degrees when we learn something new, think carefully about what we are doing, who we want to be and what is good for our lives and society.

However, whether we call it inquiry or not likely depends on the extent to which these efforts might be considered active, persistent and careful, the degree to which one reflects upon experience and actually learns, grows and develops through that process of making meaning of experience. As Parker (2011) argues, as humans we experience things and we reflect on or theorise what these things mean. We then test our theories – in new experiences or by hearing others’ views and feedback, for example – and revise them in accordance with new experiences, new ways of looking at or thinking about things (i.e., theories) and in light of newfound or more compelling reasons and evidence. According to Stanley (2010), this makes inquiry a “method of intelligence.” While we might be predisposed to these dispositions, these more methodical and intelligent ways of thinking most certainly have to be cultivated, developed and practiced. So, to answer why IBL, we might say that inquiry is core to learners constructing knowledge, that it is fundamental to lifelong learning, and that it provides a “method of intelligence” that is vital to living and working in society.

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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