Inquiry based learning in the 21st century

A number of learning systems exist today. Educational psychologists, as well as allied psychology researchers from cognitive science labs and rehabilitation centers, have invested a lot of time in studying how people should learn effectively. Over 500,000 results: articles/books/discussions from researchgate.net show up via google search. That is a lot and that is just one database. This brings us to Inquiry Based Learning paradigms.

So after a quick check on google trends – people have been searching for ‘Inquiry based learning’ more and more over time. And, people search for it the most approximately during April and October. Intuitively, doesn’t that coincide with semester end preparation?

The point of this is that Inquiry based learning has been acknowledged globally and is supported??? by evidence (lots below). It, of course, isn’t a perfect system; criticisms at the end.

This post contains research on inquiry and discovery methods in teaching in the field/classroom. 


Inquiry based learning – A promising learning model for the 21st century

The goal of inquiry based learning is complex but the question is simple. How can people learn and how can facilitators actually facilitate?

There are didactic learning systems, collaborative learning systems, rigorous testing based systems, problem-based systems, inquiry based systems, etc.

All of these have been developed based on some sort of evidence. In this post, I’ll focus on the evidence that shows Enquiry based learning as a useful and effective learning system. When I say learning, I really mean teaching, learning, and design.


What is Inquiry based learning?

Inquiry based learning is an active form of learning where problems are discussed, scenarios and conditions are established, and `questions are encouraged as a path to knowledge instead of posing facts, formulas, and a clear linear trajectory toward knowledge.

Inquiry based learning (IBL) or Enquiry based Learning focuses on facilitating discussions to learn an idea. There is brainstorming, hypothesizing, conjecturing, and collaboration between peers and facilitators. This learning system, at its core, encourages thinking.

inquiry based learning, learning science


An informal description of what peers do during an Inquiry based session:

  • Understand and frame questions with individual agency
  • Think and look for evidence and counter-evidence that fills the ‘problem-space’
  • Using logic, insight, data, and guesstimates to explain the evidence or the mechanisms involved in a problem
  • Choose and discuss the various ways a problem can be assessed
  • Create arguments and discuss the problem holistically and at a granular level

There are multiple forms of inquiry such as guided/scaffolding, open discussions, evidence-based/logical, conjecturing, structured solving, and unstructured solving. A related aspect is creativity.

Creativity: Elusive as it may be to study scientifically, creativity is not just about the arts. It’s about thinking in novel ways, destroying domain barriers that prevent borrowing of ideas from other domains, and essentially, creating.

I’d recommend reading this article to assist creativity in learning – mental modelling

Students do not need to mindlessly regurgitate information that is learned. Inquiry is about thinking actively. Take for example a simple math problem.

What happens when you square an odd number? Students know that an odd number can be defined as 2n +1.

Students can take the example of odd numbers and square them to see what patterns emerge.
Try squaring 3, 9, -5, -99, 6, 4, 10, 19, 17, 25, etc. Patterns will emerge that students can use to draw conclusions.

Looking at the example based strategy, they would conclude that they are odd. This was one form of inquiry based on examples and generalizing. Another form is finding out what happens when 2n + 1 is squared.

Let’s try it out:
 (2n+1)^2 = 2n(2n +1) + 1(2n+1)
 = 4n^2 + 2n + 2n + 1
= 2(2n^2+2n) + 1
This also takes the form of 2K + 1 where K is 2n^2 + 2n.

One can conclude that this logic shows that squaring an odd number leads to an odd number. Speaking of mathematics, this research shows that inquiry based learning is particularly useful in improving low-achieving student’s grades. 

This isn’t hard for students to discuss and conclude given the right motivation, a little bit of scaffolding, and time. Now they know why squaring an odd number is odd. They’ve learned the rule, found 2 ways of arriving at the solution, and tickled their brains to figure out why this must be the case. The thought process counts.


What does modern research say about Inquiry based learning?

Traditionally, Inquiry based learning has been used in proof-based courses in colleges. Such as math, logic, theoretical physics, etc. However, today, the methodology has been extended to a number of non-proof-based classes. Inquiry based learning has been useful in adding a narrative style as well. A team of researchers integrated language and familiar constructs from non-science classes as a facilitator for learning in science classes.

