Although the term first appeared back in the 1960s,1 educators often still wonder, What is inquiry-based learning? Science teachers are often most comfortable with this kind of learning, as inquiry is a key component of the scientific method. Educators in other disciplines, however, may struggle to see how it applies to what they teach and how they can use inquiry-based learning in their classrooms.
So, what is inquiry-based instruction? The process of inquiry includes seeking knowledge through questioning. Inquiry-based learning makes use of this natural tendency. Students must ask questions, generate information and data, apply knowledge in new ways, synthesize their findings and arrive at well-supported conclusions. Educators who take an inquiry-based approach nurture inquisitive habits in students that will aid them in their lifelong search for knowledge.
Although there can be challenges within inquiry-based learning, such as a lack of resources, there are also many benefits to the process as well as ways that students can experience inquiry-based learning to help them stay engaged in the content2. After earning your education degree, it’s important to understand what strategies you can use to engage and motivate students. Use this guide to take a deeper dive into the answer to What is inquiry-based learning?
In This Article:
- What Is Inquiry-Based Learning? Exploring the Types of Inquiry-Based Approaches
- What Is Inquiry-Based Instruction? A Look at the Top 6 Benefits
- Inquiry-Based Learning Examples
What Is Inquiry-Based Learning? Exploring the Types of Inquiry-Based Approaches
You can determine what type of inquiry you want your students to complete. Some types of inquiry include:
- Confirmation Inquiry: Students confirm the answer to a question using a specific method. You may need to provide resources for them to learn more about the method.
- Structured Inquiry: As the name suggests, the structured inquiry provides students with a rigid framework from which to work. The teacher gives the students the question to consider, as well as the investigation method for working toward a result. The students must then work within that investigation method to generate a conclusion that can be substantiated by evidence.
- Guided Inquiry: The guided inquiry approach is best suited to elementary and middle school classrooms. It requires heavy involvement from the teacher. With this approach, the teacher guides the students step by step through the process of inquiry, prompting the students to ask questions and develop solutions. The guided inquiry approach works well when asking students to apply critical thinking skills to realistic issues.
- Open Inquiry: The open-ended inquiry approach is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the structured inquiry. Students have a great deal of leeway in developing their own questions to reflect upon. They develop their own investigation methods and follow them. When the students arrive at a conclusion, they can be invited to debate the issue from different viewpoints and expand upon their conclusions, if appropriate.
What Is Inquiry-Based Instruction? A Look at the Top 6 Benefits
Inquiry-based instruction not only supports classroom learning objectives, it can also help build students' soft skills that can be applied to other areas of their lives. As you work toward your education degree, take some time to reflect upon the ways that you might incorporate inquiry-based learning into your lesson plans. Here are six benefits of inquiry-based instructions:
1. Celebrates Curiosity
Most students are naturally curious. When students engage in inquiry-based learning, they can ask the questions they want to ask and try different solutions that enable them to recognize that there is not always one right answer or a single correct path toward knowledge.
2. Builds Creativity
Through inquiry-based learning, students must think deeply about a topic. They then start to consider many ways of approaching a problem. They use creativity and critical thinking to come up with new approaches. Sometimes one way does not work, so they must try something new. This keeps them innovating and creating potential approaches to find the answers they seek.
3. Enhances Problem-Solving Skills
An inquiry-based approach focuses on solving open-ended questions or problems. Students must use critical thinking and reasoning skills to come up with a conclusion and defend their results. This means they will need to look for new ways of thinking about their problem and come up with solutions that other people might not have tried before.
4. Demonstrates Interconnectedness
When students become immersed in learning, they can find connections between what they are trying to learn and information they already know. For example, a student making an inquiry into changes in the weather may need to use their math skills to calculate monthly temperature averages.
5. Gives Students Autonomy
Working in an inquiry-based learning classroom helps students develop a love of learning through independence. Rather than simply following along with a lesson, students create the lessons they learn based on their own inquiry, allowing them to become independent thinkers and problem-solvers.
6. Provides Authentic Differentiation
When students engage in inquiry-based learning, the experience is naturally differentiated. Students can work alone or in small groups. The information they seek may come from a variety of sources such as texts, videos, websites and discussions. Students work at their own pace to gather information and apply it to their problem. They also determine the best way to share their results, whether it be through a demonstration, a written paper or a slideshow.
Inquiry-Based Learning Examples
One of the many exciting things about inquiry-based learning is that is can be done in any grade level and in any subject area. In fact, inquiry-based learning projects can be a great way to include cross-grade collaboration and promote interaction between younger and older students. Here are a few examples of inquiry-based learning projects you may want to implement in your classroom:
Researching the impact of a community garden is a great way for students to experience inquiry-based learning. Younger students can learn about fruits, vegetables and flowers and plant life cycles. They can plant seeds and watch them grow.
Older students can research nutrition and learn how plants impact the environment. They may even start a schoolyard garden to make observations. High school students might be interested in learning about hunger, food accessibility and patterns of food distribution.
During their inquiry, students can learn about topics related to math, science, economics, health and nutrition and social studies. Learning about community gardens can also allow the class to be more involved in the local community outside of school.
Habitats are a common theme of study in elementary school that can be used as the basis for inquiry-based learning. Young elementary students might learn about plants and animals that live in certain habitats. Older elementary school students can learn about the impact of changes in the habitat on its inhabitants. Middle and high school students can look at how communities adapt to their habitats and how environments must change to meet the needs of a growing population.
Habitats as a theme for inquiry can be as broad as your students choose to make it. See what they want to learn about, what sparks their natural curiosity, and let them ask questions and investigate the topics of their choice.
What if? inquiries can be particularly powerful at all grade levels and subjects. It expands on students’ curiosity about the world around them and lets them consider alterative outcomes. For example, a What if? inquiry for young students might be to ask them, What if cars had never been invented? Students might be led to research the invention of the wheel or they may create new ideas for alternative modes of transportation.
Older students might ask questions about historical events such as What if JFK had not been assassinated? or What if the United States had never intervened in World War II? History teachers can help students begin to answer these questions by providing them with a good grasp of the historical landscape at the time these events happened. Then, the students can use their creativity and research to come up with plausible explanations and answers.
Grand Canyon University aims to provide an exceptional academic experience for every student. If you would like more information about GCU’s education programs, including the Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education program, visit the College of Education or complete the form on this page.
1 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. (n.d.). How has inquiry-based learning developed since it first became popular? Concept to Classroom. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
2 Kuykendall, M. (2022, September 14). 4 Common Obstacles to Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning—and How to Overcome Them. Edutopia. Retrieved on July 17, 2023.
Approved by the dean of the College of Education on July 10, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.