How would you describe inquiry-based learning?

As the Head of School at the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), we are expanding our International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. This year we are adding the Middle Years (MYP) and Primary Years (PYP) programs to support our existing Diploma Program.

These programs focus heavily on conceptual learning through inquiry. That’s a change for our community. In the following post, I share an article that I shared with our parents to help them understand the key components of this shift.

Feedback welcome.

What is inquiry?  How is it different?

To borrow the words of Kate Murdoch, “to suggest that learning is not about inquiry is, in many ways, nonsense. The act of inquiry is critical to our learning and growth.” (Murdock, 11) Yet, often in schools, there is a tendency to push a learner’s natural curiosity to the background. In short, while many current teaching practices “present information (rules, laws, principles) together with examples, then ask students to replicate what they have been told.” (13)  Inquiry-based learning is based in inductive practices – wherein the learner is challenged to gather and analyze information, review it against existing knowledge, seek connections, notice patterns and gradually build an understanding of a concept.” (13)  It is grounded in a belief called constructivist-learning, where students need to build (or construct) their own knowledge by connecting it to previous knowledge instead of disconnected memorization and recall of information.

The IB itself makes this link clearly by stating that students “become enduringly skillful when learning is authentic and in context. The curriculum should emphasize the active construction of meaning so that students’ learning will be purposeful.” (Making the PYP Happen, IBO)


Allowing the space for students to question sounds great, but I wonder if they are learning any content. How does that work? And, how do teachers actually ‘teach’ with an inquiry mindset?

At SCIS, each subject’s curriculum is tied to national standards (example: the USA’s Common Core).  One of the great misconceptions of inquiry-based learning is that students may not learn facts and meet standards because they are asking and exploring questions. Inquiry is a philosophy and it is led by the teacher. In effective inquiry-based classrooms, you will still see drills, lectures, and didactic learning. But those methods are not the default. They are means to an end – developing students’ skills in order to give them the tools to effectively navigate the exploration.  Quality learning is always linked to standards. Inquiry classrooms believe that students will have a deeper understanding and longer retention of the standards when they build it themselves. Teachers strive to keep students focused on a relevant exploration.


So, how might my child’s look different?

A typical unit is usually focused on a single topic (examples: The French Revolution or Persuasive Writing) with a goal of “What do I want students to know?” An IB Unit of Inquiry starts with the goal of “What do I want students to understand and be able to do?”

Initially, you can see that it is rooted in action, applying their learning to be transferred elsewhere. The term understanding is an important and complex term. What does it mean to understand? It is more than summarizing or recalling information about a topic. Understanding comes in layers as we make connections. We peel these layers back like an onion depending on the depth of our understanding.

With this we come to see the difference – and the power – in inquiry. IB units of study do look different than traditional units because they are focused on over-arching essential questions of inquiry – questions that are concept-driven (not topic-driven), are worth pursuing and whose understandings can be applied in other situations. An example, shared by SCIS Pudong Upper School Principal Dr. Frank Volpe, will clarify the difference.


Traditional Unit Problem-Based, Traditional Unit Question MYP Unit Inquiry Question
Migration Trends Why do rural residents of Anhui choose to migrate to Shanghai? Why do populations choose to migrate and how does this migration change the destination and the origin?

 Exploring the MYP question allows connections. It is easy to see that the example of Chinese migration can still be studied, but the goal is to apply those understandings to the broader world.

Two aspects of inquiry are worth noting.

  • Strong inquiry questions are concept driven, not topical. They can be used at a variety of age ranges and involve multiple disciplines (geography, economics, science, civics). Using our onion analogy, these questions provide the opportunity to allow different learners to peel back the “next” layer at the level of understanding, challenging each learner.
  • Inquiry learning requires more work than traditional learning. It is not linear. It is somewhat messy as learners inquire and continually shift their understanding. This type of learning more accurately reflects how we all learn in the real world; it is shown below.

By reviewing the models, we can infer that classroom practices within inquiry classrooms also differ compared to traditional classrooms. Instructional decisions are never an “all or nothing” choice, but it is fair to say that inquiry classrooms will have…

… more … less
Student explorations of a concept: discussions, debate, research, problem-solving lecture
Creating and making connections and patterns Worksheets on basic facts
Reflection as central part of learning Learning about discrete, unconnected topics. Moving on to the next topic.
Assessments of understanding, where concepts are applied to new situations Assessments of knowledge

The IB can be (more than) a little confusing. It brings with its own “educational vocabulary” that is needed to help understand the program. We’ve unpacked one concept – inquiry. It’s complex, but stick with it. And, just as we expect students to be inquirers, we ask the same of you throughout the year. Seek to understand. Ask questions. After all, we’re just peeling back the first layer of the onion.

What Teacher Survey Says About Our Tech Goals

A June survey of teachers by Education Week pointed to some disappointing results.

The title says it all:

Teachers Still Struggling to Use Tech to Transform Instruction, Survey Finds


What is encouraging is that the title acknowledges a worthwhile goal – going beyond technology integration and aims at transforming practice.

The survey found that the strongest area of integration occurred in drill, review, practice problems. While that area shows promise in using personalized learning data to customize student pathways (identifying strengths, weaknesses, and pacing), at it’s core it is usually serving a very traditional goal. It transforms instruction in helping students get to the traditional “goal” faster, but it does little to transform education.

This more lofty goal – using technology to transform education – is an area where we are just getting started. Are we utilizing technology to transform the type of learning that is possible? Are we moving beyond recall and asking students to…

… critically think?

… collaborate?

… communicate with clarity?

… create solutions while using content?

… play a part in evaluating the quality of the solutions?

This is a topic I’ve explored in more detail in an earlier post.

The other areas from the survey (games, collaboration, projects) represent integration goals which have greater potential to transform instruction and education to better target the skills we  need for students in the 21st Century. We should continue to explore, research, and create in these domains.

Unless we ask the larger question, we will be limited by focusing our technology goals on helping us meet yesterday’s education goals. Our students (and teachers!) need us to think bigger.