Inquiry Based Classrooms

Inquiry-based learning is an educational approach that is driven by the student’s questions rather than by the teacher’s lesson plan. John Dewey (1933), described inquiry as a process of removing hesitation or uncertainty in the course of acquiring belief.
Inquiry-based learning is considered to be a constructivist pedagogy, which emphasizes there are a variety of methods that may be employed to construct meaning from the student’s prior knowledge. Constructivism emphasizes that helping students understand how they learn is more valuable than memorizing any specific information the teacher is presenting. Not all inquiry-based learning is constructivist, nor are all constructivist approaches inquiry-based, but the two have similarities and grow from similar philosophies.

In inquiry-based learning environments, students are engaged in activities that help them actively pose questions, investigate, solve problems, and draw conclusions about the world around them. In the traditional classroom, teachers develop structured curricula and activity plans and the teacher functions as the primary source of knowledge. Additionally, in the traditional classroom, the teacher is also the person who determines which information is important and necessary for the students to learn instead of allowing the students to create their own questions.

In contrast, inquiry-based learning is driven by the students. The teacher serves more as a coach, facilitator, or guide to assist learners in creating their own questions and analyzing information about topics in which they are interested. The advantage of students creating their questions is that they are motivated to learn and they develop a sense of ownership about the information.

Inquiry-based learning projects are not unstructured, but are structured differently than the traditional classroom. Inquiry-based learning requires effective planning and preparation from the teacher and requires the teacher to understand that they are playing a different role in the learning process.

Take a look at this short video by Mark Chaloner. He reveals a lot about what Inquiry Based Learning is. [icon icon=”next”]

Now, click play a second time to view this juxtaposition provided by Robin Samber.


As early as 1992, the National Science Foundation (NSF, 1992) envisioned a learning process driven by discovery and inquiry intended to be in place by the year 2010. When the National Research Council’s National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment (1996) published the new National Science Education Standards, the NRC again advocated for innovative teaching and learning focused on inquiry in the process of acquiring information and global perspective. The National Science Foundation (1996) also recommended an inquiry-based methodology for science, math, engineering, and technology in the report Shaping the Future, asserting all students should be allowed to learn relevant subjects by direct experience with the methods and process of inquiry.

How do I foster Inquiry-Based classrooms?

Creating an inquiry-based learning environment:

  • Start with a guided exploration of a topic as a whole class.
  • Proceed to student small group inquiry about an open-ended, debatable, contended issue.
  • Encourage students to ask personally relevant and socially significant questions.
  • Work in groups to achieve diversity of views.
  • Predict, set goals, define outcomes.
  • Find or create information…look for patterns.
  • Instruction serves as a guide to help students meet their goals.
  • Create a tangible artifact that addresses the issue, answers questions, and makes learning visible and accountable.
  • Learning is actualized and accountable in the design accomplishment.
  • Arrive at a conclusion…take a stand…take action.
  • Document, justify, and share conclusion with larger audience.

(Northeastern Illinois University, 2012).

How do I create Inquiry-Based lessons?

Note the website linked below which offers a scaffold for understanding inquiry-based learning and specific ways to move from the concept to employing this strategy in classrooms.

How do I assess Inquiry-based work?

Teachers should be in a process of ongoing assessment during inquiry-based learning. Once students have begun to explore the questions and content of the lesson, the teacher should observe them during the activity, examine aspects of their work, and find out where they are having difficulty. Make efforts to judge each learner’s progress from where he/she started to where he/she has progressed. Keep records of this progress for later comparisons.

Concluding assessment should be determined prior to the implementation of the lesson and appropriate sources and resources should be developed to ensure the effect monitoring of the students’ progress. In the initial stages of inquiry-based learning, the teacher should inform the students what tools will be employed to assess the student at the end of the activity such as reflection writing, exams, student reports, etc.  (Stripling, 2012)

Teaching Inquiry with Primary Sources

Simplifying Inquiry Instruction

Introduction to Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based Learning

Sample Lessons

High School 

Steps of Inquiry

Middle School

Northeastern Illinois University – Inquiry-based learning; Benefits, criteria for a successful inquiry, key components of the inquiry process, criteria for problem question, and the theory of inquiry-based instruction. Sample unit for 7th and 8th grade study of the Amazon

Elementary School

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