Inquiry-Based Learning: Inquiry as the Best Way to Acquire Knowledge

Curiosity is an innate characteristic of the human psyche. From infancy, we are naturally inclined to interrogate the world around us. When shaping a child’s educational environment, it is imperative to not only preserve but cultivate this innate curiosity. The archaic model of education, characterized by teacher-centric pedagogy, is yielding to an approach that prioritizes student-led observations and queries. The Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) model, gaining traction in modern educational institutions, is designed to foster these inherent tendencies.

In the 21st century, there is an increasing acknowledgment among educational circles of the need to transition from rote memorization to a more inquiry-driven learning approach. This shift necessitates the cultivation of competencies in critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical reasoning, self-reflection, and collaborative engagement. Skills like questioning, skepticism, research, hypothesis formulation, and the critical evaluation of information are becoming essential. Equally vital is nurturing the ability to forge social connections, negotiate compromises, and articulate findings. This evolution in educational philosophy underscores a broader consensus: schools must adapt to remain relevant and effective.

Paradigm Shift in Knowledge Transfer

Whether today’s school graduates will be able to navigate the realities of the coming decades of the 21st century will be determined by a shift in the paradigm of teaching, or rather learning. Unfortunately, the fundamental principles of school operation remain largely unchanged. In most cases, the value of learning, or rather teaching, is assessed based on the amount of work done by students. Its effectiveness is primarily measured through specific tests and grades. Although the content and goals of education have been significantly broadened and made more practical, many areas of contemporary education still require fundamental changes. Primarily, there needs to be a change in the common practice of transmitting and verifying knowledge. Additionally, the development of competencies that make students citizens of the modern world must be introduced and expanded. This includes preparing young people to:

  • Handle the influx of unverified data and information;
  • Practice sorting, sharing, and using information daily;
  • Find self-confidence within themselves and develop this trait;
  • Collaborate constructively with others.

This is linked with preparing for individually conducted, as well as collaborative, inquiry and understanding. It signifies a departure from learning as a transient, test-centric event to a continuous process predicated on the acquisition and enhancement of skills pertinent across diverse contexts. Empirical research underscores the urgency of this shift, evidencing that active engagement in tasks leads to more effective learning and retention than passive reception of information through lectures or reading. Thus, the more experiential the process of knowledge and skill acquisition is,  the greater the resources we will have in the future. One of the proposed solutions is learning through inquiry.

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Asking, Doubting, Investigating – Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL), which is based on the framework developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), revolves around four key competencies known as the 4Cs:

  • Creativity,
  • Critical thinking,
  • Communication,
  • Collaboration.

These competencies are deemed essential components of schoolwork organization and the starting point for student learning during lessons. Each element contributes to strengthening the need for exploration aimed at understanding acquired information and examining innovative uses for it. Inquiry is a form of seeking optimal answers and simultaneously verifying meanings through repeated questioning. As a result, although complex, it becomes an incredibly important and useful activity.

Katerina Holmes / Pexels

Students play a key role in inquiry-based learning. They formulate questions and doubts, co-create ideas, and suggest new applications for existing theories. They develop hypotheses, conduct research, and learn to interpret the data they collect. Their engagement leads them to understand the world on multiple levels. It teaches them how to find and accumulate data most effectively, reflect on it, and then build generalizations. This fosters the development of communication and collaboration skills.

Acquiring Knowledge Step by Step

Contrary to the centuries-old tradition, the content of subjects or disciplines, although important, is not an end in itself. Instead, it should serve as a source of inspiration, encouraging exploration and formulation of personal solutions. This new model emerged from the deep conviction that if one cannot learn everything at once, then competencies enabling lifelong learning should be developed.

The IBL model practiced in schools emphasizes learning based on the following steps:

  • Formulating questions,
  • Designing a path to investigate the issue in question,
  • Identifying and gathering relevant resources or sources,
  • Developing explanations based on evidence and scientific knowledge,
  • Sharing applied procedures and research results,
  • Reflecting on the learning process and outcomes.

Questions form the basis of the inquiry and research conducted by students. The teacher acts as a guide or advisor, and their pupils, realizing that their own ideas are being implemented, more boldly formulate their theses and propose directions for new research. They engage more willingly in the learning process themselves.

An important aspect of inquiry-based learning is mindfulness. Students are natural observers. Typically, they either seek or question everything they encounter. To ask deep, thoughtful questions, they must practice the art of observation. This requires full presence and conscious participation in what is happening around them. One solution in this area can be proposing work in environments new to students. This stimulates their innate desire to learn about the world around them. The emergence of new and enriching experiences arouses spontaneous curiosity, the need to ask questions, and to seek further answers. Students learn!

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Cross-Disciplinary Nature of IBL

The advantage of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) lies in its holistic character. It transcends the learning of individual subjects. Questions posed by students lead to gaining new experiences and formulating generalizations across various areas simultaneously. Students naturally perceive connections between different subjects and the complexity of the world around them.

This is particularly fostered by stimulating creativity and collaborative work. The IBL model is open to new discoveries and proposals and is highly flexible. It allows for the integration of materials, designing new solutions, and experiencing innovation and improvisation. It facilitates the use of experiences, knowledge, reflections – broadly understood personal resources – and individual languages used by students to describe reality. It eliminates divisions into scientific, humanistic, or physically creative minds. It frees from the school routine segmented by lesson plans, subject requirements, and a set of only correct definitions, procedures, or interpretations. It strengthens self-assessment and a sense of agency.

These solutions are especially promoted and practiced within the framework of the Interdisciplinary School Subject idea by the Holistic Think Tank team. Dr. Justyna Pokojska, the Executive Director of HTT, pointed this out during the international conference on ‘Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning’ held on October 28, 2023, in Bielsko-Biała, Poland. Pokojska noted that traditional education, based on a hierarchical teacher-student relationship and the acquisition of subject-specific knowledge, becomes simply untenable in today’s world. Schools must respond to the growing demand for broadly understood social, communicative, and emotional competencies.

Challenges Awaiting Education Reformers

The key challenge is moving away from the dogma of acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge, towards preparing students to deal with challenges and adversities they will encounter both in and out of the classroom. It is essential to develop their confidence and resourcefulness, helping them to cope with difficulties. Today’s students are increasingly flexible, independent, and curious about their surroundings. They want to decide on their fate and their place in it. However, they need to feel a sense of agency and be confident in the effectiveness of their actions. Inquiry-based learning is a very practical way to develop skills needed in the 21st century. This model, however, requires rethinking the definition of school and learning. It creates the opportunity to craft a world where students can find greater value in personal responsibility for acquiring knowledge.

Increasingly, we recognize that for today’s students, gaining a sense of self-worth and the ability to self-actualize is crucial. The expected outcomes in this area are most easily achieved by giving them a voice and a choice. Inquiry-based learning, which allows for greater freedom and deciding what and how one wants to learn, facilitates this.

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Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Jarosław Kordziński


Trainer, coach, mediator, and moderator of development processes for people and organisations, mainly in the area of education. Over the years, a partner of key entities supporting the development of education: MEN (Ministry of Education and Science), CODN/ORE (Central Teacher Training Centre/Centre for Education Development), CEO (Centre for Citizenship Education), FRDL (Foundation for the Development of Local Democracy). A regular collaborator of „Dyrektor szkoły” (“The School Head Teacher”) magazine. The author of a dozen or so books devoted to education on management issues, professional development of teachers, but also the challenges that education is facing at the threshold of the 21st century.

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