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Inquiry-based learning is a strategy for helping students take ownership of their learning goals in an engaging way. In this lesson, we will examine inquiry-based learning by defining what it means, and looking at examples from two different instructional models.

What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Thomas Berger, the novelist best known for writing Little Big Man, once said, ”The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” Questions are the basis for inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning is an approach to instruction that begins with a question.

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Students construct their own knowledge as they engage in a variety of experiences that provide them an opportunity to investigate solutions. Let’s find out more about inquiry-based learning.

Guided Discovery

When using the guided discovery method of inquiry-based learning, the teacher begins with a quick mini-lesson, lasting no longer than 15 minutes. Following the lesson, the teacher will provide students with questions and hands-on materials that the students can use to answer the questions.

As students discover solutions, the teacher circulates the room to provide support or additional challenges to students as needed. The teacher’s role is as a facilitator rather than a director of the learning experience.For example, Miss Ward wants to teach students how to compare the mass of various objects using a balance scale. During the mini-lesson, she will define mass, teach students how to properly use a scale, and clarify what question she would like students to answer.

For example, how many counters are equal to five grams? Then, she provides the students with a variety of materials, such as gram weights, counters, cups of water, and office supplies. Students work in pairs to measure the items and record their results.The benefit is that students are more engaged in the lesson and will retain more information through guided discovery than they would through more traditional approaches to learning.

The 5-E Model

The 5-E Model is a more detailed model of inquiry-based learning. The components of the 5-E Model are:

  1. Engagement
  2. Exploration
  3. Explanation
  4. Elaboration
  5. Evaluation

The engagement stage happens during the mini-lesson. The teacher uses a hook to grab the students’ attention, activates prior knowledge, clarifies the question, and describes the proper way to use the materials. During the exploration stage, the students participate in a discovery learning experience while the teacher provides scaffolded support. The first two stages are very similar to guided discovery. The differences occur in the last three stages.

Stage three is explanation. Explanation provides students the opportunity to share what they have learned during the discovery stage to answer the question. This could come in the form of written reflection or articulating the answer to a partner. The fourth stage, elaboration, uses small group or formal class discussions that move students into a higher level of thinking, such as applying learning to new areas or justifying thoughts with evidence from the discovery learning stage. Evaluation combines formative assessments throughout the learning experience that check for understanding to guide the teacher’s support, as well as summative evaluations, such as tests or projects that offer feedback on what students have learned.Returning to our example, using the 5-E Model, Miss Ward would teach the mini-lesson as she did with the guided discovery model, but would be sure to hook the students and activate their prior knowledge as part of the engagement component.

She might accomplish this by reading a book about weightlessness in space and then brainstorming what students know about mass and weight. The exploration stage for both models is also similar.The largest differences come first in the explanation stage when students are given the opportunity to articulate what they have learned, either with a partner or in writing. The class discussion may take the form of a Socratic Circle or a small group project that emphasizes advanced thinking.

A Socratic Circle is a formal discussion that is characterized by open-ended questions, critical thinking, articulating thoughts by citing evidence, and active listening. Assessment takes place throughout the process.

Lesson Summary

Inquiry-based learning begins with a question followed by an exploration during which students construct meaning.

There are simple inquiry-based learning models, such as guided discovery, in which teachers briefly introduce the question and materials in a mini-lesson and then support learning as students explore the answers on their own. There are also more complex inquiry-based learning models, such as the 5-E Model, in which the lesson is broken down into five different parts that include the engagement – similar to the mini-lesson – and then exploration, but are followed up by various forms of discussion, application, and assessment, otherwise known as explanation, elaboration, and evaluation.

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