Inquiry-based learning

Constructivist Roots

Inquiry-based learning is nothing new. It has its roots in constructivist ideas about teaching and learning – and these ideas have been steadily working their way through global education systems since the 1960s.

It was around this time that figures like Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget rose to prominence and popularised ideas about learning that emphasised the importance of how learning is constructed by individuals – hence ‘constructivism’.

For Vygotsky, people need to construct knowledge through social interactions: Things gain meaning through the way other people react to them. For example, pointing a finger at someone has no meaning until the person you are pointing at says ‘What’d I do?’

For Piaget, people construct knowledge by engaging with the world around them. For example, a teacher doesn’t give knowledge to students. Rather, they drop into student minds a cognitive curiosity that the student assimilates into the complex pattern of assumptions, knowledge and experiences that they already have. The combination of all this is expressed as a new experience.

Both these ideas contrast with traditional ‘rote’ approaches to learning. Rote methods assume a relatively untarnished transition of expertise from the instructor to the student.

This nineteenth-century print, for example, imagines a world where book learning can be cranked through a machine and inputted directly into the students brain. A perfect transmission of knowledge.

Significance of constructivism

The difference between thinking of learning as an untarnished transmission or as something constructed uniquely by individuals, is significant.

It impacts on both the way we teach and the way we assess.

After all if Vygotsky was right, then we should be spending less time lecturing AT students, and more time talking WITH them.

And if Piaget was right, then we should never assess students based on how exactly they have memorised information – but based on what they are actually able to DO with that information.

Either way, the responsibility for the learning process is shifted dramatically away from the teacher (the unquestionable authority at the front of the class) and towards the student (the uncertain questioner at the back of the class).

For online learning this poses a number of problems – but we will think about some solutions later on.

Inquiry-based learning

And so we come to inquiry-based learning – an approach to teaching that focuses on giving students an active role in their learning, and begins with the notion that students should be given something specific to DO with their learning.

Stages of inquiry-based learning

As the name suggests, inquiry-based learning starts with a question. For example: What would my teaching look like if I assumed that learning is constructed by my students?

From this question, we then move on to investigating – the gathering of various kinds of information that can help with the specific question. This can include reading research papers and books, yes – but it can also include personal experiences and conversations with teachers or peers.

The real challenge of this stage, is for students to be able to distinguish between good (i.e. relevant) and bad (i.e. irrelevant) information.

Students will undertake this investigation stage largely independently – which means that when they come to try and work out their responses to the question, each student is likely to produce something unique. There will not, therefore, be a ‘model answer’ based on which student easily can be judged to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Of course the learning process doesn’t end there – because by this point students are likely to have encountered any number of new questions, and these new questions can direct their inquiries into new directions to produce even more unique and personalised learning.

The excitement of inquiry-based learning

It is easy to see why this model of learning has gained so much in popularity in recent years – particularly in Higher Education. I carries with it that researchers enthusiasm for the learning process as an act of discovery. It seems so much more exciting, more individualised and more democratised than ‘read what’s on the board, copy it out a hundred times then repeat it in a 3-hour exam’.

The problem with this is that – as exciting and energising and terrific as it seems – many question whether it actually works.

Does the evidence stack up?

Richard Mayer undertook a careful review of the available evidence supporting the use of discovery learning, and concluded that there simply wasn’t any. What research he was able to find all seemed to point quite clearly to a “failure of pure discovery as an effective instructional method”.

Mayer offers a useful attempt to explain why this might be – and one important aspect he identifies is the reality that:

  • students DO need to pass their modules,
  • they need to do so quickly,
  • and they are all at different stages of their educational development.

Simply throwing a student into a room with a huge range of information and expecting them to make sense of it all is intimidating, time-consuming, and can potentially set them up to fail – particularly at lower levels of study.

Mayer is keen to point out that he is not questioning the validity of constructivist methods, which he argues can help promote “meaningful learning”. However, like Vygotsky his work does demonstrate that such methods need to be balanced by contextual needs for clear instructor guidance AS WELL. In addition to which, Mayer stresses the importance of evaluating the impact of what we do in the classroom – and that we should avoid buying wholesale into teaching methodologies that are simply not supported with clear evidence.

Can we use inquiry-based learning online?

So what does this mean for us as educators? How can we use inquiry-based learning in a way that is actually effective (and not just theoretically exciting) – and how can we do this online in a blended context?

Well, we can make a start by narrowing our focus on the basic ingredients of inquiry-based learning – taking into account the need for our students to start small and grown into independent learning.

For example, a core aim of inquiry-based learning is to move away from the notion that information is something you are simply GIVEN. The aim is the students have something active to so WITH that information.

A very simple way of doing this is by adding interactive elements to our video content. Instead of just giving our students a 20 minute YouTube video to watch, we can use H5P in Moodle to punctuate the video with questions, or use the Branching Scenario to enable students to navigate their own way through the information – mechanisms by which students are required not just to acquire information, but pick out specific parts from it, select what is relevant from it and use it to determine subsequent action.

These are very simple online tools that, used in the right context can help encourage students to start engaging more actively in their learning.

So what examples of using inquiry-based learning have you come across? And how effective (or otherwise) have then proved? Let us know in the comments below.

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