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Not Why, But How - 3 Ways to Foster Inquiry Based Learning

We are living in an age where our society is inundated with technological innovations and resources that make accessing information and answering questions easier than it has ever been. A simple Internet search will answer virtually any question on any topic, subject, person, or time period – access to a world of information is literally at our fingertips! But, as amazing as this is, we must be careful that we don’t sacrifice valuable critical thinking skills for the sake of convenience. That is why we at NMSI believe that, as the U.S. progresses further into the 21st century, a stronger emphasis needs to be placed on student-directed, inquiry based learning in our classrooms. We’ve contacted our expert science coordinator Robert Gonzales to discuss what teachers should do to encourage inquiry based learning among their students.
 
According to Gonzales, inquiry based learning is fostered in a classroom in which the question of “how?” rather than “why?” is asked. Such questioning forces students to construct their own explanations and predictions about their perceptions of any given object or event; they must make their own measurements, collect data, revise perceptions, and develop models, all of which are essential elements to inquiry based learning. “It makes them accountable for their own learning,” says Gonzales on how such learning is relevant to students. “It creates a need-to-know for students and empowers them with the tools and skills they need to then find a way to know.”
 
However, as beneficial as inquiry based learning is, Gonzales believes that people often approach this method of learning with the wrong perspective. They try to figure out what questions a teacher needs to be asking to drive student learning, when they should instead consider what questions a student should be asking themselves through an authentic learning process. “It’s not that the first stance is irrelevant,” says Gonzales, “it’s more that inquiry based learning is student-driven. The questioning is done by the students and facilitated by the teacher, so it’s more about thinking how to create opportunities for students to inquire, and thereby learn.”
 
“If students aren’t actively involved in their own learning,” he continues, “then we are only teaching them compliance. Without inquiry based learning, we are asking students to learn things without supporting the mechanisms of learning that become transferrable to new situations.” Therefore, it is imperative for teachers to foster inquiry based learning habits in their students and to encourage their innate curiosity for learning new things. To this end, teachers should ask themselves “How did I engage my students as thinkers today?” rather than “What content did I cover today in class?”
 
With all this being said, how can teachers better engage their students through inquiry based learning? According to Gonzales, there are three things to keep in mind:
1.Start small with your planning. Comfort zones are incredibly difficult for anyone to abandon, and scaffolding is just as important for teachers as it is for students. So don't do a major overhaul of your entire lesson plan; just try changing it up for just a single lesson or activity in a unit. Get a feel for how inquiry learning works and what student skills you need to support moving forward. And if you’re not sure which lesson to start with, give one of our free NMSI lessons a try!
2.Be patient with your students. Students may not immediately understand the concept or arrive at the right solution, and this is where strong facilitation and coaching by the teacher is important.  As cliché as it may sound, it's really about the journey just as much as the destination when it comes to inquiry based learning. The students’ content knowledge has to be strong, but the experiences that lead up to that understanding are what will entrench the learning in their minds. Thus, as the teacher, you have to be able to praise the act of thinking even when the concept requires further refinement and development.
3.Observe and emphasize doing in the classroom. It’s important to place an emphasis on what students are doing as learners and push them towards greater accountability, but only at a level for which they are ready. Collaborative group work is a great way to observe how your students work and interact in the classroom, and it often provides many more opportunities than independent work; however, it’s most effective only when there is a real need for said collaboration. Think about when and how you group your students, and how the outcome of learning depends on the skills employed in the interactions between group members. 
 
“Inquiry based learning is often messy,” says Gonzales. “It's like trying a recipe for the first time. Why doesn't it look as pretty as the picture? You have to try it a few times, maybe tweak some ingredients, before it comes out how you want it.” Therefore, teachers need to learn how to patiently and effectively guide their students through a lesson without giving them all the answers. These are practices that we strive to encourage in all of our schools across the nation through our Teacher Training and Advanced Placement programs. Only then will students truly learn and retain the critical thinking and inquiring skills they need to be successful in college and their careers.