Inquiry Learning

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* Onderzoekend_en_ontwerpend_leren (dutch)



Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is an instructional method developed during the discovery learning movement of the 1960s. It was developed in response to a perceived failure of more traditional forms of instruction, where students were required simply to memorize fact laden instructional materials. Inquiry learning is a form of active learning, where progress is assessed by how well students develop experimental and analytical skills rather than how much knowledge they possess. IBL seen to be effective in both primary and secondary education increasing children’s interest and attainment levels as well as stimulating teacher motivation (Rocard, 2007) supported by theories showing greater understanding of students when an inquiry approach is taken (Furtak, Seidel, Iverson & Briggs, 2012; Schroeder et al.; 2007).


Inquiry-based learning or inquiry-based science describes a range of philosophical, curricular and pedagogical approaches to teaching. Its core premises include the requirement that learning should be based around student questions. Pedagogy and curriculum requires students to work independently to solve problems rather than receiving direct instructions on what to do from the teacher. Teachers are viewed as facilitators of learning rather than vessels of knowledge. The teachers job in an inquiry learning environment is therefore not to provide knowledge, but instead to help students along the process of discovering knowledge themselves.

Computer simulations enhance inquiry-based learning in which students actively discover information by allowing scientific discovery within a realistic setting.

Its core premises include the requirement that learning should be based around student questions. Pedagogy and curriculum requires students to work independently to solve problems rather than receiving direct instructions on what to do from the teacher. Teachers are viewed as facilitators of learning rather than vessels of knowledge. The teachers job in an inquiry learning environment is therefore not to provide knowledge, but instead to help students along the process of discovering knowledge themselves.

Inquiry-based learning is a concept which underlines the importance of students engaging into meaningful hands-on science experiences (Louca, Santis & Tzialli, 2010). Inquiry can’t be separated from the world of science and as National Science Educations Standards states: "Inquiry is central to science learning" (NRC, 1996 p2).

Inquiry learning cause beyond memorizing information and aims to give students an understanding and reasoning of the knowledge which they develop. Inquiry-based learning is active and provides opportunities for students to engage themselves with scientific activities (Edelson, Gording and Pea, 1999). This self-engaging into activities should lead to a less guided situation in which students design their learning by exploring. Exploring is the essence of inquiry learning, students design their own question and hypothesis in order to engage in hands-on activities which are aligned by exploration.

Hakkarainen (2002) shows that inquiry learning leads to students who design their own intuitive theories by explaining answers on their research question. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) strongly oppose to the concept minimal or non- guidance, cause it places a huge burden on working memory. Guided instruction is seen to lead to vastly more learning, IBL can’t be seen as a fully guided instruction (Kirschner et al. 2006). Hmelo-Silver, Duncan and Chinn (2007 p 99) wrote an article specially in response to Kirschner et al. (2006) and state that IBL isn't minimally guided but could use "extensive scaffolding to facilitate student learning".

Teaching and doing science both interwoven as well as seperable, Banchi and Bell (2007) designed a four level continuum model showing the level of the teacher teaching and the students doing science as well as the way to teach students an inquiring mind. (1) Confirmation inquiry: is used to reinforce a previous idea. Question, procedure and results are know in advance so students can practice their inquiry skill and build experience with investigating. (2) Structured inquiry: Question and procedure are know by students and this form of inquiry aims to draw students into making own explanation of the data. The first two forms of inquiry are considered to be low-level, but introduce, stimulate and learn students to do their own investigation. (3) Guided inquiry: The teacher only provide the question and students need to design their own procedure and results leading them into explanation. Teachers should provide multiple opportunities to let students explore all the different way of investigating. (4) Open inquiry: This lets students act like scientists and let them design an entire inquiry, emphasis is laid on reasoning.

A distinction can be made between teaching and doing science in IBL (Colburn, 2000). Doing science refers to the student who enact with IBL and teaching refers to the way IBL is instructed to students and the way of guiding students into science inquiry. Teaching inquiry science might evoke more discussion and different opinions. In order to address this distinction first will be looked at teaching inquiry-based science and next doing inquiry-based science.

