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What is Inquiry-Based Learning?
And how is it different from task-based learning?
When was the last time you tried a new way to plan a lesson?
Most teachers use the same framework for every lesson. That's fine, but it can become tiresome for you and your students.
But have you tried an Inquiry-Based Learning lesson?
What is Inquiry-Based Learning?
Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is a teaching method that engages students in active learning by exploring topics, asking questions, and discovering answers through critical thinking.
It comes from constructivist learning theory - which suggests learning happens when students actively build their knowledge by interacting with the world. This assumes the best way to learn is by asking questions, thinking critically, and solving problems in a student-centred way.
There are four key principles behind IBL:
The Four Pillars of Inquiry-Based Learning
Constructivist learning: This theory encourages learners to build knowledge through exploration and discovery. IBL assumes that this is correct.
Student-centred: IBL puts the learner in control, giving them autonomy and allowing them to take charge of their learning journey (within limits).
Collaborative: IBL promotes teamwork and interaction around solving problems.
Critical thinking: IBL encourages higher-order thinking skills essential for success in the 21st century.
So what? Why are these so different from lesson planning, and why should you take the time to test IBL in your lessons?
Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning
Inquiry-based learning comes with some significant benefits baked in. Most of these will directly benefit your students, but they'll also help you save time.
It promotes active learning in context.
Imagine your students not only memorizing vocabulary but also applying it in meaningful contexts. IBL encourages active learning by engaging students in authentic, real-world tasks that require authentic language use for real-world purposes.
It builds confidence.
By encouraging learner autonomy, IBL allows students to take charge of their learning process, which boosts motivation, confidence, and long-term language retention.
It encourages cultural understanding.
Language is not just about words; it's a window into the culture. IBL promotes cultural understanding by integrating cultural elements into learning tasks and encouraging students to explore them.
It makes differentiation easy.
IBL enables teachers to differentiate more easily than other types of lessons. As the students can work more autonomously, you can group similar levels or interests together.
Integrates language skills.
A huge advantage of IBL is that it allows for the integration of listening, speaking, reading and writing, which helps your students develop well-rounded proficiency in their language skills. Many teachers drill skills in isolation, i.e. grammar exercises, vocabulary tests, and pronunciation drills. This is a shame, as to become a fluent speaker, students must be able to use all the skills simultaneously.
OK, sounds great, but how do you use it? Where can you start?
How to Use Inquiry-Based Learning
Start with a question (or three).
Questions are the heart of inquiry-based learning.
If you can create an open-ended, thought-provoking question that will get your learners talking, you've planned half the class.
Let your students be your guide. Make a note of questions you hear them ask in other classes - it can be about life, language, or anything they're interested in. Use their curiosity as a hook.
Create a supportive learning environment.
If your students don't feel comfortable with you or each other, don't try IBL.
If they are worried about being judged or not on good terms with their classmates, they won't be able to relax and pay attention. Once they can, they'll feel comfortable trying new things, experimenting with language and ideas, and feel happy to take risks. Then you'll be able to encourage curiosity and exploration.
Use collaborative activities.
When students work together, they either compete or collaborate. Hopefully, you've seen the fantastic effects that collaboration can have on a group of students in the classroom about how enthusiastic they become about how willing they are to complete a task. IBL allows them to do that by letting them follow their curiosity and interests to answer questions that they find meaningful. Then, if you set structures in place to allow them to give feedback, that provides a virtuous circle that will help them hone their language skills and learn from each other.
However, with all of these benefits, there are some disadvantages to IBL as well.
Inquiry-Based Learning Challenges
Not everything about IBL is perfect. As with all methodologies, there are disadvantages as well as advantages. Here are a few of them and how to get around them.
Balance freedom and structure.
Imagine if you ask your class a question and expect them to start working collaboratively for the whole lesson. It simply won't happen.
There is a danger, with inquiry-based lessons, of the structure being too open and free. Students still need to have guide rails and limits, an ideal model of something to work towards. Showing students an excellent example of what you expect at the beginning of a lesson allows you to set expectations.
