Deep Dives

Inquiry-Based Learning: What Happens When We Put Kids in Control of Their Learning?

March 1, 2024
Heather Schwartz
Practice Specialist
Alexandra Skoog-Hoffman
Senior Director, Research and Learning
Inquiry-Based Learning: What Happens When We Put Kids in Control of Their Learning?

Now more than ever, students need hope. They tell us that they’re increasingly anxious about the world they will inherit. They need to know they can solve problems and make an impact. Educators can facilitate this experience while honoring the content they are expected to teach. One way is through inquiry-based learning

What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?

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Inquiry-based learning blends academic and social and emotional skills by engaging students in collaborative problem-solving. Research points to the importance of integrated approaches like inquiry-based learning, which offer rigorous and relevant learning experiences, relationships where students feel supported and challenged, and opportunities to learn about and practice social and emotional competencies within academic content. 

As former classroom educators, we’ve witnessed this ourselves. Our students thrived when they had a strong sense of their strengths and challenges (self-awareness), believed that they could impact their own trajectories and set goals (self-management), and communicated their ideas with confidence while understanding that their classmates might have different perspectives (relationship skills/social awareness). 

Inquiry-based learning strategies support these capacities while challenging students to engage in critical thinking and reflection around an issue. The result is a collaborative, engaging, and empowering classroom where students are able to take control of their own learning while they practice and reflect on their social and emotional competencies.

Three Ways to Get Started With Inquiry-Based Learning

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1. Switch from lecturing to questioning

Heather experienced the power of leading with curiosity in her own middle-school classroom when, instead of lecturing exclusively, she asked her students to explore American history through the lens of these questions: 

  • What is community? 
  • How has America been a community? 
  • When and why have we acted in ways that were not demonstrative of community? 

Addressing these questions required a classroom environment where students had the skills to work collaboratively, reflect on what they wanted to say and why they felt compelled to say it, back up their assertions with evidence, “read the room,” and create space for the voices of their peers. This required explicit teaching, practice, and reflection of social and emotional competencies, all in service of academic excellence. 

2. Orchestrate learning environments 

Educators need intentional strategies to ensure that all students have the opportunity to experiment with new ideas, take intellectual risks, and experience the joy of discovery. Teachers do not promote student agency by simply “getting out of the way.” They organize and orchestrate learning environments that provide the support and challenge students need to make intellectual, social, and developmental leaps. 

When assigning groups, ensure that there is at least one student in each group with the leadership skills and social awareness to act as an ally. Make strategic decisions about when to ask probing questions or provide missing information. You can also model, monitor, and facilitate positive interactions among students. Strategies that help build independence in struggling or dependent learners are effective for supporting all learners (Rose & Meyer, 2002). 

3. Get away from “school as usual”

For teachers across grade levels, but the high school level especially, there is so much pressure to “get through content.” We end up going wide, but not deep. Out of expedience, our voices become the dominant ones in the room, but this is a loss for our students and ourselves. It’s not why we went into education. 

To get away from “school as usual,” we may need to dial down some of the cultural noise that breeds anxiety and competition. We can remind ourselves of what we already know: (a) students come to school with a desire for knowledge, though that passion may need to be excavated; (b) making time to build community supports learning; and (c) our role as educators is about so much more than “delivering content.”

Two types of inquiry-based learning, Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), are especially promising. While distinct, both position students as authors and co-designers of their own learning. Students work collaboratively to address real-world challenges through sustained inquiry. Both approaches move through cycles of reflection, planning, and action; and both build students’ sense of agency by acknowledging that youth themselves have the power to impact their communities and providing the metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies they need to engage in this type of sustained effort (Farrington et al., 2012). 

One example of inquiry-based learning would be an elementary science class where students learn about the properties of healthy soil, test the soil in their community, collaborate to find solutions to the problem of poor soil quality, and share their findings and proposals for improvements during a public presentation. 

In Ally’s high school English classroom, students engaged in a project-based learning unit about the prevalence, the market need, and the fees associated with check-cashing services. Students then developed and practiced their financial literacy and persuasive presentation skills when collaborating in groups to create an argument for why additional bank/financial institution branches would service their community better. 

Students are our future doctors, lawmakers, artists, and educators, and upcoming generations will depend on their collective capacity to create a just and healthy world. To reach these dreams, they will need  academic excellence and social and emotional strengths. Luckily for all of us, these aims are mutually reinforcing. 

Heather Schwartz, M.Ed., is a passionate educator, literacy specialist, and SEL expert. At CASEL, she works to translate the latest research on SEL into actionable tools, resources, and professional learning for school-level educators.

Ally Skoog-Hoffman, Ph.D., is an applied researcher, former educator, and expert in evidence-based SEL practices. At CASEL, she directs key practice-focused research initiatives designed to support and scale the programs, processes, and impacts of high-quality SEL implementation with CASEL partners.

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