Inquiry Instruction: What Is It?

There seems to be a nonstop debate about how to teach. Inquiry or Explicit. The inquiry based instruction groups argue that inquiry instruction is preferable because it enhances creativity, is more natural, creates deeper memories, helps students become lifelong learners and more. The explicit based instruction groups argue that explicit instruction helps students learn to read more efficiently, is in line with scientific research, gives students the tools to become lifelong learners, and more.

I think that this debate has become slightly misplaced. With many in the inquiry camp claiming that explicit instruction means lecture and many in the explicit camp claiming that inquiry instruction means discovery learning. In my lived experience, and even in my twitter experience, both are wrong. This is part one in a 3 part series.

1. Inquiry Instruction 2. Explicit Instruction 3. Inquiry Vs Explicit: Who Wins?

What follows is my best case interpretation of inquiry instruction.

Inquiry learning seeks to give students a passion for the subject through carefully guided lessons that allow students to find the facts. This is similar to discovery learning, yet fundamentally different since it is heavily guided. The lesson or topic would typically start by giving students questions/problems/scenarios to solve. The students would then use their background knowledge and do research in order to find a solution.

The teacher works to guide students beyond their natural level of curiosity and leads them to engage in critical thinking through the investigation process. As students investigate the material in search for an answer, they are taking ownership of their learning. It has been hypothesized that being explicitly taught leads students to become externally motivated, ie wanting to please their teacher or parents. Whereas in inquiry based learning, the children can “discover” the answers on their own (from a student’s perspective). This could then lead to a love for learning, ie an intrinsically motivated student (Bruner, 1961).

The goal is for the students to process on four different levels of a continuum (Banchi, 2008). The lower levels involve more guidance from the teacher whereas the higher levels involve less teacher guidance.

Level 1: Confirmation Inquiry

  • Students are provided with the question, procedure, and outcome.
  • This is useful for helping students get used to following procedures and gets them to practice specific skills.

Level 2: Structured Inquiry

  • Students are provided with the question and procedure.
  • This level of inquiry forces students to analyze relationships between the question, procedure, and outcome. For example, if the student is dropping differently weighted balls into sand to imitate a meteorite impact, then the student would need to analyze how the different weights impact the resulting crater.

Level 3: Guided Inquiry

  • Students are provided with the question.
  • Students are responsible for designing their own procedure and analyzing the results. As this level is more involved, students should be experienced with the inquiry process before coming to this level. Another key takeaway, the teachers role in this is far from passive. The teacher will be moving around the class giving students/groups constant feedback on their procedures and research in order to keep all groups on track.

Level 4: Open/True Inquiry

  • Students will provide their own question, procedure, and outcome.
  • The teacher will only let students move to this level after they have demonstrated proficiency in designing and carrying out a procedure while also being able to analyze their results. This being said, there are still requirements that students must meet. The teacher should provide a worksheet/lab report/other similar guiding document for students to use.

As students move through the levels of inquiry, while they are still reliant on the teacher to carefully craft the lessons, they are becoming increasingly independent because they understand the inquiry process and can apply it to novel situations. This, along with students becoming more intrinsically motivated helps them to have self direction to take further control of their own learning.

Stay tuned for part 2, Explicit Instruction.