Inquiry-Based Learning

What Does a 21st Century Classroom Look Like: Inquiry

May 12, 2015

Continuing to follow up the post 10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom

Incorporating inquiry into courses is one of the areas that I personally struggle with the most. Inquiry has many meanings, but I’m going to define it as a student directed, interest driven approach to new knowledge. It is a natural style of learning. When we were children, we found out that fire was hot by touching a stove, not by taking notes over the phenomenon. We did not learn that grass was soft by following a step-by-step laboratory procedure, but by falling, playing, and rolling.

So why did we get away from this approach in formal education? Approaching a concept through the process of inquiry takes a resource that teachers have precious little of: time. The fact is that there is just too much information in the world, and lecture is more efficient as a knowledge delivery tool. Unfortunately, the retention and use of the knowledge gained through this method can be severely wanting. Thus it makes more sense in many cases to approach new material through an inquiry based view.

Luckily, there are some simple ways to begin to bring inquiry into the classroom.

Student engagement

The key to inquiry is interest. It is hard to inspire the learning process if a student sees the information as dull and non-relevant. Connections must be created between the students and the material. There are a number of ways to achieve this. Students can be taught how to recognize connections themselves which is probably most powerful for maintaining student interest. In the meanwhile, consider keeping up with trends in pop culture. Game of Thrones references go over particularly well at the moment.

Leading questions

One of our teachers has a poster. It reads, “How many hamburgers does it take to swim across the Atlantic Ocean?” It’s a good conversation starter. Just a quick question, but wrapped into it are a number of concepts including nutrition, muscle movement, geography, and the Gulf Stream (depending on your start location). The point is, this question encourages students to think beyond the classroom material and inspires larger thoughts.

This concept is also called “guiding questions” or “essential questions”. These questions can be used both to spark interest and to provide students with a goal of what they will be able to answer at the end of the lesson or unit.

“What do we need to know?”

Here’s a fun idea. Take a leading question, i.e., “How much would it cost to create a tower of pennies that, when stacked together, would reach the top of the world’s tallest building?” Before starting to answer the problem, ask students to make a list of everything that they would need to know in order to address the question. They may come up with a question that sparks their interest in the problem. They will likely even think of something that you haven’t considered.

Real world problems

Another important consideration is of course relevance of material. When students enter the workforce, they won’t be analyzing Shakespeare on a daily basis (unless they’re really lucky). They might be called upon to draft legislation to provide low cost childcare to working families. Maybe they’ll need to design a support truss for a new space station. In any case, it makes sense to present material in context to what they may experience in the future.

Trigonometry can be taught by having the students replicate simple surveying techniques. Our health classes have conducted research into ways to improve student health on campus and then presented their ideas to the principal for possible adoption.

Guided inquiry

I’m spoiled as a science teacher. As the instructor of a subject that encourages students to actively learn about the world around them, my students have ample opportunity to explore. This process does take a hit in high school. Laboratory exercises become too dangerous and/or involved to allow students free rein to do whatever they choose. However, students can be given some choice within certain parameters.

For example, there’s a chemistry lab where students calculate the calorie content of food by setting it alight. While I would not dream of letting students start fires without direction, they do have some choice in what type of food product they wish to test. With more advanced classes, I can give students a general directive such as, “Investigate a phenomenon in the school environment.” Students must get their procedures approved before embarking on their exploration, but other than that, they are free to study what interests them.

Encourage students to find out for themselves

Many students dread hearing these three words, “Look it up.” It’s something that I learned from my father. I thought at the time that he just being lazy rather than answering me directly. However, this directive to find out for myself has led to a lifetime of exploration.

In a 1:1 or BYOD school, students may be able to conduct short research in a matter of seconds (although they may need a lesson in how to determine the validity of online sources). In schools with less access to technology, consider allowing students limited cell phone access or have them return the following class with the answer.


  1. It is important to set some boundaries on students’ exploration. This should not serve to curb their excitement, but to enhance it. Students who know the limits and requirements feel freer to explore without worrying about doing the “wrong” thing.
  2. Even open ended questions can be phrased in such a way that students gain knowledge that is outlined in course objectives. It may require some instructor intervention and redirection at times, but can be a great way to hit multiple standards simultaneously.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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