Four challenges I faced with inquiry-based learning
This is a blog which is born out of my reflection notes from a few of my earliest attempts at getting students to go through inquiry-based learning (IBL). This was when I was less experienced and was trying to find my footing in guiding student-led inquiry. It was not that I had not read up on challenges in an inquiry-based learning classroom – I think I knew what to expect. But even when you expect something, sometimes it can still be challenging to deal with. In retrospect, these are the four biggest challenges that I faced:
1. Letting go of control.
I used to have planned and structured lessons prepared, so that students receive all the relevant information. And I thought I knew the ‘fun’ ways of delivering the information to students. In this situation, I would talk, and students would listen. I had a policy that students could raise their hands and question anything at any time. I thought this freedom to interrupt me empowered students (maybe it did, but not enough). This structure made sure I could control how the classes normally panned out.
Once I started IBL in my classes, I lost control of the class very soon. Different discussion groups would break out. I could talk only for some time and students would be discussing ideas with me or each other most of the time. I felt like I was no longer in control of the class.
As time went by, I realised there is another way of being in control of the class – if I could help each student (or group of students) with their inquiry by guiding their research through questions; letting them make mistakes and learning from them; and most importantly, being okay with hardly speaking except when asking clarifying or guiding questions.
2. Letting students go through a period of struggle.
There were two sides to this challenge – one, I found it difficult to not give out the solution when I saw students struggling. In such scenarios, students would try to find the solutions for a short amount of time, but they knew that I would eventually give them the answers. This was not productive for students.
Once I decided not to give out answers, I would steadfastly stand by this principle. But this led to the second challenge – students spinning their wheels. They would hit a dead end in terms of ideas of what they can try or how to proceed.
Finding this balance between letting students go through a productive struggle and them spinning their wheels was a great challenge for me. And this balance is different for each student. Practising and getting more and more experience helped me overcome this challenge.
3. Channelling discussions such that learning objectives are met.
One of the mistakes that a lot of inexperienced teachers make in IBL classrooms is that they believe that students will direct learning objectives for themselves. This is not true. Teachers plan learning objectives and try to maintain the focus of discussion and research such that learning objectives are met.
Keeping the discussions focussed and relevant without giving out the solutions, was especially challenging for me.
4. Assessing student-led research.
Assessing IBL with traditional assessments items is not helpful. My notes on students and their performance in traditional assessments would not overlap. Only then did I realise that I needed to assess the students in a completely different way. In the class, I was asking students to be curious, ask questions, try to find out answers, and find out different ways for getting the solution. And on assessments, I was asking them only what they recalled from all their research. Of course, there was a discrepancy between my notes and student performance in assessments! I had to modify the way I assessed students to match what they were doing and learning in class.
These were major challenges for me and sometimes I would question myself – is it worth trying out IBL when it is so challenging to apply in class? But then when students get their ‘aha’ moments – the instant when it all clicks for them or when they figure out the next step in solving a complex problem, the joy on their faces is worth it. More importantly, their retention and ability to abstract improves through the process of inquiry.
I have been using IBL for various age groups and in varied contexts for almost a decade now. And it has been an extremely rewarding experience, mostly because it has been helpful for students. Most of the feedback from students has been about how IBL helped them think about things that they had taken as a given. Or how IBL helped them see connections where they least expected. If this isn’t deeper learning, then what is?
What can one expect in an IBL classroom?
How can we create a culture of curiosity among students?
How should we support student-led research?
What are the challenges in IBL classrooms?
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