There has been a lot of talk lately about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and how we should be teaching our students STEM. Most of the current state standards for teaching STEM were created and implemented in the 1990s, before the release of the iPod and before Pluto lost its standing as a planet. A lot has happened in the last 20 years, and progressive, forward-thinking educators have been pushing for updates in STEM standards.
Educators are calling for a move toward inquiry-based learning that will not only give students a deeper understanding of the subjects they learn, but will also help them develop a base of knowledge to prepare them for higher education and a great career. However, inquiry-based learning is still a relatively new subject to many educators, so let’s talk about what it is and a few things you may not know about it.
What is Inquiry-Based Learning?
Inquiry-based learning rejects memorizing established facts. Instead, students are first presented a question or series of questions that they answer through a hands-on investigation. It’s based on real-world examples and scenarios, with STEM practice skills like research and problem-solving at its core.
Inquiry-based learning focuses on helping students engage in higher order thinking. They’ll learn to analyze and evaluate scenarios, create solutions, and apply what they’ve learned to new situations. Here are a few specifics you may not already know about this style of learning.
1. Inquiry-Based Learning Engages Higher Order Thinking
Students may memorize different facts, but how does this help them solve problems and find solutions? Inquiry-based learning builds higher order thinking skills through hands-on experimenting and prototyping that require creative thinking and problem-solving. This approach creates an environment where every student can offer something of value by thinking deeply about the question at hand.
2. It’s More Fun
Children are naturally curious, and when you foster that curiosity with your STEM curriculum, your students will be more engaged because they have ownership of their learning process.
3. It Works With Students’ Cognitive Development
Years of study have gone into children’s developmental psychology and their cognitive abilities at each stage. From these studies, we know that inquiry-based learning strengthens how children acquire knowledge and understanding by providing tangible experiences that allow them to develop their higher order thinking skills. These skills are developed when students apply content to create, evaluate, and analyze questions or problems.
4. It Encourages Students to Ask Questions
Inquiry-based learning may start with guided questions from the teacher, but there’s more to it than that. It pushes students to constantly ask "why" as they connect their findings to the scientific concepts being explored. The ability to ask the right questions in the right context and evaluate the answers is essential in any field of study and a key element of college and career readiness.
5. It Builds Toward Mastery
The inquiry process for science and engineering requires a set of practice skills that are developed over time. When students use these processes regularly in the classroom, they develop the skills to make sense of more complex scientific phenomena. Mastery comes when students can use their inquiry STEM skills to work through a question or problem in any related context.
6. It Nurtures Creativity
Because it’s based on exploration and discovery rather than fact-feeding, inquiry-based learning has a lot more room for creativity in learning. Students develop the confidence to trust their creativity because they are investigating their question or problem using a process they developed. Students will make all kinds of connections that may surprise you!
7. It’s Still Very Structured
Having space for discovery doesn't mean there’s no structure. In fact, inquiry-based learning is well-structured, intentional learning because students use familiar STEM practices and follow the appropriate scientific or engineering process to guide their investigation.
8. It Lets Teachers Focus on Student Engagement
By letting go of instructional methods that focus on slides of pre-planned facts to memorize in favor of a hands-on, minds-on approach, you and your students can explore the why and how of STEM like real scientists and engineers. Students will be more curious, more engaged, and better prepared for their future.