Making the Shift to Inquiry Based Instruction


Currently I am re-examining my instructional practice, and trying to understand how I can effectively teach students to nurture a sense of wonder about the Natural world around us. With my current focus, on integrating FNMI strategies into the Science Curriculum, I have decided that Inquiry Based Learning is a strategy worthy of researching and implementing, to provide the most effective educational strategies for students.

However, Inquiry based Learning can be more difficult than it sounds. To give students a key role in directing their own personal learning experiences, often flies in the face of the more traditional teaching frameworks and personal schemata that we have been learned about teaching itself, and practiced for many years!

Some situations that I believe are wonderful opportunities to include Inquiry Based Learning include, but are not limited to:

  • The Learning Commons & conducting Research
  • Learning 21st Century Technologies
  • Science
  • Numeracy
  • Integrating First Nations, Metis & Inuit perspectives,
  • Special needs including working with students on the Autism Spectrum & ADD/ADHD
  • Virtually anything the Educator sees fit!

I also envision Inquiry based learning also as ‘Brain-Based Learning’, where new neural networks can be built within the brain from hands-on learning and experiential learning. It helps students to use our brains in different, creative, personal, and concrete ways! For instance, students could design their own scientific experiments based upon the ‘Big Ideas’, link it to their own cultural background, use the resources within the Learning Commons, and then test out their own experiments and sharing their findings. The lists can go on!

Barriers to Inquiry Based Learning: Perceived and Real

Often, in our instructional units and lesson planning, it is easy to think in a linear fashion, with each new concept or expectation building upon the other. Further, certain subjects, including Science, are often be deemed a subject to be handed off to a planning time teacher, thus increasing focus on Literacy and Numeracy. When this happens, teachers are often trying to ‘fit’ the science curriculum in to 1,2, or 3 Fifty minute blocks. With increasing pressures to fit in many expectations within limited time frames, it can feel that the very subjects that lend themselves well to Inquiry Based Learning are placed on the back burner in favour of strategies deemed necessary for literacy and numeracy. So, where can we begin as educators?

How to start making your classroom and Learning Commons ready for Inquiry-Based Learning

How do we take what we have, and start the process to making Inquiry Based Instruction happen with students? How can we meet curriculum expectations and still allow students to be directly involved in their learning and shaping their own personal understanding of the world around them?

You can start with baby-steps, or you can jump in with both feet and make it happen! Either way, it is a process that involved changing your schemas of how students should learn, and how teachers should teach.

It takes flexibility, thinking about the curriculum in a balanced way, and trusting your own professional judgement that you will be able to guide students effectively through the curriculum, without the pressure that you must cover each and every curriculum expectation. This is because you value the process of student learning more than ‘covering’ every single thing on your prescribed list.

A teacher in the Inquiry Based classroom will understand where students need to ‘go’ with their learning, so that they can ‘facilitate’ student learning, but not methodically planning out each lesson or experiment with a prescribed set of rules that must be followed. This will enable student learning to become more personalized and increase retention. It will also promote the building of important learning skills and strategies that will help students out when they are learning outside of the classroom.

I also believe it involves understanding the curriculum expectations yourself inside out and backwards, and understanding where students need to ‘go’ so that teachers can ‘facilitate’ student learning. However, on that note, teachers do not need to be methodically planning out each lesson or experiment to a prescribed set of rules. The process of student learning is more important than covering each and every curriculum expectation!

Strategies for implementing Inquiry Based Learning within your Classroom 

  • So far, I have found the use of Circles and ‘Talking Circles‘ to be very beneficial in terms of sharing knowledge and information on a regular basis.
  • Provide Hands-On experiences!
  • Allow students to ask questions!
  • Students can also work in ‘Groups’, and face each other.
  • Ensure that you help students connect the information and Curriculum directly to the students personal lives and cultural backgrounds.
  • Engage in Culturally Relevant Teaching Practices
  • Take the learning outside when possible!
  • Read Relevant Picture Books to the class!
  • Differentiate your Instruction!
  • Encourage Brainstorming opportunities with the students!
  • Reflect on Learning and ideas any opportunity you have!
  • Listen carefully to the students questions to inform the next potential learning experience!
  • Focus on the Big Ideas instead of specific curriculum expectations.
  • Enable students to use all of the ‘Senses’ to experience the world around us

Personal Reflections

When creating an Inquiry-Based Learning Experience, it is beneficial to really understand and know the curriculum you are teaching. Having this knowledge will help guide you toward the types of questions and learning experiences that you want to see from your students, so that you can work to be a leader and facilitator for the students to ensure they are learning the ‘Big Ideas’ and overarching concepts. You really need to trust in yourself as well, and be flexible! Finally, throw away any assumptions that you will cover the content in prescribed amounts of time. Most of the learning experiences that you will end up facilitating with your students will either take much longer, or shorter than you may have originally expected!

For me, this is a work in progress! I would love to hear from others about your personal experiences and learning curve with Inquiry Based Learning!

Deborah McCallum

© Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




4 responses to “Making the Shift to Inquiry Based Instruction”

  1. Neil Finney Avatar
    Neil Finney

    Great ideas, Deb! I especially like the recognition of perceived vs. real barriers. I’d love to hear more about your inquiry-based reformation as you go. You might find some ideas or resources at A self-directed learning portal I have started to build.


    1. BigIdeasinEducation Avatar

      Thanks Neil! Inquiry based education is something that I feel passionate about, and believe will help students feel passionate about learning and school. I look forward to checking out your new site! Thanks very much:)


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