If Inquiry Is So Great, Why Aren’t We Doing More Of It?

Two Students Working Together

Inquiry-based instruction was an enigma to me when I first learned about it. Like ‘sustainable farming’ or ‘integrative medicine,’ there seemed to be enough evidence to demonstrate superiority of this ‘new, but not new’ method over ‘traditional’ ones, but would I recognize it if I saw it? I was trained in the United States in the early 1990s. Classroom management was king and my methods flowed from this. I would never admit to it at the time, but it was basically 'command and control.' I ran a tight ship with high expectations and considered myself to be a 'good teacher.'

So, when tasked as a principal to help implement inquiry-based instruction at a new International Baccalaureate (IB) school, I was stumped. Was inquiry-based instruction obvious to everyone but me? And then my mind spun with more practical concerns around what I imagined inquiry to be: Did this mean we would be doing project-based and hands-on everything? What happens to classroom management? Does it work for all students? What will test scores look like? What will the parents think? 

Fifteen years and hundreds of hours observing and demonstrating inquiry lessons later, I can honestly say that inquiry-based instruction has won me over. Inquiry is, for me, the shiniest of silver bullets in a time of education policy gun slinging.

So, what is inquiry-based instruction?

Inquiry is a way of teaching that allows students to build upon their prior understanding and experiences. Students are given the primary responsibility for constructing new knowledge, developing new skills and revising their beliefs about how the world works, or should work. It’s highly-engaging, authentic ‘detective work’ in the classroom.

Right now you might be thinking, blah, blah, blah…I’ve heard this all before. Maybe you already agree that this is the right approach to teaching. But here’s the thing: If we know inquiry so great, then why are so few teachers actually doing it?

My suspicion is that we over-intellectualize it. I’ve often heard people describe inquiry not as a set of specific strategies enacted by teachers, but as a disposition or stance. I’ve probably described it that way myself many times. While this is true, explaining it in this way doesn’t help beginners get their arms around it very easily.

If belief follows practice, then what is the practice of inquiry?

There are specific strategies (and beliefs that undergird these strategies) inherent in the inquiry disposition. They may manifest differently in every classroom, but they are recognizable. Here are five strategies that great inquiry teachers (all subjects and grade levels) will typically use in their classrooms:

  • Create Emotional Bonds

Inquiry teachers create some sort of emotional bond or connection between the teacher and students (“Let me tell you a story about when I…”), the students and one another (“Turn and talk to a neighbor about…”) and/or between the students and the topic (“Reflect on your experiences with…”).

  • Ask Great Questions: Talk Less

Inquiry classrooms are bursting with higher-order questions coming from both the teacher and other students, like “Which argument was the most convincing and why?” or “Was this experiment well-designed?” Inquiry teachers aren’t big lecturers but rather provide information and questions to help students verify, debunk or build off what they already know. Teachers also help students practice asking their own questions. Check out the Right Question Institute, an organization whose entire focus is on helping people of all ages ask better questions.

  • Encourage Evidence

Ready for the understatement of the year? There is a lot of information out there. Students do not need more information; they need to know how to better evaluate and use what they have. By habitually referencing the author, publisher and copyright date, ruminating on the potential bias and the possible perspective from which the information comes, inquiry teachers model this practice. Students and teachers in inquiry classrooms regularly ask one another: “How do you know that?”

  • Maintain Neutrality

When students are taking risks with their ideas and making conjectures, inquiry teachers encourage them by not reacting negatively OR positively to what they say. In an inquiry classroom, for example, you won’t hear a lot of comments like “Great response!” or “Hmmm” or “That’s interesting” coming from teachers. Instead, you will hear them simply asking more questions or turning to other students to comment or respond.

  • Extend Thinking Time

Schools generally work within extreme time and space constraints. This can produce a suffocating and stressful environment – one in which it can be very hard to breathe, let alone learn. Inquiry teachers 1) pause frequently, 2) offer time for students to gather their thoughts before moving into groups or responding and 3) slow down movement and talk.

There are still needs for direct instruction, lectures and practice in inquiry classrooms. The key is balance. Ascribed standards, curriculum and assessments won’t dictate whether or not we ‘do inquiry.’ Individual teachers will decide. Teachers can create a professional culture where inquiry isn’t unique but the norm by using these strategies, analyzing the results and getting regular support and feedback from colleagues and students. Inquiry’s great promise is to build classrooms truly worthy of our students’ and teachers’ time and talent. Let’s demystify inquiry, challenge the reigning pedagogy which continues to be 'command and control' and see what happens.