Teaching Inquiry-based Learning

Which role the facilitator or teacher should play during science inquiry is widely recognized and answers aren't always equivocal. During the first kick-off meeting of the Mascil project this question was raised. Analysis of the conversations held during the kickoff meeting of Mascil in Leipzig show a question which was repeated by several professors. This question is very legit and importance for the success of IBL, How should you support the students?

Overall there is a confusion about the definition of inquiry and what inquiry implies for the teacher (Colburn, 2000). The reform from traditional education to a more inquiry-based learning asks for a paradigm shift. Teachers need to shift their emphasis from textbooks to exploring questions (Crawford, 1999). This might sound easy to implement, but is far from easy. This new paradigm on education ask for specific new actions and teachers shouldn't 'simply' provide hands-on activities for students. Teachers should provide students with inquiry activities that build on prerequisite knowledge and elaborates understanding (Crawford, 1999). This asks for a new approach in teaching which 'forces' teachers to change their current form of teaching. Learning in IBL should come from experiments and inquiry activities which should be conducted by collaboration and interaction with other student and teachers.

To understand the roles that teachers should play during IBL a better look is needed at the different forms of IBL. Colburn (2000) distinguishes four different forms of IBL:

  • Structured Inquiry The teacher provides students with a hands-on problem to investigate, as well as the procedures, and materials, but does not inform them of the expected outcomes (Colburn, 2000 p 42).
  • Guided Inquiry The teacher provides only the materials and problem to investigate. Students devise their own procedure to solve the problem (Colburn, 2000 p 42).
  • Open Inquiry In addition to Guided Inquiry students also formulate their own problem to investigate (Colburn, 2000).
  • Learning Cycle Students have ownership of the concept and apply this in different contexts. The teacher only provides the formal name of the concept (Colburn, 2000)

When inquiry-based lesson appear in an constructive order Hakkarainen (2002) speaks of Progressive Inquiry Learning. This is not a seperated form of IBL but underlines the progressive construction of IBL. Hakkarainen (2002) gives some guidelines for Progressive inquiry learning but these are communal and not specified by the distinction Colburn (2000) makes. Students are guided to set up their own research questions and working theories, especially explanation-seeking questions cause the students to emerge advanced understanding of conceptual problems (Hakkarainen, 2002).

It is acknowledged that people demonstrate the understanding and deep knowledge by explaining it to others (Colburn, 2000; Hakkarainen, 2002) and teachers should facilitate this process to deep understanding and stimulate students to explain their knowledge. "Effective teachers of science create an environment in which they and students work together as active learners" (NRC, 1996 p 28).

National Academy of Sciences (NCR, 1996) has written a handbook about teacher behavior in order to fulfill the needs of inquiry-based learning and gives the following shifts that need to occur (NCR, 1996 P 52):

Less emphasis on More emphasis on
1 Treating all students alike and responding to the group as a whole Understanding and responding to individual student’s interests,strengths,experiences,and needs
2 Rigidly following curriculum Selecting and adapting curriculum
3 Focusing on student acquisition of information Focusing on student understanding and use of scientific knowledge, ideas,and inquiry processes
4 Presenting scientific knowledge through lecture, text, and demonstration Guiding students in active and extended scientific inquiry
5 Asking for recitation of acquired knowledge Providing opportunities for scientific discussion and debate among students
6 Testing students for factual information at the end of the unit or chapter Continuously assessing student understanding
7 Maintaining responsibility and authority Sharing responsibility for learning with students
8 Supporting competition Supporting a classroom community with cooperation,shared responsibility, and respect
9 Working alone Working with other teachers to enhance the science program

Colburn (2000) concludes that teachers should encourage students, support by inquiry-based instruction, believe that students have control over what they learn and how they behave, stimulate operational thinking, have knowledge of the subject and understanding of how students learn. These guidelines leave the form in which IBL occurs to the teacher. The above described forms of IBL aren't distinction-able in good or fault actions and research should point out which of the methods has the most desired effect of student learning and engagement.

Next will be looked at the student actions, and how they are supposed to 'do' science.

