Allowing students greater agency in their learning can be a liberating experience. Rather than the teacher as expert, inquiry-based learning allows learners to assume the responsibility of becoming experts of the knowledge they are constructing through a process self-discovery and trial and error, while the teacher’s role is to monitor their students’ process of constructing new meaning and step in when they need help.
This is the very core of inquiry-based learning (IBL), a form of learning where students pose their own research questions about a topic and set out on a journey to answer them. The benefits of inquiry-based learning are many, such as:
- Supporting students to build their own initiative.
- Encouraging a deeper understanding of the content.
- Motivating students to form their own connections about what they learn.
- Students taking more ownership of their learning and a sense of reward not just from a final product, but from the process of knowledge-making itself.
- Helping students develop the critical thinking and life skills necessary to be competitive in the 21st century, from problem-solving to effective collaboration and communication (Ismael & Elias, 2006).
IBL is often employed in math and science classrooms, which naturally lend themselves to a problem-solving approach. (Amaral et al. 2002, Marshall & Horton, 2011). However, the framework certainly has potential for other disciplines as well, including English (Chu et al., 2011). Of course, balancing inquiry-based learning with language learning means that teachers must also attend to the language and vocabulary skills students need to be effective inquisitors. Tweaks to the traditional model can make this become a reality.
Below are four key principles that distinguish an inquiry-based approach, and suggestions on how teachers can scaffold them for the English language classroom.
1) Students as Researchers
In a typical inquiry-based learning framework, students are introduced to a topic and tasked with developing their own research questions to guide their process of discovery (Pedaste et al., 2015). In an English language setting, one way to model this is to provide a leading question for the students, choosing one that is open-ended and can lead students in more than one direction. Even yes-no questions can provide such ambiguity, for by doing deeper research, students begin to realize that the answer is not always black-and-white.
Take the question, Are you a good decision maker? We can encourage students to ask related questions that encourage more informed responses:
- How do people solve problems differently?
- What emotional and biological factors influence people’s decision making?
- What role does personality play?
Students can use WebQuests to find relevant articles and videos to look at the question from multiple perspectives. In a more scaffolded setting, instructors can provide articles and videos to discuss as a class, and ask students to draw out the relevant ideas and identify connections. Either way, the goal is to have students revisit the question each time new information is learned so they can elaborate on and refine their answers, and in doing so, slowly become experts on the topic.
2) Teachers as Research Assistants
An inquiry-based learning model often flips the roles of the teacher and student. Students become the researchers, and teachers assume the role of the assistant or guide to their learning (Dobber et al., 2017). One way to encourage this is to flip the classroom itself so that instructional lessons are delivered online, and class time is devoted to students applying what they have learned through practice and collaborative activities.
As language teachers, we can direct students to instructional videos on skills they’ll need to understand and respond to the texts they encounter. An instructional video on how to classify information could support a text about different kinds of problem solvers, for example. Videos on relevant grammatical and language structures can also be assigned. Teachers can then use class time not to present the material, but to attend to students’ questions and curiosities.
3) Peer-to-Peer Collaboration
Learning from peers and sharing ideas with others is another core principle of inquiry-based learning. Students in an IBL classroom become each other’s soundboards, which gives them an authentic audience from which to draw alternative perspectives from their own and test the validity of their ideas (Ismael & Elias 2006). Students are meant to collaborate throughout the entire process, from their initial response to the question to the final project. To do this, teachers can pose the leading question on an online discussion board and require peers to respond to each other’s ideas. To scaffold, teachers can provide language used to respond to posts, such how to acknowledge someone else’s ideas (I think you’re saying that…) or show agreement or disagreement (I see your point, but I also wonder…).
Collaboration also takes places through the final project. IBL classrooms typically have students complete the cycle with group projects, such as debates, group presentations, newsletters, and discussions. Even if students are working independently on personal essays, teachers can have them conduct peer reviews for further feedback, and to present their findings and insights to the class, thereby providing them with a wider audience than just the teacher.
4) Reflecting on Learning
The final principle is asking students to reflect on their learning (Pedaste et al., 2005). This can be achieved by posing the leading question on the discussion board at the end of the cycle, to see how students’ responses have evolved based on what they’ve learned. Language teachers can also encourage reflection through assessment feedback. If giving a test on the language and skills students have studied, they can go a step further by posing questions about the experience:
- How difficult did you find the test?
- Why do you think you made mistakes?
- What can you do to improve your learning?
- What can your teacher do?
This helps students identify areas for improvement, and it gives teachers guidance in tailoring their instruction in the future.
In the IBL classroom, students are in the driver’s seat, but teachers are not sitting alone in the back. They’re upfront, in the passenger seat, watching students navigate their way and giving direction when they get lost. The teacher knows that the path of inquiry can take multiple routes and that students will need different tools to get to their final destination. With proper scaffolding, teachers can make the voyage for English language learners more successful, and in the process, create a cohort of lifelong inquisitors.
For a demonstration of how Q: Skills for Success Third Edition uses IBL to create independent and inquisitive learners please watch my webinar, where we will be looking at how the series and its resources scaffold the four principles of IBL both in and outside the classroom.
- Amaral, O., Garrison, L. & Klentschy. M. (2002). Helping English learners increase achievement through inquiry-based science instruction. Bilingual Research Journal, 26(2), 213-239.
- Chu, S., Tse, S., Loh, K. & Chow, K. (2011). Collaborative inquiry project-based learning: Effects on reading ability and interests. Library & Information Science Research, 33(3), 236-243.
- Dobbler, M., Tanis, M., Zward, R.C., & Oers, B. (2017). Literature review: The role of the teacher in inquiry-based education. Educational Research Review, 22, 194-214.
- Ismael, N. & Elias, S. (2006). Inquiry-based learning: A new approach to classroom learning. English Language Journal, 2(1), 13-22.
- Marshall, J. & Horton, R. (2011). The Relationship of teacher-facilitated, inquiry-based instruction to student higher-order thinking. School Science and Mathematics, 93-101.
- Pedaste, M., Maeots, M., Silman, L. & de Jong, T. (2015). Phrases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle. Educational Research Review, 14, 47-61.
Colin Ward received his M.A. in TESOL from the University of London as a UK Fulbright Scholar. He is Department Chair and Professor of ESOL at Lone Star College-North Harris in Houston, Texas, USA. He has been teaching ESOL at the community-college level since 2002 and presented at numerous state, national, and international conferences. Colin has authored and co-authored a number of textbooks for Oxford University Press, including Q: Skills for Success Reading and Writing 3.
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