Mobile technologies are a fact of the 21st century. They are not an addition, they are deeply integrated and can be considered as an extension of nature itself. Researchers analysed the use of mobile technology in facilitating inquiry based learning and found out that low achievement students benefit and the system had both positive and negative effects on learning.  

Researchers from The Open University, UK investigated a novel cloud-based toolkit in STEM classes. Their case study reveals valuable insight into how cloud-based inquiry based learning can shape the future of learning. Through their investigation, they built a model to understand the competencies needed for collaborative skill-based learning. This is an extract from the original paper that describes the model.

  1. PLAN: Goals, time, priorities, challenges, pros/cons and self-management. Participants are able to identify common objectives and other requirements to achieve expected and unexpected outcomes during the process.
  2. USE: Various tools – search engines, hypermedia, translators, notifications, upload/download, tags, RSS feeds and applications. Participants are able to use open platforms by searching, aggregating, generating and disseminating content.3.  
  3. SHARE: Questions, links, ideas, comments, annotations and open content. Participants are able to contribute to the platform including a diversity of files, messages and content on wiki pages.
  4. MANAGE: Networks, support, organisation, feedback, interests, consensus, review and improvement. Participants are able to manage contacts and content for improving the collective discussion. 
  5. ELABORATE: Mapping, interpretations, analysis, synthesis, systematisation and self-assessment. Participants are able to reflect, co-produce and assess diverse types of collective representations. 
  6. DEVELOP: Scientific questions, literature review, methodology, procedure, analytic discussion, scientific production, peer-review, and dissemination. Participants are able to improve their learning through a set of activities for scientific research.  
  7. CREATE: Theories, best practices, methodologies, policies, higher impact, and derived research. Participants are able to disseminate their co-authorships and exploit new work or studies through new publications and research opportunities.  

College students often need to enroll in a math class and for many of the courses, math is indispensable. A primary problem is that a number of students view math as a tedious protocol driven formula based class where one plugs in numbers in complex equations, and work through it to spit out another number – which is largely meaningless. However, mathematicians see math as a creative process of inquiry. Mathematicians are closer to artists than to scientists. IBL facilitators try to encourage creative thinking, conjectures, problem formulation, strategy, approaches, collaboration, and scaffolding so that students see math the way mathematicians see it. This change in thinking is in the territory of IBL.  

Large learning systems have been developed today to facilitate inquiry based learning online. For example, weSpot and DojoIBL. The latter stands on the shoulders of weSpot and other studies. Such systems are in an iterative process from the implementation point of view. IBL via the cloud is fascinating on multiple level – web 2.0, open source projects, a repository of online resources, conversations that can be revisited.  

I mentioned conversations that can be revisited in passing but I’d like to dedicate more space to this. Human interaction online is usually preserved. This is a feature that inquiry based learning can use to create an unfair advantage. Suppose a large number of learners have adopted IBL. A conversation on a forum or a chat history of a discussion or questions on Quora (Q&A platform) can be revisited to review how the inquiry began, how it was followed up with, what insight the learner gained. Quite often, revisiting an idea or bit of information yields new insight. Previous inquiry can inform newer inquiry.  

A meta-analysis of various minimal guidance teaching methodologies such as enquiry based learning and discovery learning shows that they are not as effective as guided instruction based models of teaching. The popularity of IBL is contested in this review. Dozens of papers cited in this review by Paul A. Kirschner show that science learning and medical learning benefits from structured, guided, and worked example based teaching. This is incongruent with the goal of inquiry based sessions which is focusing on the problem space and active thinking about solutions.

In the review, the key argument is that IBL is not compatible with the cognitive architecture of typical students. They model this architecture on working memory, long-term memory, and transfer effects that may be implicated in future learning. As the paper states, inquiry or questioning based learning consumes working memory and hinders learning at a long-term memory by interfering with the transfer of information to long-term storage. For example, expert chess players can easily reproduce a board configuration and their accuracy is far better than novice players. However, their accuracy drops if the configuration is random. Real life chess configurations are consolidated through extensive experience in chess. Thus, their ability to reproduce configurations comes from long-term learning. This, in fact, is the goal of guided learning. Instructions, facts, and structured solutions aim to alter long-term memory.

While the research is clear, I see a problem with the premise. A new form of IBL can support such long-term learning based on understanding the logic and thought processes involved in discovery and problem-solving. Meta-cognitive analyses of the same can be guided toward long-term memory formation so approaches can be learned and reused. This isn’t an unreasonable modification of the conclusion the review draws.

