Inquiry learning

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Draft 1

Editor: Ton de Jong, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands

Contributors: Danish Nadeem, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands, Ard Lazonder, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands


Inquiry learning refers to an educational approach that capitalizes on students' "natural tendency of curiosity". In the science education literature, the term "inquiry" is broadly defined as a learning process that requires learners to learn in a way a scientist would acquire knowledge through research (Krajcik, 1998; de Jong & van Joolingen, 1998; Sandoval, 2005; White & Frederiksen, 1998; Zimmerman 2007). A general definition for inquiry learning is given by National Science Foundation (2000, p. 2):

"An approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, and that leads to asking questions, making discoveries, and rigorously testing those discoveries in the search for new understanding"

Specifically, as described by de Jong (2006a), the inquiry process involves: orientation (identification of variables and relations), hypothesis generation, experimentation (changing variable values, making predictions, and interpreting the outcomes), reaching conclusions (hypothesis testing), evaluation (reflection on the learning process and the acquired knowledge), planning and maintaining an overview of the inquiry effectively used to support inquiry process (monitoring)

Researchers also define the related term "inquiry-based learning" in the context of science education to mean inquiry learning. Banchi and Bell (2008) identified four different levels in inquiry-based learning, namely:

(i) Confirmation inquiry
(ii) Structured inquiry
(iii) Guided inquiry
(iv) Open inquiry.

These levels are based on inquiry progressions. The idea is to slowly let the students explore on their own as the inquiry level progresses (i.e., each inquiry level hinges upon the next level). For instance, conformation inquiry requires from students to confirm an already known scientific principle. They are given the questions and are provided with the methods to derive a solution. They learn already known scientific principles by doing investigations and by collecting and analysing data. In structured inquiry, students are provided with questions and a method; however, they are encouraged to give explanations with supporting evidence. In guided inquiry, only a question is given to the students and they are asked to design methods to test this question and explain the obtained results. Finally in open inquiry, students are better prepared to take their own initiative in doing science; they define their own research question, perform investigations, and derive conclusions, thus applying all the processes of inquiry cycle. Within all of these phases, students should also be supported by so-called "scaffolds", software instruments that help them to perform cognitive actions correctly. An example could be a software tool that helps students to state hypotheses. Overviews of such scaffolds can be found in Chang, Chen, Lin, & Sung (2008), de Jong (2006b, 2010), Quintana et al (2004).

The understanding of scientific method and developing scientific skills has already been encouraged by earlier research (Dewey 1938) and the benefits of inquiry learning to gain authentic experience in knowledge construction process has also been advocated (Bruner 1961). Researchers argue that inquiry learning should be central to science education instruction (Banchi & Bell, 2008; Sandoval, 2005; Schwab, 1962) because of its potential to stimulate thinking, acquiring deep knowledge, understanding the science concepts and learning the process of doing science. Recent studies and meta-analysis now prove the effectiveness of inquiry learning as compared to a number of other educational approaches. (Alfieri, Brooks, Aldrich, & Tenenbaum, in press; Eysink et al., 2009).

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Key references

[1] Banchi, H. & Bell, R. (2008). The many levels of inquiry. Science and Children, 46, 26-29

[2] Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

[3] Chang, K. E., Chen, Y. L., Lin, H. Y., & Sung, Y. T. (2008). Effects of learning support in simulation-based physics learning. Computers & Education, 51, 1486-1498. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2008.01.007

[4] Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. MacMillan, New York.

[5] Krajcik, J., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., Bass, K. M., Fredricks, J., Soloway, E. (1998). Inquiry in project-based science classrooms: Initial attempts by middle school students. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 7(3/4), 313- 350

[6] National Science Foundation. (2000). Inquiry : Thoughts, Views, and Strategies for the K-5 Classroom. In Foundations, 2, 120 pages.

[7] de Jong, T. (2006a). Scaffolds for computer simulation based scientific discovery learning. In J. Elen & R. E. Clark (Eds.), Handling complexity in learning environments (pp. 107-128). London: Elsevier Science Publishers.

[8] de Jong, T. (2006b). Computer simulations - Technological advances in inquiry learning. Science, 312, 532-533

[9] de Jong, T. (2010). Instruction based on computer simulations. In R. E. Mayer & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of research on learning and instruction (pp. 446-466): Routledge Press.

[10] de Jong, T., & van Joolingen, W.R. (1998). Scientific discovery learning with computer simulations of conceptual domains. Review of Educational Research, 68, 179-201.

[11] Quintana, C., Reiser, B. J., Davis, E. A., Krajcik, J., Fretz, E., Duncan, R. G., et al. (2004). A scaffolding design framework for software to support science inquiry. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13, 337-387.

[h] Sandoval, W. A. (2005). Understanding students' practical epistemologies and their influence on learning through inquiry. Science Education, 89, 634-656.

[12] Schwab, J.J. (1962). The teaching of science as enquiry. In J.J. Schwab and P.F. Brandwein (Eds.), The teaching of science (pp. 3-103). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[13] White, B. Y., & Frederiksen, J. R. (1998). Inquiry, modeling, and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition and Instruction, 16, 3 - 118.

[14] Zimmerman, C. (2007). The development of scientific thinking skills in elementary and middle school. Developmental Review, 27, 172-223.

Related terms

Inquiry-based learning, scientific discovery learning

Related documents

Heather Banchi and Randy Bell, 2008 [15] Inquiry comes in various forms

[16]The Inquiry Process

Inquiry Thoughts, Views, and Strategies for the K–5 Classroom. Foundations, Vol. 2 [17]

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