The “I” Word
- April 13, 2015 -

If you are involved in education you’ve seen it. “Inquiry” is the gluten-free of the education world. Almost every new educational product or material comes certified that it contains “inquiry” and therefore its purported benefits. In a sea of Inquiry-based teaching strategies, it can be hard to figure out the most effective way at incorporating inquiry into your busy classroom. The following is a two-part guide towards maximizing the learning potential inquiry has to offer. At its root, inquiry is the way we study the world: ask questions, conduct experiments, and repeat until a Nobel Prize. The National Science Education Standards has about the same definition, “The diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.” For those who haven’t had the opportunity to participate in such work, the exciting part is that there aren’t answers in the back of the textbook. Even the Internet and all of its awesome powers lacks answers to our questions. Scientists repeatedly run into roadblocks and need wrack their brains for ways to test their hypotheses. Moreover, every new discovery we make unlocks countless more questions to be answered and experiments to be done. This is experience is what “inquiry” represents and has subsequently spawned thousands of teaching methods trying to harness it. The closer to students can come to having an authentic scientific inquiry experience, the more effective the lesson will be at teaching content and skills. While young students may not be able to research to most groundbreaking topics, they can still ask original questions and come up with creative ways to test their hypotheses. Even if some scientist has already answered your students question in exhaustive detail, telling them such would only kill their curiosity and their desire to overcome obstacles that prevent them from answering their questions. Herein lies the key to successfully teaching inquiry, try not to answer students questions, even if the answer is seemingly obvious. Instead, ask them questions back, guide them towards discovering answers themselves, and push them to build off what they learned with new questions. Using inquiry effectively comes down to ownership. Once students feel that they are asking and answering their own original questions, then we as educators can push them to learn even the most difficult content and skills along the way. Next week we will delve into background information and effective strategies to prime students for inquiry-based projects.