Inquiry Based Learning

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Inquiry-based instruction is a student-centered and teacher-guided instructional approach that engages students in investigating real world questions that they choose within a broad thematic framework. Inquiry-Based instruction complements traditional instruction by providing a vehicle for extending and applying the learning of students in a way that connects with their interests within a broader thematic framework. Students acquire and analyze information, develop and support propositions, provide solutions, and design technology and arts products that demonstrate their thinking and make their learning visible.


Research shows that the amount of student learning that occurs in a classroom is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement in the educational program (Cooper and Prescott 1989). Yet research studies indicate that teachers typically dominate classroom conversation, consuming nearly 70% of classroom time. Inquiry-based instructional approaches reverse this trend, placing students at the helm of the learning process and teachers in the role of learning facilitator, coach, and modeler.


The Benefits of Inquiry-Based Instruction (Back to top)



  • teaches problem-solving, critical thinking skills, and disciplinary content
  • promotes the transfer of concepts to new problem questions
  • teaches students how to learn and builds self-directed learning skills
  • develops student ownership of their inquiry and enhances student interest in the subject matter

Criteria for a successful inquiry(Back to top)
(borrowed from Jeffrey Wilhelm, author of "You Gotta Be The Book" and "Hyperlearning")

1. Start with a guided exploration of a topic as a whole class.
2. Proceed to student small group inquiry about an open-ended, debatable, contended issue.
3. Encourage students to ask personally relevant and socially significant questions.
4. Work in groups to achieve diversity of views.
5. Predict, set goals, define outcomes.
6. Find or create information...look for patterns.
7. Instruction serves as a guide to help students meet their goals.
8. Create a tangible artifact that addresses the issue, answers questions, and makes learning visible and accountable.
9. Learning is actualized and accountable in the design accomplishment.
10. Arrive at a conclusion...take a stand...take action.
11. Document, justify, and share conclusion with larger audience.


Key Components of the Inquiry Process(Back to top)
(elements adapted from Jeffrey Wilhelm's work on inquiry-based instruction)

1. Activating Prior Knowledge
  • KWL
  • Opinionaires
  • Engaging students in a conversation about what they already know

By bringing the students' own background and experiences to the learning table, students will find ways to connect to the topic and will have activated some basis for creating meaning with the text they are reading. The personal connection to learning increases a student's motivation to explore, read, and struggle with difficulties as they arise.
2. Providing Background Information articles
museum exhibits
audio recording
primary source material
web site

Students need to know something about the topic to be able to perceive and formulate meaningful inquiries.
3. Defining Outcomes for which students will be held accountable. For example:

Technology: conduct research on the web; create PowerPoint presentations or web sites; communicate using e-mail; import photos and clip art for presentations; use digital camera, digital audio recorder, and video recorder.

Reading: identify main idea and authors point of view; identify key concepts; increase understanding of vocabulary; extract meaning between the lines (infer)

Inquiry: define problem question; find and gather data; analyze, compare, organize, and synthesize data; create a proposition; support proposition (facts, stats, examples, expert authority, logic and reasoning); propose solutions and action steps

Team: listen, consider others' ideas, encourage, provide coaching, affirm, question, cooperate, demonstrate individual responsibility, avoid put-downs, engage in dialogue

Project Management: set goals, agree on tasks and roles, meet deadlines, prioritize tasks

Students need to know up front exactly what's expected of them.

4. Modeling Design Product Outcomes (technology, art); Providing Frameworks Show students a PowerPoint presentation, a web site, a proposition-support framework, a museum exhibit, a choreographed dance performance, etc.

Students need to see models of what it is they are being asked to do. They must have a supporting structure which provides a grounding for their creations, but doesn't limit their creativity.

5. Establishing a general topic or inquiry ex- What happens when the structure around people breaks down? (unit on the great depression)

ex- How are human beings adversely impacting our planet? (exploring environmental issues which impact the Amazon Rain Forest)

A broad problem question or topic provides students with a general focus for selecting more specific inquiries.

6. Student teams conduct background research and define focused problem questions within broader inquiry or topic Without a knowledge base or some degree of familiarity with the topic, it will be difficult for students to develop relevant inquiries within the broad topic area. Students need to be provided with background material and/or guided to research their own background material. This base will enable them to begin to formulate a big picture understanding of the broad topic area, and then to select a specific inquiry interest which connects to the broader topic.

