Inquiry-Based Learning

4 Common Obstacles to Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning—and How to Overcome Them

A seasoned teacher breaks down the basics of inquiry to help high school teachers feel comfortable implementing the method in the classroom.

September 14, 2022
Alex Nabaum / The iSpot

A recent keynote presentation by educational consultant Shelley Moore to my school’s faculty on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and inclusion featured an important theme: the need for teachers to identify obstacles to learning and achievement and to remove those obstacles so that behavioral and cognitive change can occur.

I realized that all learners, including teachers, have obstacles to learning, and I wondered, what are the obstacles that teachers face to adopting an inquiry approach to teaching and learning? There are four cognitive obstacles to integrating inquiry into the classroom. I hope that overcoming these obstacles could encourage more teachers to add inquiry principles to their pedagogical toolbox.

Obstacle 1: A Lack of Knowledge—What Is Inquiry, and Why Should I Do It?

Inquiry flips the classroom from one in which the students get a shared content experience dictated by the teacher to one that requires students to ask questions that are personally meaningful to them and then answer those questions. Alternatively, students are given a provocation (a film clip, photograph, text, etc.) and then generate their own essential question. The process of asking questions, discovering answers, and then building new knowledge (content and skill) is referred to as inquiry.

John Hattie conducted a meta-analysis to identify to what extent a given teaching and learning intervention impacts learning. The beauty of an inquiry approach to teaching is that it combines many high-impact “interventions” into a single approach, all of which have a major impact on learning. Self-efficacy, synthesis skills, effort, reciprocal teaching, and self-reported grades are all interventions that Hattie found to have a significant impact on student achievement.

Obstacle 2: The Belief That ‘If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It’

In general, we teachers are a pretty open-minded group. After all, we chose a life of learning and are generally open to new ideas and ways of doing things. But we also need to protect our time because of the daily demands of our professional and personal lives. Thus, in spite of our open-mindedness, teachers are often skeptical of anything that adds more to our plate without taking something off of it.

This can lead to an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. As a teacher-leader, I like to reconceptualize this mindset. It is not that a given approach is “broken” or in need of being “fixed” by inquiry. Instead, inquiry provides an opportunity for leveling up existing approaches.

Obstacle 3: The Belief That All Students Won’t Learn the Same Thing

Inquiry-hesitant teachers tend to worry that inquiry embraces a philosophy that content doesn’t matter and that everyone can “learn what they want.” While a full, open inquiry may lead to students learning different content knowledge, they will all be refining the same academic and social and emotional learning skills (collaboration, engagement, responsibility, time management, etc.).

The extent to which you have structured your inquiry will also determine the extent to which students have a shared experience. The beautiful thing about inquiry is that it can be as prescriptive or open as the teacher is comfortable with. A key method of ensuring that students do acquire the desired skills and knowledge is to ensure that the inquiry is grounded in skills and standards.

Obstacle 4: Not Knowing Where to Start

Learning how to implement a complex strategy is clearly key, and teachers can follow these four steps to integrate principles of inquiry into their classrooms.

Step 1. Identify the skill(s) or standard(s) that you want your students to develop through the inquiry process: It is crucial to explicitly teach and assess skills and/or standards through inquiry. I will often identify a standard and design a guided inquiry around it. For example, I recently designed an inquiry around C3 standard D2, History 5: “Analyze how historical contexts have shaped, and continue to shape, people’s perspectives” with the question, “How have concepts of equality changed over time?” At this step, it’s key to present an “un-googlable” question.

If conducting a structured or guided inquiry, you should use an essential question to inspire your students’ investigation, and if leading students through a more open inquiry, I find the Question Formulation Technique useful. For example, I’ve used “Is oppression of the few for the good of the many justified?” or “Is truth in history possible?”

Students should receive feedback on the process as well as the product. I use check-ins to help inform the types of mini-lessons my students need. I always formally provide feedback at the following checkpoints:

  • Questioning phase—I check the questions my students generate to ensure that they have the right conceptual connection between the big overarching question that they have posed and the answers they need to find.
  • Research phase—I check to ensure that students have documented their learning through the research phase and have provided accurate and thorough answers to the questions they’ve posed.
  • Outline—No matter the product that students are creating, I require them to outline their approach to answering their compelling question to ensure that their response is focused and evidence is cohesive.
  • Rough draft—Again, regardless of the type of product that students create, I formatively assess a first draft of their product.

By explicitly linking your inquiries to skills and standards, you can rest assured that your students are indeed learning the curriculum.

Step 2. Conceive of the product that students will use to present their learning: Will this be a report of some kind? Argumentative essay? Documentary? Debate? Oral presentation? Project proposal? Or will students be allowed to present their learning in a form of their choosing?

For example, I had my world history students conduct a guided inquiry in response to the essential question, “What is the recipe for revolution?” in which their product was a report to the UN Security Council detailing where the next revolution was most likely to occur.

Step 3. Identify and use mini-lessons to teach the skills necessary for your students to complete the inquiry: Through the inquiry process, your students will refine the following skills and more: asking questions, conducting research, making claims, linking evidence to claims, synthesis, evaluation, articulation, and application. But again, inquiries can be structured.

For example, if you feel your students aren’t quite ready to do independent research, provide them with a collection of resources from which they can select their evidence. If you think they all need more work on their writing, then require all students to articulate their answers via the written word. Eventually you will want to get your students to the point that they have the skills to work independently (or collaboratively) and make their own choices; however, this takes time.

Additionally, if during the process you notice that students are struggling in a certain area, design a learning experience to address that inadequacy. I have found that integrating mini-lessons focused on a specific skill during the inquiry process results in greater learning for all as a result of the immediate application of that skill.

Step 4. Celebrate their work and independence: When the students are ready to present their work, celebrate it—and invite your administrators, parents, and other students. Your students just completed creative independent research about something they care about. Celebrate!

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  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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