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Inquiry-Based Instruction 101

Whether your state has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), has adopted standards that resemble the NGSS, or has designed and adopted their own, one element they likely all have in common is an emphasis on active, student-centered lessons. Whether it's referred to as hands-on, labs, experiments, scientific practice, or some other description, most science standards today expect students to be active participants in their own learning, often described as inquiry-based instruction.  

Inquiry-Based Instruction: What Is It & Why Use It?

Active, student centered instruction, such as inquiry-based learning is rooted in the work of psychologists John Dewey (1859-1952), Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), and falls under what is known as constructivist learning theory. This theory (also referred to as “constructivism”) puts forth the idea that students actively build knowledge based on experience, activity and social interaction rather than through passive means (such as listening to lectures).  

Advocates for this approach to learning have cited increased student engagement and knowledge retention, as well as the building of skills such as questioning, problem solving, and collaboration with others, as well as increased test scores and reduced instances of student classroom misbehavior. Calls to incorporate inquiry-based instruction in American science education date back as far as 1996’s The National Science Education Standards and serves as the foundation for the science and engineering practices and cross-cutting concepts in the NGSS.   

Reasons Why Teachers May Not Be Using Inquiry

While inquiry-based instruction is a known practice among educators, many teachers, for a variety of reasons, may face challenges in implementing it. Some teachers may lack training or knowledge of inquiry-based instruction and may not be sure how to start incorporating it effectively, others may worry that it won’t be effective for all students in class. Because inquiry requires teachers to act as more of a facilitator and let students lead their own learning (with guidance, of course), some may worry about the classroom management effects when using the less-structured nature of inquiry in comparison to more traditional styles of classroom instruction.

How To Start Using Inquiry…Easily!

If teachers have never trained in inquiry-based instruction, or have tried it and worried about how it might (or might not) work in their specific classrooms, such concerns are perfectly normal and understandable! So if you are a classroom teacher looking to move towards a more inquiry-based style of teaching, here are some tips to help you get started. 

  1. Use a Model

    You wouldn’t set out on a road trip without a map, right?  The journey to inquiry is the same way! Models can help teachers guide students to inquiry-based learning, ensuring they have the freedom, flexibility and guidance to ask questions and discover.  At the same time, teachers have a framework for facilitation that keeps ultimate control of the lesson. One well-known and popular model is the 5E Model of Inquiry, which takes students from introduction of a concept through investigations, explanations and assessment of concept mastery. 

  2. Tap into Students’ Prior Knowledge:

    Students come into the classroom with a variety of experiences and knowledge. By tapping into their prior knowledge about a science topic, teachers can harness curiosity about something students already have a connection to or with. Take, for example, the topic of moon phases. A teacher can ask students why they think the moon appears different at different points in time. While students may not yet know the difference between a gibbous moon or a crescent moon, the point is that they’ve all seen those different phases before. By harnessing that common experience, a teacher can spark further interest in investigating the topic, and inviting them to discuss and brainstorm possible explanations.

  3. Questions, Questions, Questions:

    Inquiry is all about asking questions. Questions help spark student interest, guide investigations, lead to deeper and more meaningful connections and foster critical thinking. Modeling questions and encouraging students to ask questions is the foundation of an inquiry-based learning experience. Even just starting with a basic Who, What, Where, When, Why structure can be enough to get students comfortable (with practice) of asking questions. 

  4. Trust Your Students:

    When given the structures, the resources, the parameters and the flexibility to ask questions, problem-solve, and collaborate - students can surprise you! With active, student-centered content that sparks and keeps their interest, students often stay focused and engaged, giving the teacher more flexibility to supervise, intervene and assist where needed.
  5. Be Patient:

    Mastering inquiry, for the teacher or the student, won’t happen in one class period, and some lessons will go smoother than others. That’s normal and par for the course. But with patience and practice, it can be done, leading to the deep learning and skill building that can carry student learning for a lifetime.   

Propello’s NGSS 6-8, IB MYP Science, and IB DP Science are all designed to make inquiry-based learning easy to implement and succeed in your classroom. Sign up for a test flight or contact us at to learn more.