Another review points out to the errors that lead to a false conclusion about IBL’s poor performance. Their primary argument is that IBL does, in fact, have a guided component that manifests through scaffolding. Scaffolding helps students learn with focused input information in a guided and helpful way. This information can be an overarching approach, significant background data, clear ‘How to’ points, etc.

In one study, researchers found out that IBL curricula did offer improved science literacy. However, scientific ability confidence gains were greater with a traditional curricula. Students acknowledged inquiry as an authentic approach and the frustrations associated with real-life scientific investigation. This may be a source of a student’s mental resistance to IBL.  

Another study reported differential benefits using IBL on nursing students for critical thinking – measured by the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA). Students who scored low saw a benefit from IBL, students who scored moderately did not see any gain, and those who scored high saw a loss in their critical thinking ability. At an intuitive level, this is incongruent with the perceived benefits of inquiry. Inquiry does draw critical thinking into focus but perhaps Inquiry & questioning based learning is not leveraging critical thinking in the best possible way.  

An interesting question to ask is if IBL can bridge the gap between teaching and structured research. Their case studies show that if teachers aim to espouse research skills, an open and discovery-oriented inquiry methodology benefits the goal.  

Some researchers used a videoconferencing method to implement IBL in teaching science to rural students in Canada. They found out that IBL not only helped learning, but also improved motivation, affective development, and career understanding. Their understanding of the subject matter was broadened as well. This shows that the approach is feasible.  

A key ingredient in quality learning is having an attitude conducive to learning. IBL promotes such an attitude. Today, developing a professional identity and peer-based learning is a valuable asset. The research shows that IBL promotes reflective thinking via a narrative approach and field research toward these social assets.  

A 2016 review of the effectiveness of inquiry based approaches shows that IBL is an effective learning model to use in teaching. Student’s have improved cognitive abilities, psychomotor abilities, and affective states in the classroom. They are able to create their own knowledge and link information to existing information. That is, build on existing cognitive structures. 


Shortcomings of inquiry based learning models (criticisms)

There are certain pitfalls in using inquiry based approaches to learning. How would facilitators motivate students to engage in inquiry? Student buy-ins are hard to acquire. The primary struggle for teachers may be at starting-up the system for new batches of students. I believe subsequent batches will see anecdotal evidence in support of the efficacy of such a method of learning and be receptive in the future. Motivation, as always is a key component of learning and we do not know for sure if IBL has the most reliable solution to the motivation problem. But, it is fairly reliable.

Standardized testing may make the job easy for a lot of people, and active testing does benefit learning, but a number of nuances about testing and inquiry are incompatible with each other. A lot of student’s attention is drawn toward scoring and test taking because testing measurements are deemed a valid representation of learning. This might not always be the case. Inquiry focuses on thinking about the problem and how to get to a solution. Even if all required facts are not recalled from memory, IBL gets the brain going.

An implicit assumption of Inquiry and exploration based approaches is that there is an innate capacity in humans to acquire and look for knowledge. However, this assumption is largely invalid when students are not intrinsically motivated and there is either burnout or boredom. Using an inquiry based learning model in teaching should account for this assumption in every implementation.

Is inquiry based approaches a perfect system? No. Usually, and as with most schools of thought, the best from many worlds need to be integrated with each other. Inquiry based learning and testing can be made compatible with planning and bottom-up restructuring of how classes are conducted.

The focus of this article has been on how IBL can be implemented in the 21st century. Boiling that goal down, it comes to IBL and technology, boiling it further gets us to IBL and how the technology supported student life can be leveraged.


Ending notes:

Verdict – An inquiry based learning approach is useful but it has a few limitations. IBL allows creating knowledge, discovery, reflective thinking, and also motivates. But the methodology is not always beneficial, some research does not show learning benefits and the process can be frustrating for both students and teachers. The nature of 21st-century learning is social, rapidly altering, and goal oriented; which is conducive to such a model. Refining as well as redefining inquiry based learning is needed because a lot of factors associated with our technology, online behaviour, real-life behaviour, and learning dynamics change every few years. The framework has a lot of potential but is imperfect, as evidence shows.

Takeaway – Keep asking questions and think.


P.S. Most of the research linked here has been published in the 21st century.

P.P.S. Read all you want on IBL research here

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