What is inquiry-based learning?
Inquiry-based learning is an approach which capitalizes on our students’ innate desire to find things out. By asking them big questions, we stimulate their curiosity and then provide materials and activities to help them find the answers they are looking for. At the same time, we help the students to develop their critical thinking skills, encouraging them to be observant, analytical and reflective.
Born to ask questions
Anyone who has spent time with a toddler will confirm that inquiry-based learning is innate. As soon as children can say ‘Why?’ they’re off.
‘It’s a leaf.’
Of course, the whys of the very young really mean, ‘Well, that’s very interesting; could we talk about this a bit more?’ and some of us come unstuck at the first hurdle, thinking that we have to explain the reasons for everything. There is no tidy answer to ‘Why is it a leaf?’ and a common response from an adult might be ‘Because I said so.’
It’s even easier to feel overwhelmed when you have a class full of older children, all with different interests and questions. So, how can we handle inquiry-based learning in the classroom?
Every method or approach has to be modified in some way when we are teaching groups of children (sometimes large groups) in schools. We have to define some lesson aims. When we are in the classroom few of us have the luxury of being able to sit around and think about whatever comes into our heads. We have a syllabus to get through and, necessarily, there are time restrictions; the end-of-lesson bell will ring after 50 minutes.
We can make students aware of the timing for our activities:
‘Let’s spend five minutes talking about why we play sports/ how we can save energy/ why we learn languages and then we can make some notes.’
‘Read through the text and see if you can find something which is relevant to the questions you asked. I’ll give you five minutes to do that and then we can re-group and talk about it.’
‘We’ll sum up what we have learnt in the last ten minutes of the lesson.’
But first we need a topic and within that, we need to set our language goals.
How to use the inquiry-based approach
Let’s look at how a few lessons for a primary-aged learner might look, following the inquiry-based approach.
Our language goals:
- Adjectives of description
- Past simple of the verb To Be.
Ask the big question ‘How are we all different?’ and start by letting the students think about the people in their lives. They might start with their family and friends. You can then get them to think about people whom they meet more randomly; what about the person who drives their school bus, or who serves them in the supermarket or their neighbors?
Then start to build on that; who do they like being with and why? Does everyone in their lives know each other? Are they all friends? Why? Why not? This can be done in a very simple way-we are talking about important issues, but we can do it using quite basic language; ‘I like her. She’s good.’
Introducing new vocabulary
Then we can introduce new adjectives like ‘shy’ or ‘hardworking’ or ‘grumpy’ or ‘chatty’. After teaching the vocabulary using our usual methods of presentation, practice and production we can extend our thinking on our topic. Who do they know who is chatty? What kind of things does he or she chat about? Do they know anyone grumpy? Can they think why someone might be grumpy? In Now I Know, for example, we have a story about an elderly neighbor who appears to be grumpy but is actually hard of hearing. Our language goals here are the adjectives but the students will be thinking about the people they know and starting to analyze and reflect. They will also be addressing important values such as compassion and avoiding hasty judgement.
Building up grammar skills
Then we can move on to physical differences. Some people are tall, some are short, some have beards, and some are bald. They can start to use their new grammar of comparative adjectives as they think about the people in their lives. And then we can think about how people change. Was grandpa always bald? What was his hair like when he was younger? Do they have photos of their family that they would like to share with the class?
So, by the end of these sessions, we will have covered all our language goals and we will also have got the students properly engaged with the topic and we will have widened their horizons a little.
It’s important and satisfying to make students aware of the new words and new structures they have learnt and to bring the topic to a conclusion in a summary of some sort. This could be a project or a piece of writing or a spoken presentation. Equally, we want the students to know that we can add to our thoughts, we can change our minds and we can reassess. The topic is still open to inquiries!