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How To Make Inquiry-Based Learning Part of Your Science Lessons

You have probably heard the term inquiry-based learning at some point in your teaching journey. There has been a significant focus and push on this approach in the last several years. I know there has been a myriad of PD in our local school district about this approach. 

But maybe you’re like me and attending PD sets me ablaze for a little bit and then I get overwhelmed trying to implement the strategies and then time passes and things sort of fizzle out after what amounts to a half-hearted attempt. 

If that’s the case, might I steer you back in the direction of incorporating inquiry-based learning into any or all of your science classes? 

With this post, you have a teacher who understands the overwhelm but is cheering you on to try this approach. It can make a world of difference in skill development for your students and lead to building life-long scientists too. 

Why You Should Be Using Inquiry-Based Learning in Your Science Classroom

Inquiry-based learning is an approach to education in which students learn by investigating and solving problems, rather than just memorizing facts or following a set of instructions. In a science classroom, inquiry-based learning is especially important since it focuses on the development of some key skills. 

1. encourages critical thinking

Inquiry-based learning requires students to ask questions, gather evidence, and evaluate information. This approach helps students develop critical thinking skills and encourages them to become active learners. Students develop their questions, with guidance in the early stages, to explore a topic. This can still be firmly rooted in the unit of study but provides students the chance to tailor their learning a bit more.

2. Fosters creativity

Inquiry-based learning allows students to explore and discover on their own, which can lead to new and creative ideas. This approach can help students develop a sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world. This could be considered the next stage of student choice where teachers are not providing a variety of texts but rather students are creating a line of inquiry of their choosing with varying degrees of flexibility for topics within a unit. 

Design Your Own Graph Lab Cover 1

Get your students to design their graph lab in your class! This lab encourages students to unleash their creativity by designing their own experiments. They’ll engage in critical thinking as they hypothesize, plan, and conduct experiments based on their unique ideas.

3. Develops problem-solving skills

In science, this approach to learning involves posing questions, testing hypotheses, and analyzing data. These activities help students develop problem-solving skills that are useful in a variety of contexts in science and beyond the walls of the science classroom. Often hiring managers indicate that having strong problem-solving skills is one of the top soft skills they look for when hiring staff. Why not provide students with an in-class opportunity to develop and hone this soft skill?

Integrate this into your science classes by having students investigate a topic and propose alternative solutions to common problems associated with the topic. For example, this ready-to-go resource about investigating hidden energy costs includes not just the research component that is student-directed (and teacher-supported) but requires students to strategize how the environmental impact of the production of an item could be reduced without sacrificing the appeal or performance of the item.

4. Promotes collaboration

Inquiry-based learning often involves group work and collaboration, which can help students develop communication and teamwork skills. By working together to solve problems, students can learn from one another and develop social skills at the same time. 

As a teacher, I often shy away from collaborative work that leads to evaluations since it’s difficult to know who has completed what in an assignment. However, using observations and conversations through 1-2-1 conferencing is a way that makes individual student assessment and evaluation possible even in a collaborative environment. 

You could use this approach with this clean water lab. Students complete their tasks in pairs or small groups and then come back to create a collaborative poster. On the days when students are creating their posters or participating in the final gallery walk activity, you can meet with them 1-2-1 to ask questions to gather evidence of their knowledge and understanding of the assignment.

5. Prepares students for the real world

In the real world, many problems do not have easy answers or clear instructions. Inquiry-based learning can help prepare students for this reality by teaching them how to gather information, analyze data, and develop creative solutions to complex problems. And the best part is it does it in a space where it is safe to stumble or fail. Providing the chance in class to try and try again could be the most valuable aspect of this approach to learning.

Check out this full year of labs for the curriculum in either Earth Science or Environmental Science that were designed with these ideas in mind. Field studies and inquiry-based investigations are an integral part of these labs so students gain hands-on experience while gaining subject knowledge and a wide variety of skills.

5 Steps to Make Inquiry-Based Learning Part of Any Science Lesson

Creating inquiry-based activities can be a rewarding but challenging process. Here are some general steps to guide you in creating inquiry-based activities:

Step 1: Choose a topic or concept

The first step in creating an inquiry-based activity is to choose a topic or concept that you want your students to explore. This could be a scientific concept or phenomenon, a historical event, or even a social issue. This is the chance to establish the boundaries within a unit of study so that you can ensure you’re still meeting the strands of your required curriculum.

Step 2: Pose a question

Once you have a topic or concept, create a question that will guide your students’ inquiry. The question should be open-ended and encourage students to explore and investigate the topic on their own. As students become more experienced and comfortable with this approach to learning you could shift this responsibility to them. What questions can they come up with based on the topic or concept provided?

Step 3: Plan investigations

Once you have a question, plan investigations that will help students answer the question. This may involve conducting experiments, gathering data, researching, or exploring different resources. This is an opportunity to differentiate and to include hands-on experiential learning for students. These two aspects will encourage engagement as well as retention in your students (this is also known as a win-win!).

Investigations that my students have loved conducting in Earth Science are a mineral identification lab like this one or a rock identification lab like this. In each lab, students identify samples by their physical and/or chemical properties so it gives them a chance to examine and investigate independently.

Step 4: Facilitate student-led learning

As students conduct investigations, it’s important to encourage student-led learning. This means giving students the freedom to explore, ask questions, and make their discoveries. As a teacher, you can provide guidance and support, but ultimately, the students should be in control of their learning.

Before this, it’s a good idea to discuss the concept and use-value of stumbles and failures in learning. Here’s a short but effective article about the greatest mistakes made by legendary scientists or this article with 8 brilliant scientific screw-ups. (This second article lends itself to be broken up to give different scenarios to different students rather than reading all eight). 

Step 5: Reflection and evaluation

At the end of the inquiry-based activity, it’s important to reflect on what was learned and evaluate the success of the activity. This can involve discussions, presentations, or other forms of assessment to determine what the students have learned and how well they were able to apply their new knowledge. Again, make sure to ask students to reflect on what did or could have gone wrong and what the response is or could be in those scenarios.

Some Final Words on Inquiry-Based Learning

Overall, creating inquiry-based activities involves planning investigations that will help students answer an open-ended question, and encouraging student-led learning. By doing this, students will be engaged in the process of learning and will develop important skills. While not every student in our classes will go on to become a scientist, this approach to learning means that they’ll be able to employ the skills of scientists like critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration. 

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