Unlocking the Power of Inquiry-Based Learning

Bill Siegel

Bill Siegel is an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy winning documentary filmmaker and vice president of School Programs for the Great Books Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit educational organization.

The origin of the word “educate,” the Latin word educo, means to bring out or pull from, and develop from within.

Inquiry-based learning does just that. It has been shown to improve performance in all subjects: reading and language arts, social studies, math and science.

But to truly establish a culture of inquiry-based learning in your school, it is vital to train your teachers to move beyond merely asking questions. Instead, your teachers should be mindful of the fact that every type of question they ask gives students a different kind of opportunity to demonstrate their learning.

Over the past 22 years, I’ve trained more than 10,000 teachers in 47 states in all types of schools—urban, suburban, rural, private, public, big and small—to use inquiry with literature in their classrooms. Having a rigorous, substantive discussion goes beyond asking students to simply connect to the text or imagine what might happen next.

It means asking questions that demand students use evidence from the text to support their thinking. It means challenging students to respond to the differing ideas of their classmates. And it means pushing students to further their own thinking.

Self-reliant thinkers

While training in inquiry begins with moving teachers from lecturing to questioning, it also involves helping teachers move from using agenda-driven questions—where they are steering students to preconceived answers—and toward curiosity-driven questions, where teachers are genuinely searching for meaning right alongside their students.

That’s why I’ve come to think of inquiry training as “unteaching” in the sense that I’m helping teachers release themselves from telling their students what to think, and instead create opportunities for students to become self-reliant thinkers. Even if a student struggles to read, every student can think.

When teachers give students a genuine opportunity to share ideas through discussion, engagement increases right alongside achievement.

I once modeled a discussion for an eighth-grade teacher on The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell. Prior to discussion, the teacher pointed out “Michael” and told me that I shouldn’t call on him “because Michael can’t read.”

Nonetheless, during discussion, Michael raised his hand to read a passage aloud. He was indeed a slow reader, but when he began interpreting the passage, he was incandescent. He had original ideas, pulling examples from what he had read. He had astute observations that no one else in the room had considered.

Michael clearly felt like a superhero for having been given a chance to speak his mind. And the teacher learned that because she had equated reading ability with thinking ability, she had counted Michael out altogether.

Seeing is believing

Many teachers might initially believe this kind of in-depth inquiry is too demanding for their students, so they deserve to see the process happen with their own eyes. The best professional development will include that opportunity as part of the service.

While training your teachers in asking challenging questions is a crucial step to implementing inquiry-based learning, it is only part of the process. It also involves training teachers to become active listeners, to be mindful of how to use follow-up questions, and to create a discussion with depth and focus—all this while ensuring every student has an opportunity to participate.

When teachers learn to lead inquiry-based discussions, the process clicks, the students thrive and the sense of achievement is palpable. Students love participating and expressing their thoughts, and when the bell rings, you can hear the discussion of great ideas continue on in the hallway.

With the guidance of their teachers, students can build the critical thinking, reading comprehension, empathic speaking, listening and problem-solving skills they need to carry beyond the classroom and into the rest of their lives.


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