Inquiry-Based Learning

Embracing Inquiry-Based Instruction

A veteran teacher shares the frustrations and challenges of this student-centered teaching model—and why she finds it so powerful.

August 17, 2018
Two students doing a chemistry experiment with a test tube in a school science lab
©Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

Recent education reforms call for a shift in pedagogy to provide students with the skills necessary to be competitive in a global society. One such shift, inquiry-based instruction, is supported by evidence as a successful approach to fulfill the goals and processes of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Inquiry-based instruction is a student-centered approach where the instructor guides the students through questions posed, methods designed, and data interpreted by the students. Through inquiry, students actively discover information to support their investigations.

My colleagues and I at Saddle Brook High School in New Jersey developed a guided inquiry curriculum for biology. For example, instead of a lecture on protein production, students were introduced to a case study in which DNA sequences and corresponding amino acid sequences were assigned to each student. Initially, they were challenged to evaluate the assigned sequences to determine patterns between them. They were encouraged to make a prediction as to how proteins are produced and to formulate questions to help clarify the connection. Then they were guided through a series of exploratory activities, research, and peer review to determine the relationship between DNA and proteins.

When I reflected on our implementation of the new curriculum, I realized that I hadn’t known how difficult it would be to let go of over 20 years of my thinking embedded in traditional education. That was a source of frustration.

I also realized that my students had little to no experience with the structure of an inquiry-based class. As a result, they quickly became frustrated and resistant.

My students and I were not alone in our frustration—research indicates that it is pervasive in the science educator community and our students. But just knowing that began to ease some of my anxieties.

I think there are three traditional education ideas we need to let go of to successfully implement inquiry-based instruction, and three ideas we need to embrace:

  • We need to let go of control and embrace the freedom.
  • We need to let go of content and embrace the processes.
  • We need to let go of avoiding discomfort and struggle and embrace them.

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Embracing the Freedom

If you’ve ever had a class that became out of control, you know that it’s an awful feeling. As an educator, I felt that I needed to be in control of student behavior, how students arrived at an answer, and much more. With this new approach to teaching, however, I had to relinquish control to the students.

I worried about whether they would arrive at the right answer, but with most inquiry-based learning the questions can have many solutions. So I needed to let go of some rigidity and embrace the freedom of students taking ownership of their knowledge formation.

Once I finally did, I saw that my students were still held accountable for their education because they were required to produce evidence for the completion of the case study regardless of their chosen solution. This shift offered me the time to differentiate and support their individual needs. I could check in with students who were struggling to progress through the inquiry and ask thought-provoking questions to challenge more advanced students’ understanding.

Embracing the Processes

There was a voice in my mind that continually pressured me to cover the content. Did my students learn standard x? In the past, I had used traditional direct instruction because it was how I was taught and it was efficient, not because it was best practice.

It’s in the nature of science, however, that processes, not content, need to be the focus. I reminded myself and the class that answers were only part of our goal for learning—we needed to embrace processes to reflect scientific practice. If students better understand the process of inquiry, content will uncover itself along the way.

Awareness of this helped alleviate some of our worries. Questions like “can my students make a claim and justify it with evidence?” and “can they evaluate data to look for patterns?” have replaced questions about content coverage.

Embracing Discomfort and Struggle

I’m not confident about using inquiry-based instruction in my classroom yet, and that makes me very uncomfortable. In my previous, traditional pedagogy, I sought comfort in knowing our results and where our investigations would lead us in advance. I oversimplified science to avoid the discomfort of not knowing. I now think that was a disservice to my students and a false representation of scientific practices.

I also needed to be aware that learning through inquiry-based instruction for the first time is especially anxiety-inducing for high-achieving students who feel confident in traditional educational environments. I emphasized the importance of being willing to experience the discomfort and struggle with them.

When I did fully embrace this and avoided the temptation to relieve their discomfort by providing the one “right” answer, I witnessed what I believe is at the heart of the NGSS: Wrestling with messy, open-ended questions allowed students to understand the content more deeply.