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"Inquiry classrooms are too much..."

…and our response to it.

Hello! Welcome to the 11th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

A teacher says, “I don’t know, but we can find out”. The teacher says this in response to a student asking a question. And thus begins a journey of inquiry and learning. Inquiry-based learning is either the teacher or the students coming up with questions and the students attempting to find answers to the questions. Though inquiry classrooms have been popular in theory, moving to inquiry classrooms from traditional lecture-based classrooms can be challenging. We faced these challenges when we first attempted this shift. We see that a number of teachers have faced similar challenges and others have not attempted inquiry because it seemed too daunting. What are the major challenges and how can we overcome these?

Inquiry-based learning involves many different learning trajectories as compared to traditional learning

Open inquiry classrooms, where students investigate to find out answers to questions that they have come up with, are very far removed from traditional classrooms. In a traditional classroom, all students are going through the same content and mostly the same activity or experience. But in an open inquiry classroom, there is a potential that each student may be pursuing their own line of inquiry. As a teacher this huge change in needing to keep track of different lines of student inquiry can seem daunting.

The shift from traditional classrooms to inquiry classrooms can be more gradual. Instead of moving from lectures on one day to students coming up with curiosity-driven questions the next, teachers can have intermediate steps in between. A teacher can start with a focussed inquiry. In a focussed inquiry classroom, there is a question that the teacher asks and the students are trying to find the solution to the question. Here the question may not be open-ended and may even have a correct answer. As long as there are different ways to get to the solution, the students will engage in their own inquiry. For example, asking students, “What are the different ways to divide four pizzas among five people?” Here the final correct answer is the same - one and one fourth of a pizza to each person. But there are different ways to get to this answer. A student may choose to say that, “Each person gets one entire pizza and 1/4th of a pizza.” or “Each person gets five 1/4th of a pizza.” or “Each person gets two ½ and one 1/4th of a pizza.” or “Each person gets one ½ and three 1/4th of a pizza.” and so on.

This approach helps teachers focus on getting students to inquire without worrying about keeping track of different lines of inquiry or the fear of not knowing something a student asks. Once the teacher is comfortable with this, they can move progressively to wider inquiries by students.

Change in the culture of the classroom

Moving from traditional classrooms to inquiry classrooms is a challenge for teachers. But that is nothing compared to the challenge it is for students. There is an entirely new expectation from students. In traditional classrooms, students are expected to listen and sometimes contribute their thoughts.

They are expected to follow instructions and procedures. Students are not leading their own learning. In an inquiry classroom on the other hand, students are expected to lead their own learning. They have been given a problem which they are expected to solve. They are not ready for this. So before transitioning to inquiry classrooms it is important that the students understand that the expectations are going to change. That their learning is going to be different.

Before moving to inquiry classrooms it is important to get students to start asking questions. Ensuring that students have their independent thoughts and opinions. Again moving slowly from traditional classrooms to focussed inquiry and then to open inquiry helps.

These are good ways of transitioning into inquiry classrooms so that the teachers and students are relatively familiar with what changes to expect. Even so, some teachers come back to us with some other misapprehensions as they start with their inquiry classes.

Letting go of control

In a traditional classroom a teacher speaks for about 80% of the time, while in an inquiry classroom they are expected to speak for about 20% of the time. This is understandably uncomfortable for teachers. While they are speaking they are in control of the narrative in the classroom. They are in control of the discussion and the material that is being taught.

In an inquiry classroom the teacher must allow students to question, think, discuss and deduce on their own. The teacher plays more of a guiding role here. This may be disconcerting for some teachers. They may seem to have lost control of the class as there may be multiple discussions happening simultaneously among groups of students.

It is understandable and acceptable that a teacher feels a little less in control. And to some extent there is some truth in this. The teacher is not as much in control of the discussions and material to be taught as in a traditional classroom. The teacher’s role is to guide the students’ discussions. Ask students a guiding question to give direction to a discussion. Help another discussion by suggesting something that they can read to know more about the topic. By doing this, the teacher has a good idea where each of the discussions/lines of inquiry are proceeding. By nudging discussions or ideas the teacher can also ensure that the discussions and the inquiry are still within the realms of the learning outcomes of the lesson. For example, when studying animal adaptations, some students may be exploring adaptations that animals have to protect themselves from the heat or cold and others may be exploring what adaptations help them to camouflage themselves. A teacher can go up to each of these groups, listen passively to their conversations and then decide whether the group needs her help or not. In this way, the teacher also has a good idea of what discussions are happening in each group and how much the groups have progressed.

Being okay with student struggle

Speaking of teachers facilitating discussion and inquiry, there will come a time when students will be working hard to figure out the solution. The students may be very close, but they may be making a small mistake or an assumption that may be false. It is very tempting as a teacher to help them out here. But this kind of productive struggle that students go through to find out the kinks in their solution or thinking is very helpful for their deep learning and understanding. The teachers will have to be okay with a student struggling productively to get to the solution.

On the other hand, a teacher will have to be cognizant of the fact that sometimes students are just stuck and spinning their wheels. For example in the pizza problem shared earlier is an inquiry that the students can make while they are learning division. However, if a student is not proficient with addition and subtraction, the student is likely to be spinning their wheels and not making any progress on the inquiry problem. In such cases, the teacher needs to recognise that the student needs help and will not make any progress on their inquiry without intervention.

Knowing answers to all the questions that students have

Teachers who are convinced that they should do inquiry, but are reluctant to try it out, are mostly doing it out of the fear that they may not know the answer to the questions that students may ask. Rest assured that no one knows all the answers to all questions. Especially when we are living in an age where there is an exponential increase in information daily. It is okay to not know the answers to students’ questions. What is more important is whether you can help them find the answers. It is important that teachers in inquiry classrooms ensure that the students have the appropriate resources and help students think critically about their question. Knowing the answer is incidental. One of our favourite phrases in such situations is, “I don’t know, but we can find out”.

These are some challenges that teachers face most frequently. We hope this article helps you transition to inquiry classrooms.


Useful Links:

  1. Here is a nice blog enumerating the different ways that one can approach planning an inquiry classroom.

  2. This is another blog which gives you a picture of what an inquiry classroom may look like.


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Edition: 1.11

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