Grouping, timing and pacing.
Prioritize learning objectives and encourage self-paced learning to ensure students have enough time to delve into the topics that interest them the most.
As part of your differentiation strategy, group your students according to level. This will allow all students at the same level to work at roughly the same speed, avoiding common pacing issues.
As a teacher, your role is that of a facilitator, so you will occasionally need to step in and give students prompt help, perhaps, but also to ensure they stay on track with timing.
It can be tricky to assess IBL lessons. Compared to other lesson frameworks, there's less work produced individually to be taken in and marked.
So the best way to assess IBL lessons is to create a rubric or self-assessment tool. This can be as simple as a tick sheet to mark off when you hear students use a particular language point.
Or, you can create a student self-reflection sheet, which you can ask students to complete at the end of the lesson, that helps students reflect on their learning.
Inquiry-Based Learning vs Task-Based Language Teaching
I've written before about task-based learning, and at first glance, it looks pretty similar to inquiry-based learning. They're both collaborative, and they both involve answering questions or completing a task. So what are the differences between the two?
Focus and purpose.
IBL: Inquiry-Based Learning focuses on cultivating curiosity and critical thinking in students by having them explore open-ended questions and engage in problem-solving activities. The primary goal is understanding a subject or concept while enhancing language skills.
TBLT: Task-Based Language Teaching, conversely, centres on completing specific, goal-oriented tasks that require students to use the target language for communication. The main objective is to develop language proficiency by engaging learners in activities resembling real-life situations.
Role of the teacher.
IBL: In IBL, the teacher takes on a more facilitative role, guiding students through the inquiry process and encouraging them to explore and construct their own understanding. The teacher's primary responsibility is to provide support, resources, and scaffolding for students navigating the inquiry process.
TBLT: In TBLT, the teacher acts as a task designer, language resource, and communicator. They design tasks that promote language use in authentic contexts and provide necessary linguistic input. They also communicate with students while monitoring their language use and offering feedback.
Structure and process.
IBL: IBL is generally more open-ended and fluid than TBLT. It allows students to take charge of their learning journey by choosing topics or questions that interest them, deciding how to investigate and explore, and presenting their findings. The following stages characterize the IBL process: questioning, investigating, analyzing, reflecting, and communicating.
TBLT: TBLT is more structured and follows a well-defined process that typically includes the following stages: pre-task, task cycle, and language focus. The teacher introduces the task in the pre-task stage and provides the necessary input. During the task cycle, students perform the task, plan a report, and present their findings. Finally, in the language focus stage, the teacher and students reflect on the language used during the task and explore areas for improvement.
IBL: Assessment in IBL is typically more formative and ongoing, focusing on students' progress and growth in understanding a topic or concept, as well as their development of language skills. Self-assessment and reflection are often integral components of the IBL assessment process.
TBLT: Assessment in TBLT mainly revolves around task performance and the effective use of language during the completion of tasks. Teachers may use formative and summative assessments to evaluate students' language proficiency and development.
While both IBL and TBLT have their merits, choosing the right approach for your language classroom depends on your teaching goals, context, and learners' needs. You may also consider combining elements of both methods to create a more comprehensive and engaging language learning experience.
Inquiry-based learning can revolutionize your language teaching, creating a more dynamic, engaging, and effective learning environment. By embracing IBL, you'll empower your students to take charge of their learning journey and foster the development of well-rounded language skills.
So, why wait?
Start implementing IBL in your classroom today and join a community of language educators passionate about making a difference in your students' lives.
If you liked this newsletter, you’ll love my books:
📝 Lesson Planning for Language Teachers - Plan better, faster, and stress-free (4.5⭐, 148 ratings).
👩🎓 Essential Classroom Management - Develop calm students and a classroom full of learning (4.5⭐, 29 ratings).
💭 Reflective Teaching Practice Journal - Improve your teaching in five minutes daily (4.5⭐, 13 ratings).