Thoughts on Inquiry Based Learning

Full Disclaimer: I like the concept of Inquiry-Based Learning, This is the type of learning where students themselves direct the outcome. Instead of feeding them what we think they ought to know, Inquiry-Based learning allows students to create meaning for themselves by asking questions, researching, finding answers to the things that interest them. Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) and its cousin, Problem Based Learning (PBL- which gives students the freedom to solve a problem for themselves) both encourage students to become active and engaged participants in their own education.

As a college professor, I use both these methods in the classroom in various ways, giving students choice and input into the curriculum. They don’t wholly replace lectures, or other activities for a number of reasons:

  1. We have 45 hours of class per course, which equals three hours a week for 15 weeks. IBL/PBL (and for that matter, all activity based lessons) take much longer and sometimes there is not enough time for an effective activity.
  2. My classroom time is directed by the course outcomes. Though I challenge myself to deliver content using variable methods in an attempt to reinforce knowledge and (let’s be honest) engage students who all learn differently, sometimes there is a need for information to be disseminated. That can take the form of a mini lecture, an online “flipped” lesson, a reading or a video or a podcast, but they are all essentially variations of a lecture.
  3. Though there are plenty of students who enjoy IBL/PBL, for many this is a whole new way of learning and there is a steep learning curve (part of the reason I know this is experience, and the other part of the reason is my son whose experiences I have written about here).

My thoughts on IBL/PBL are chiefly as follows:

I love that it turns the focus on the learning process back over to the student. especially in some of the classes I teach (writing), where the process is as important and valuable (or more) than the actual outcome. Example: I’ve watched students over the past few weeks dive into their draft research papers, revising and editing and applying those mini lectures and activities to make their paper stronger and better. When they are stuck, I turn it back to them…What can you do here? Why do you think this? Students struggle to answer, but they learn from it. The proof is right there in front of me in papers that are articulate and well supported, and in students who are proud and confident that they have turned in their best work.

I love the creativity it inspires. Last year, my Short Story class all did IBL projects on an aspect of the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. After lectures and discussion, readings and debate, collective brainstorming and personal reflection, what we ended up with was a rich and in-depth collection of papers, artwork, poetry and plays, research, songs (and I mean, WOW!), presentations, podcasts, and video on a multitude of themes including women’s rights, mental health, the role of men and women in society, the hidden voices of history, the unreliable narrator, and others. Yes, class was chaotic and noisy. Yes some students needed to be heavily guided. Yes, I wish I had built in more time for finessing the final projects. But what an experience for all of us.

HOWEVER…I do think IBL/PBL is only part of the learning, and that it absolutely cannot allow a teacher to sit back and wait for projects to roll in. My experience with it was that I had to work harder than ever to keep up with the ideas and the students, and all the teachers I know who do this feel the same way. I do fear though that it could just as easily be seen as an easy way to teach, and could allow the wrong teacher, or a teacher unfamiliar with material, to turn all aspects of the learning over to the students (the equivalent of having students read the textbook instead of preparing lessons related to the text). The teacher needs to guide, to mentor, to ensure facts and resources are appropriate and at a level that demonstrates real understanding. In addition, there has to be a class debrief in which all the elements of the projects are seen and discussed so that learning is not just for one learner, but for the whole class. That too takes time.

So there’s my takeaway. Love it, but only when used with intent, with focus, and with careful planning.