Yes, you have probably heard a lot about inquiry-based learning and some of you might have even practiced it with your students. Rooted back to the 1960’s debates about the nature and aim of science education, this pedagogical method has been around for almost 30 years now, as a constructivist approach for science education.
But, what really is inquiry-based learning in science education, can we describe it? Why is it so popular? What are the benefits for the students? Are there any obstacles during the implementation? Any useful tips? We can easily think of many other questions for this topic, but there is no need to look any further for the answers.
Description and definition
There are many approaches and opinions about what IBSE is. In the literature, IBSE is usually described as learning in which students construct knowledge through predicting, observation and hands-on experiments in the same way as during real research. Teachers guide the learning process, which is essentially student-centered.
IBSE works with the presumption that inquiry is the essence of science. Planning, specification and realization of experiments is an important part of the process of acquiring key concepts. Inquiry gives students a chance not only to learn, but also to understand the process of producing scientific findings and thereby experiencing the nature of science. In IBSE, acquiring new concepts and research methods goes hand in hand.
There are a lot of variations of IBSE, sometimes described as the spectrum of inquiry, but there are also some core characteristics that are basically the same in any case.
A categorization based on the role distribution between teachers and students was presented by Eastwell (2009):
- Confirmation inquiry – the responsibility for both the question and methodology is shifted to students; results are known, the aim is to verify them by students’ work
- Structured inquiry – the question and a possible methodology is presented by the teacher; students formulate an explanation of the studied phenomenon
- Guided inquiry – teacher asks a research question; students create and realize a method
- Open inquiry – students ask questions, think about a method, conduct research and formulate results
IBSE benefits for the students at the 21st century
IBSE is not only for students aiming at a scientific career. It also helps developing skills useful in various real life situations and are not limited in educational only settings e.g. motivation to study, critical and creative thinking, logical deduction, ability to make a work plan, independence, responsibility and also cooperation among peers. Students should be gradually introduced to these skills from the early school years. The following are considered of great importance:
Critical thinking. Critical thinking is connected not only to the ability to ask questions, but also with the ability to ask the right question at the right time. Very important is the way students work with mistakes. They do not accept failure as a fact, but think what could have been done in another way.
Cooperation. During IBSE, students often work in small groups where students cooperate and communicate, or they work in teams where each student has their own role. Cooperation ability means that a student can accept a role or task, or even ask for one – suggesting what they could help with during the lesson. Students take their roles responsibly and in case of failure they do not put the blame on others. On the contrary, students should learn how to ask others from the group for help.
Communication. Students use communication skills during the teamwork, but they practice them also when they speak on their own – for example while giving instructions, explaining the progress on an experiment or presenting results.
Do any of the above remind you of the 21st_century_skills? Well they should! 21st century skills comprise skills, abilities, and learning dispositions that have been identified as being required for success in 21st century society and workplaces by educators, business leaders, academics, and governmental agencies. These skills differ from traditional academic skills in that they are not primarily content knowledge-based.
How to start with Inquiry-Based Science Education
For those of you that always wanted to start but didn’t know how, here are some quick tips:
a) Open communication and respect
It is very important to set up a safe environment in the class where open communication and respect for others prevails and where students feel safe and comfortable. It would be difficult to apply inquiry-based pedagogy in a class where students do not trust each other or their teacher, where they are afraid to communicate and to share their opinion.
b) Cooperation over competition
An atmosphere of cooperation, should be supported, rather than that of a competition. The aim is not to get the correct result for an experiment as quickly as possible, but to have one’s own method and achieve a result, which can differ from the results of others.
c) Tools and equipment
Inquiry can be applied even without expensive equipment such as microscopes or pH meters. In many lessons plastic bottles, scissors and a ruler are sufficient.
d) Do not give the answers
The principle of inquiry is NOT to reply to all questions posed by students (even if the teacher knows the answers). Instead it aims at motivating students to search for answers individually through their own research and experiments, through literature reviews in books or on the Internet. This way, their interest in the topic is kept high and students look forward to future lessons.
e) Teachers as researchers
Applying inquiry-based pedagogy in the classroom certainly places considerable demand on the teacher, also in terms of time spent for preparation. Students should be able to turn into a researcher themselves, to pose questions, to investigate and be enthusiastic about students’ discoveries.
Furthermore, the MAAS Project, is here to help you, providing a very detailed Teachers Guide to Inquiry-Based Learning, where you can also find some pros and cons, as well as several training activities for inquiry steps and exemplary lessons for various science classes.
So, why don’t you go ahead and give it a try?
Eastwell, P., & MacKenzie, A. H. (2009). Inquiry Learning: Elements of Confusion and Frustration. The American Biology Teacher, 71(5), 263-266
Other relevant resources about Inquiry-Based Learning
This handbook offers six different scenarios that are meant to help teachers design ILSs (Inquiry Learning Scenarios). Each scenario represents a specific pedagogical method within the overall Go-Lab inquiry approach. The six Go-Lab inquiry scenarios are labelled as follows: the Basic scenario, the Jigsaw approach, Six changing hats, Learning by critiquing, Structured controversy, Find the mistake. This scenario handbook also contains a series of “tips and tricks” (T&T) for creating ILS.
This collection of SAILS Inquiry and Assessment Units showcases the benefits of adopting inquiry approaches in classroom practice, exemplifies how assessment practices are embedded in inquiry lessons and illustrates the variety of assessment opportunities/processes available to science teachers. In particular, the units provide clear examples for teachers of how inquiry skills can be assessed, alongside content knowledge, scientific literacy and scientific reasoning and illustrate the benefits of various types of assessments.
MASCIL aims to connect inquiry-based science and mathematics education (IBSE) in schools with students’ future careers and increase their interest in careers in science and technology.
The project develops and organises training courses for teachers and trainee teachers on IBSE in vocational contexts and with support from industry and informal learning.
The courses are complemented by materials and resources for the classroom and teacher professional development. They are available in the project’s resource repository, together with notes for teachers, explaining the pedagogical approach behind each classroom resource.
S-TEAM: WHEELS ON FIRE! A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR TEACHERS – LEARNING BY INQUIRY IN A TECHNOLOGICAL CONTEXT
S-TEAM brings science education and teacher education together to make inquiry-based science teaching methods more widely available. This improves young people’s attitudes to science and aims to increase entry to science careers.
This teacher guide describes a cross‐curricular project on design and technology at Ruseløkka, a school in Oslo, Norway. It aims at providing teachers, school leaders and educators with ideas and inspiration for how an extensive project like “Wheels on Fire” can be undertaken. This includes organization, pedagogy and equipment, as well as how the various school subjects can contribute and learning outcome be assessed. At the hearth of the project is pupils’ learning by self‐driven inquiry and problem solving in designing and making their own individual car model in plastic driven by an electric motor.
PRIMAS aim was to support and foster the use of inquiry-based teaching strategies in maths and the science subjects. The project has composed a guide for professional development providers that offer courses for mathematics and science teachers in IBL pedagogies. The guide outlines PRIMAS approach and important concepts relating to the IBL professional development courses. Besides overall support and dissemination of the idea of IBL, PRIMAS provides teachers with a collection of teaching materials.
The PRIMAS project: Promoting inquirybased learning (IBL) in mathematics and science education across Europe
Aleksandra Blazhevska & Ioannis Lefkos