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Inquiry-based Learning: 4 essential principles for the ELT classroom

teenagers laughing and working togetherAllowing 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 join my Webinar on the 20th February 2020, where we will be looking at how the series and its resources scaffold the four principles of IBL both in and outside the classroom.

Register for the webinar

 


 

References

  1. Amaral, O., Garrison, L. & Klentschy. M. (2002). Helping English learners increase achievement through inquiry-based science instruction. Bilingual Research Journal, 26(2), 213-239.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Ismael, N. & Elias, S. (2006). Inquiry-based learning: A new approach to classroom learning. English Language Journal, 2(1), 13-22.
  5. Marshall, J. & Horton, R. (2011). The Relationship of teacher-facilitated, inquiry-based instruction to student higher-order thinking. School Science and Mathematics, 93-101.
  6. 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.

 


2 Comments

What makes a good coursebook

esl coursebookRobin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer offers practical examples about how a good coursebook supports effective goal setting.

In August in response to my webinar on helping intermediate students, I received an email from Alina de Palma, who teaches in Brazil. She told me:

“My students and I set goals in February this year and it was really great, they felt extremely motivated at that time, but the goal was more like a long-term goal, so now I do not feel that energy anymore. Besides, I think I have set very subjective goals with some of them and that leads to my question … about what kinds of goals to set.”

What kind of goals to set?

This is a key question and worth considering when choosing a good coursebook. In general terms, we usually relate goal-setting to something we do at the beginning of the year. We enjoy doing it but then the goals get forgotten, or they were too vague in the first place to be operational. Going to class aiming at the same ill-defined, long-term goal (Improve my English! for example), soon fails to provide much motivation. In fact, it can become a source of discouragement.

How do we get round this?

Like Alina, I ask students to set goals at the beginning of a course. I ask each student to write these down and then I collect them in. Here’s what one student wrote recently before an intensive course on pronunciation:

My goals would be to:

  • Improve my intonation.
  • Have as little Spanish accent as possible.
  • Detect and eliminate specific mistakes that I might be repeating.
  • Learn how to interpret the phonetics in a dictionary.
  • Be more confident when dealing with unknown environments (I mean when you don’t know the audience or there are other “risk” factors).
  • By better knowing the phonetics and the pronunciation I hope to improve my listening as well.

This student was exceptional. Most learners aren’t able to articulate their aims so clearly and as a result, they set goals that are too vague.

With a new group of students, it’s useful to make a summary of the initial goals they wrote down and then make the summary available to everyone. Some goals will be common to all, and it’s useful to refer back to these on a fairly regular basis as you’re teaching. For example, at the start of a lesson you can point out that the listening work you’re going to do that day ties in really well with the goal everyone had written down at the beginning of the course about “understanding colloquial native-speaker speech better”. It’s really important to tie in what you do in class each day to pre-course goals so that learners see that you have a plan, and that class activities really do serve their needs.

At a different level, I try to get learners to set short-term goals. The problem here is that most learners don’t know how to articulate these, and so one useful way to help them is to give them a list of possible short-term goals for a lesson, and let them choose two or three. These can come from the contents of the unit the class is about to start. Good coursebooks will state the language learning aims for each unit somewhere in the book, often at the start of each unit. As we begin a new unit or lesson we need to make the goals specific by talking through them with your class or writing them on the board. Without our guidance, many learners simply don’t pay any attention to them.

It’s also useful for us as teachers to clarify to our learners what we are going to do that day and why. Sometimes we are so familiar with what we are doing that we forget to tell our learners why we are doing it. But for them it is often the first time and the logic behind class activities isn’t necessarily clear to them. Adults in this situation will usually passively follow our instructions, but not really engage with the lesson. With rowdy teenagers you might have discipline problems.

At the start of the class use the coursebook to point out the lesson aims and contents. This should help learners to set personal short-term goals for that lesson. The CEFR ‘can do’ statements are useful here as they set out in objective terms what learners should be able to do (better) at the end of a class. Most good coursebooks now use these in one way or another.

The above notwithstanding, I find the best source of short-term goals comes from learners reflecting individually on performance in specific areas at the end of a class. Listening is a nightmare for most of my students, so when we finish a listening activity I get them to reflect on how they did individually. I do the same with fluency activities. After a speaking activity I might ask students to think about their performance and to ‘identify’ with one or two of the following typical problems:

  • I couldn’t find the words I needed for the activity.
  • I had problems with the pronunciation of many/some/a few words.
  • I got halfway into a sentence and then didn’t know how to finish it.
  • I didn’t always understand what my partners were saying.
  • I didn’t speak because the other people were much better than me.

Identifying an individual problem goes a long way to setting a personal short-term goal for a future lesson. These will all be specific to each learner, which is very important.

Finally, we need to be careful not to spend too much time on goal setting or it will become a chore and will de-motivate our students. What matters is to find the balance between setting goals and achieving them. It is also very important to help learners to enjoy their success when they have achieved their goals. One goal I used to set new elementary-level students was that by December I would be able to give the whole class in English (not often done in Spanish secondary schools). When we achieved this – usually by mid-November – we celebrated our progress. This was inevitably a turning point in the year for the group, and was the moment when I began to move towards the students setting their own goals, both long-term and short-term.

Like many things in ELT, goal setting isn’t natural to learners, and it requires us as teachers to take them to the point where they can do it for themselves. But we need to be patient, and we must avoid setting ourselves unrealistic goals about goal-setting.

To find out more about what makes a good coursebook why not join my webinar on 31st October?