7. Establish and communicate inquiry presentation framework. Example: Proposition-Support Framework

a) state problem question
b) develop proposition which can be argued
c) provide background information
d) support proposition with:

  • facts
  • statistics
  • examples
  • expert authority
  • logic and reasoning
e) propose solutions and action ideas

8. Refer students back to expected outcomes and inquiry framework to create alignment between their presentations and intended outcomes.
9. Ask students a lot of questions to help them refine their thinking and guide their research.
10 Support technology (PowerPoint, Web Site, Hyperstudio) and art design product creation.
11. Empower students to coach and train one another within their teams.
12. Provide a forum for student presentations which includes students, teachers, parents, and community members.
13. Provide vehicles for student participation in action projects which connect their learning to specific action.
14. Incorporate ongoing, meaningful peer and teacher assessment.
15 Reflect on what worked and what didn't, and try it again.

Criteria for Problem Question Selection(Back to top)
1. Is it personally relevant and socially significant? Is the student truly interested in the question?
2. Is it researchable?
3. Is it big enough and small enough?


Inquiry-Based Instruction: Theory(Back to top)

Activity #1: Read theory and rational behind inquiry-based instruction. Reflect on your own learning experiences. Write a journal reflection on your learning experiences and how they are different from or similar to an inquiry-based approach to learning.


Inquiry-Based Instruction: Exploring the components of the inquiry-based learning process.(Back to top)


Step #1: Accessing Prior Student Knowledge

Activity #2: Complete the following opinionaire on the Amazon. This opinionaire is an example of a technique for accessing prior student knowledge.


Activity Name: Survivor: The Amazon Challenge


Task: Pretend you are lost in the deep recesses of the Amazon rainforest. The only way out is to convince locals that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to the Amazon. Fortunately for you, they are a forgiving group, and are willing to help you along the way. But first, you and your team are on your own to answer these questions. Good luck!

Survivor: The Amazon Challenge

Within your team, answer the following questions to the best of your ability. For those questions you answer that are not correct, you will have a second opportunity to answer correctly by using the Amazon Student Research link at Good luck!


§ For indigenous cultures that are on the endangered cultures list, what is the maximum number of living members they must have to be placed on the list?


§ How many species of fish have been found in the Amazon basin?


§ Match the following medicinal plants with their characteristics:


     A. Amazon Cats Claw 1. Fights AIDS and cancer

     B. Valerium 2. Balances blood sugar; helps diabetics

     C. Guarana Shrub 3. Helps with sleep disorders

     D. Pata de Vaca 4. 5 times more caffeine than coffee


§ The Amazon basin holds ________ per cent of the world’s fresh water (5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30), and the Amazon River pours 55 million gallons of water per ________ (second, minute, hour, day) into the ________ (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian) Ocean.


§ The Amazon is home to the only species of freshwater sharks. True/False


§ Of all the animals that local Amazon River dwellers talk about the most in terms of fearing physical injury, this Amazon River species tops the list. What is it?


§ The original Amazon rainforest has been cut back by ________ (4-7; 7-10; 11-14; 13-16; 18-21; 25-30) per cent. The current rate of deforestation in the Amazon is roughly 13,000 acres per day or ________ (5, 8, 11, 14, 20, 26, 33) football fields per minute.


§ What role does the tambaqui fish play in regenerating the Amazon rainforest?


§ Which Brazilian city in the heart of the Amazon was once the richest city in the world, and how did it achieve that status?


§ Name that Amazon animal: It is slow as molasses, swims in the water, and eats like a monkey.


To find answers to the questions you couldn’t answer, click on





Activity #3: Complete the following KWL grid. What do you know about the Amazon? What do you want to know? What have you learned? (Back to top)



Use this chart during your study of the Amazon. First write what you know about the Amazon. Then write what you would like to know about the Amazon. At the end of your study write the most important things you learned.


Amazon KWL


What I know What I want to know What I’ve learned









Step #2 – Building Background Knowledge

Activity #4: Click on the link below to access the On-Line Expeditions Amazon 2003 web site. Go to: Amazon Student Research and do a general exploratory review of listed web site links under the different curricular themes. Begin thinking about a particular inquiry or question you would like to explore. Again go to:   (Back to top)



Activity #5: Select one additional resource to build background knowledge. Review the material you select and consider an inquiry or question you would like to explore.
Go to: Amazon Curriculum Starter Kit   (Back to top)


Step #3 – Developing Your Inquiry

Activity #6: Develop a question that you would like to pursue within a particular discipline that relates to the broad theme of the Amazon. Consider the following criteria for developing your question:   (Back to top)


1. Is it personally relevant to you and socially significant? Are you truly interested in the question?

2. Is it researchable?

3. Is it big enough to find information and small enough to be manageable?

4. Is it an issue that can be argued for or against?




Is deforestation in the Amazon something we in Chicago should be concerned about? Why or why not?


Is organic food more nutritious than conventionally-raised food?

Are the daily administrative, student, and teacher behaviors at my school helping to conserve or degrade our natural environment?