Inquiry is a natural process. Infants learn about their world by watching, touching and tasting everything that they see. Through these experiences children begin to make connections, organize and understand their world. Inquiry learning in the classroom has many of these same characteristics. It allows students to construct meaning in order to achieve deeper learning.
An inquiry approach to classroom learning can give schools a child-centered feeling. By definition, inquiry is about finding out, without being told. Inquiry encourages children to formulate and investigate specific questions related to a topic of interest. In order for lasting learning to occur, children must make connections between what they know and what they are learning. This connection helps children retain information, apply information to new situations and reinforces the need for continuous learning. Inquiry inspires children to be curious.
Inquiry increases engagement. When children are seeking answers to real questions, they are more focused and engaged. They are not distracted because they are already participating in something that is meaningful to them. An inquiry focus allows teachers to center instruction around a real-world problem, to create a context for learning and engage children in the learning process.
So does that mean that teachers using an inquiry approach fail to teach the required curriculum? Certainly not! Inquiry-based instruction is taught along a continuum from teacher-directed to student-centered. At some points in the school day it is most appropriate for the teacher to dictate both the content and process of instruction. At other points in the day children may be free to pursue a topic of interest while meeting a set of instructional competencies set forth by the teacher. At other times children are learning about the topic in a manner that best suits their personal interest and learning style.
Inquiry is often thought of in relation to the science curriculum. The inquiry model is heavily predicated on the scientific method. Scientists ask a question, make a hypothesis, develop a procedure, conduct an investigation and evaluate results. During science instruction children are taught to think like scientists and follow that procedure. Inquiry about a topic of personal interest can be a vehicle for developing skills in reading, writing and thinking. Math skills can be practiced in the collection and analysis of data as part of an inquiry study.
Systems thinking is an ideal complement to an inquiry approach. The tools and habits of a systems thinker help the learner to make connections, to ask good questions and construct deeper understandings. Systems thinking allows the inquiring mind to organize its thinking by making it visible. The systems thinker focuses on patterns and trends, looks at circular causality, seeks out multiple perspectives and recognizes interdependencies. All of these habits of thinking are well supported by an instructional environment of inquiry. Applying systems thinking tools (e.g. BOTGs, causal loop diagrams, stock-flow diagrams) helps the learner reflect on her thinking and thus helps generate additional questions for further inquiry.
Inherent in an inquiry approach to education is a deeply held belief that children are capable human beings who can create questions of interest and who must accept responsibility for their own learning. The inquiry approach fosters deep understanding, places the responsibility for learning on the learner and creates a dynamic climate where learning is exciting. Even more important, an inquiry approach when paired with systems thinking gives students the tools they need to be life-long learners with an inquiring mind.