Inquiry-Based Learning

Using Inquiry-Based Learning to Encourage Student Agency

Curiosity is a powerful tool that can be harnessed to guide middle school students to come up with solutions to real problems.

December 12, 2023
Courtney Hale / iStock

Inquiry-based learning provides students with the opportunity to explore real-world connections and problems through curious exploration and empowerment. Imagine sitting in a classroom as a seventh grader and being asked the question “How might we educate our community on their civic duty?” 

Such a simple question, loaded with content to investigate, areas to explore, empathy to be considered, and agency to be born. But, how does this question create agency? Why does empathy need to be considered? 

Student agency is when students become active agents in the process of learning and engage with the world with sustained, courageous curiosity. 

With this in mind, it seems only natural that inquiry-based learning would lead to student agency. However, there’s a trick to making sure that student agency is at the core of your designed inquiry-based learning prompt. That trick is empathy. 

Ground Inquiry-Based Learning in Empathy

Empathy is found all around us. There’s a reason we laugh when others laugh or smile when others smile. Emotions are contagious by design, but emotion is rooted in a cognitive idea. Whether it’s the idea that we should be happy when friends succeed or that we should be energized to make a change that our community came together for, empathy can be a key factor in organized success. In turn, your inquiry-based learning question should be rooted in empathy.

Empathize with your students. Give them a voice in formulating their own question that is rooted in a topic or concept you’re studying. You can also give students the task to empathize with other stakeholders to solve a problem they may see in their community. Through the use of empathy interviews, students can deduce a problem, team up cohesively to create a solution, and feel the empowerment of empathy in driving their learning. 

Interviews CAN UNLOCK Empathy

In the question shared earlier, “How might we educate our community on their civic duty?” did you catch the “we” aspect of the question? The strategic wording creates a sense of collectivism that surrounds the problem students are being tasked with and allows for natural agency to occur. Furthermore, the question isn’t designed for a simple solution but rather pushes a cognitive lift through exploration and creation. This question was given to seventh-grade students at my school.

Geared toward societal awareness in their social studies class, students were tasked with conducting a minimum of six empathy interviews with their guardians, school staff members, and other community members whom they encountered or had access to. The results of the empathy interviews were synthesized, and specific domains of interest were created to help categorize the learning outcomes. At this point, the facilitator (we prefer the language facilitator because it adds an additional layer of agency as the adult becomes the facilitator of student learning, rather than the teacher of content) drafted the question, starting with the stem “How might we…”

The following are some sample inquiry-based questions from students’ last empathy interviews:

  • How might we educate our community on their civic duty?
  • How might we catalyze positive local and state perceptions of our community?
  • How might we promote healthy living through agricultural awareness and activity?
  • How might we promote equity and inclusion in our community?

Students then organically formed teams to tackle the question of their choosing. Some teams were made up of three students, other teams were four, and some teams were partnerships of two. Teams then chose their inquiry-based learning prompt and began the process of diving in and creating solutions. Questions may be used by more than one team, as the solutions may be vastly different than their peers’, thus promoting additional agency in their product. Students then present to an authentic audience made up of their peers, stakeholders, and some of the same people with whom they conducted their empathy interviews.

This just adds another layer of authenticity to students’ learning experience and creates agency and empowerment because they’re able to share their findings with those who care the most about the issue.

Getting Good Questions Inspires Actionable Solutions

The questions drafted from the empathy interviews are designed to be more broad than confined, so that students have a wide area to explore without the confines of a singular, unactionable topic. When students conduct their empathy interviews, they are asked to home in on a specific aspect of their classroom studies and engage with their interviewees on that concept. Students are given the same parameters that the facilitator is given. These parameters state the following about the final question:

1. It has clear and direct real-world applications.

2. It is relevant to stakeholders’ passions and interests.

3. It develops critical consciousness.

4. It promotes student agency and empowerment.

Naming, unpacking, and owning these tenets for a “How might we…” question with students creates for them a sense of ownership in their own learning by understanding the process, reason, and outcomes of their targeted solution-based design opportunity. Starting with a topic or concept with real-world application allows students to engage in inquiry that is aligned with established learning standards enhanced with relevancy. 

Recognizing interests and passions through empathy allows students to develop the critical consciousness necessary to become global citizens. Agency and empowerment promotes the self-efficacy needed to be agents of change in an ever- evolving world. 

 After several years of this focus on inquiry-based learning (in classrooms and at a schoolwide level), our students have an increased sense of self. During our end-of-year reflection, when students highlight their biggest takeaways from their learning, they overwhelmingly highlight their excitement to express themselves creatively without repercussion and share their fulfillment in being heard, valued, and respected by their peers and teachers.

As evidenced through their continued passion around their own learning, assessment data, social and emotional learning data, and shared student dialogue, it’s clear that they feel empowered to be agents of change, independent in their thoughts, collaborative in their discourse, and confident in their abilities to be problem solvers.

Ideas and inspiration for empathy-driven questions are everywhere, and it’s important for teachers to keep an ear out for that inspiration in any given context. Keeping a continuous open dialogue with your students about their individual interests and passions is a great way to unearth ideas that could be great opportunities to have students become agents of their own learning.

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Filed Under

  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Communication Skills
  • 6-8 Middle School

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