11 Ways to be an Inquiry-based Teacher

Inquiry-based_learning_at_QAISIt’s hard to run an inquiry-based classroom. Don’t go into this teaching style thinking all you do is ask questions and observe answers. You have to listen with all of your senses, pause and respond to what you heard (not what you wanted to hear), keep your eye on the Big Ideas as you facilitate learning, value everyone’s contribution, be aware of the energy of the class and step in when needed, step aside when required. You aren’t a Teacher, rather a guide. You and the class find your way from question to knowledge together.

Because everyone learns differently.

You don’t use a textbook. Sure, it’s a map, showing you how to get from here to there, but that’s the problem. It dictates how to get ‘there’. For an inquiry-based classroom, you may know where you’re going, but not quite how you’ll get there and that’s a good thing. You are no longer your mother’s teacher who stood in front of rows of students and pointed to the blackboard. You operate well outside your teaching comfort zone as you try out the flipped classroom and the gamification of education and are thrilled with the results.

And then there’s the issue of assessment. What your students have accomplished can’t neatly be summed up by a multiple choice test. When you review what you thought would assess learning (back when you designed the unit), none measure the organic conversations the class had about deep subjects, the risk-taking they engaged in to arrive at answers, the authentic knowledge transfer that popped up independently of your class time. You realize you must open your mind to learning that occurred that you never taught–never saw coming in the weeks you stood amongst your students guiding their education.

Let me digress. I visited the Soviet Union (back when it was one nation) and dropped in on a classroom where students were inculcated with how things must be done. It was a polite, respectful, ordered experience, but without cerebral energy, replete of enthusiasm for the joy of learning, and lacking the wow factor of students independently figuring out how to do something. Seeing the end of that powerful nation, I arrived at different conclusions than the politicians and the economists. I saw a nation starved to death for creativity. Without that ethereal trait, learning didn’t transfer. Without transfer, life required increasingly more scaffolding and prompting until it collapsed in on itself like a hollowed out orange.

So how do you create the inquiry-based classroom? Here’s advice from a few of my efriend teachers:

  1. ask open-ended questions and be open-minded about conclusions
  2. provide hands-on experiences
  3. use groups to foster learning
  4. encourage self-paced learning. Be open to the student who learns less but deeper as much as the student who learns a wider breadth
  5. differentiate instruction. Everyone learns in their own way
  6. look for evidence of learning in unusual places. It may be from the child with his/her hand up, but it may also be from the learner who teaches mom how to use email
  7. understand ‘assessment’ comes in many shapes. It may be a summative quiz, a formative simulation, a rubric, or a game that requires knowledge to succeed. It may be anecdotal or peer-to-peer. Whatever approach shows students are transferring knowledge from your classroom to life is a legitimate assessment
  8. be flexible. Class won’t always (probably never) go as your mind’s eye saw it. That’s OK. Learn with students. Observe their progress and adapt to their path.
  9. give up the idea that teaching requires control. Refer to #8–Be flexible
  10. facilitate student learning in a way that works for them. Trust that they will come up with the questions required to reach the Big Ideas

In the end, know that inquiry-based teaching is not about learning for the moment. You’re creating life-long learners, the individuals who will solve the world’s problems in ten years. How do you ensure they are ready?

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

updated 5-20-16

Author: Jacqui
Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, contributor to NEA Today, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

6 thoughts on “11 Ways to be an Inquiry-based Teacher

  1. Great post! I believe that wonder is at the heart of inquiry-based learning. It can be a natural motivator to get students to explore all the possibilities.

    Thanks, for this post!


  2. Good read as I start the first day of my 37th year of being a Tech teacher. Sometimes it’s easy to become discouraged in the face of repeated standardized tests, annual yearly growth, and all the other quantitative measuring devices. What we teach is so important and yet not easily measured. Have a great year!

  3. 37 years! You are my hero. I can’t imagine how many changes you’ve implemented. Tech is one of the fastest-moving classes I know. Music rarely changes. How about PE? But tech–every year, there’s something new.

    Have a great year, Jon.

  4. Am making small inroads in inquiry. My co-teacher is a brand new teacher and very “teach from the blackboard while screaming”. It is challenging teaching her as well as the students; a real balancing act! But my students are struggling learners and they really blossom when I put these opportunities in front of them. I am slowly seeing them get excited about the learning and the discussion. It is messy and unscripted but the knowledge flies so fast! My message to anyone working with this method: persevere! Your students will be glad you did. And for those with those multiple choice demons hanging over your students’ (and your) heads- always take time to scaffold to the test questions and have the class share test taking methods and solutions. This gives the students power over that test!

    1. I’m surprised new teachers learn that approach. I thought ed schools were coming around. Interesting. Hopefully, she’ll see the real difference in student learning through your example.

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