Every teacher would love to see their students totally engrossed in the task at hand, asking meaningful and pertinent questions, and then looking for the answers themselves. Sound like an impossible dream? Perhaps not! Inquiry-based learning seeks to do just that – engaging students in their learning process by having them asking questions that are meaningful for them and then helping them to find the answers.
What is inquiry-based learning?
We all know that engaging students in their learning process improves their learning. Having students listening quietly to our explanations and then asking questions usually produces complete silence, and maybe another long explanation on our part. Inquiry-based learning turns this process around, presenting students with an interesting topic, helping them identify what they already know, and then having them ask the questions that are important to know more.
What is the teacher’s role?
This doesn’t mean that the teacher’s role ends with presenting a topic. On the contrary, there is an important and central role for the teacher to play. It simply has been removed from center stage to the side or back of the room, a role more of monitor and facilitator than only that of a provider of information. It is important to identify where the students’ questions are taking them and make sure that they aren’t coming up with misinformation or a wrong idea about how the world, and English, work!
Empowering students to shape their future
What will students need more in the future, the ability to take notes and repeat what the teacher tells them, or to be able to find answers to questions that are important for them? I think we can all agree on the second reason.
Part of this involves having students work together collaboratively, to develop the skills needed to work with others, with each person making key contributions to solving the task.
Many teachers find it difficult to let go of control in the class, perhaps thinking that their students don’t have the necessary level of maturity or motivation to work in a more self-directed way. This might come from our previous experience when we have tried to encourage greater student autonomy and not found a very positive response.
Large classes and strict supervision from authorities might strengthen this idea that a more student-centered class is not possible.
I would encourage you to try an inquiry-based approach in developing a learner-centered environment. It doesn’t have to be a choice of all or nothing at all but can be done in small steps. Try starting by having your students be the ones to ask a question about the topic the lesson centers on. If the topic is Wild animals, have them each write down something they know about wild animals and something they would like to find out about them. Using K-W-L charts is an excellent way to help them visualize the information.
Seeing the benefits
Using inquiry-based learning in the classroom will help your students feel more engaged in the class, and more in charge of their own learning process. They realize that they are learning things they want to know, rather than just mechanically repeating what someone else thinks they should know. This will encourage them to see learning as a life-long activity, rather than just some boring classroom requirement.
Inquiry-based learning in the Secondary classroom
Secondary age learners are more mature and aware of their learning than younger learners. This can help develop greater autonomy in these learners. Providing opportunities to reflect on their learning is also important at this age. This can be done through self-assessment activities, or specifically designed questions that allow students to see their progress, and how they made that progress. Fostering these aspects (autonomy and reflection) can increase their motivation for learning in general, and learning English in particular. They can also see a closer link to what they are learning and what happens in their lives outside of school, opening their awareness of global skills that they need to acquire. Providing our learners with more opportunities to experiment with the language, and make decisions themselves also shifts the responsibility of learning to the learners themselves.
Are you interested in teaching with a course that uses an inquiry-based approach? You can find our new title, Oxford Discover Futures, here:
Barbara Bangle is originally from the United States but has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. She is the former director of the CELe language institute at the University of the State of Mexico (UAEMex) and has spent the past 35 years both teaching English and working in the field of Teacher Education.