Doing Inquiry-based Learning

Student are likely to have intuitive conceptions that are resistant to change and input of new knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to new reasoning (Hakkarainen, 2002). This is why new knowledge creation should come from the student. To help students to build their own image of what science inquiry is students should repentantly participate in the process to apply scientific methodology (Hakkarainen, 2003). The doing of science is primary build on the action of doing. Students learn by engaging and doing science inquiry. Although student learning should occur to the person, IBL shouldn't be individual. It is widely acknowledged that learning also occurs in a cultural environment in which students move (Crawford, 2000; Hakkarainen, 2003; Song & Looi, 2011). Students should be able to interact with their environment as well as other peers and teachers.

Students should have or develop an active attitude towards investigating a range of scientific problems. Students should design partly or fully their own learning and should become a master of their own thinking and reasoning. Inquiry should be question driven and In order to acquire this students should ask questions, make hypotheses, (re)-design investigations, clinch to data, draw conclusions, revise theory and build their own theory (Crawford, 2000). Students should demonstrate their own thinking and theory of the conducted investigation by explaining their theories to others (Hakkarainen, 2003).

Definition from Primas/Mascil

Primas is a study conducted by European professors working together, and they build a theory and researched examples of IBL. Deriving from the Primas project the Mascil project was started to investigate in IBL. Mascil seeks general guidelines to design your own inquiry based lessons. These guidelines should promote the use of IB lessons. This new European project goes under the name Mascil, Mathematics and Science for life. The dutch participation in this project contains the following steps:

  • the gathering of 'good practices', already existing examples of IB lessons.
  • Make these examples online accessible.
  • Give elucidation of these examples and describe what teacher need to know or arrange in order to teach this lesson.
  • Design principles for new contributed examples.



As already mentioned there are a lot of different perspectives on IBL and how this should be designed in daily practice. This study aims to reach a consensus on the terminology used in this project. A big emphasis lies on IBL, and it is necessary to describe firstly what all the different contributors in this project understand by IBL. To make a consensus a well used method is the Delphi Method.

To investigate the thoughts of all the different professors participating in this project are first kick-off meeting was held in Leipzig. During this kick-off meeting all professors were asked to look at some examples of IB lessons and order them accordingly to IBL and the relation to work. During these sessions professors were asked to determine what they understood as IBL and work of field. Professors were split up in four equal groups and were given a poster and some markers to write down their findings. These groups were located at different standing tables and in order to follow their thoughts and explanations and voice recording was made.

These voice recordings were analyzed to find out whether there were general themes, similarities and questions on IBL. At first a general overview of these findings are presented in order to deepen into specific part of the definition of IBL. According to the professors audiotaped during the starting session in Freiburg (WP3, wednesday), and listed by Jurg van der Vlies (student) and Vincent Jonker Inquiry-based learning should contain the following:

  • The task should be related to the real work situation
  • The task should be appealing for students
  • A rich context should be offered
  • Real tools (data) should be available to work with
  • Key concepts or learning goals shouldn’t be hidden
  • Students should acquire deep understanding
  • IBL should be focused
  • Should be authentic for the student
  • Students should make sense by themselves
  • IBL should be evaluated
  • Inquiry should be part of a bigger task
  • The task should be transferable to other situations
  • Meaningful for students

Some questions that are raised and still need answer (From personal conversations):

  • Do the tasks students do really have to be tasks that people do in their daily work?
  • Are they really paying attention to Mathematics and Science or is it hidden? And does this matter?
  • Should students be free to explore on their own or should guidelines be presented?
  • Is an open question, or more limited question wanted?
  • Should IBL be part of a lesson, or a lesson in itself?
  • Misconceptions are likely to happen. How to overcome misconceptions in lessons

These first results are presented to the professors and a new perspective is asked on IBL. These new perspectives will be collected by an online questionnaire



Recommended reading

There are some articles that I would highly recommend reading. These articles will broaden your view on IBL.

  • Colburn, A. (2000). An inquiry primer. Sciencs Scope, 23, 42 - 44.


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