6 Ideas to get going with Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) and Problem Based Learning (PBL)

November 30, 2014 — 7 Comments

I am starting to feel more confident with teaching through inquiry based learning and problem based learning. One challenge can be getting started and deciding what to focus on for inquiry.  Though models of inquiry hint at starting points, I have 6 ideas in this post that came about through reading these sources.

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Barell, J., & Barell, J. (2007). Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Stacey, S. (2011). The unscripted classroom: Emergent curriculum in action. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Capacity Building Series (2011) Getting Started with Student Inquiry

1. Use a factoid to invite and provoke student questions

In Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach (2nd ed.) the authors suggest starting with provoking factoids and then asking students to observe, think and question.  Use the factoid to get kids asking related questions.

For example, what questions come to mind when you read this factoid?

Tornadoes are nearly invisible whirling winds until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms inside the funnel.

Questions come to mind about vocabulary, but also about the shape and colour of tornadoes. Including a picture also helps students access prior knowledge and start wondering.

2. Quality Responding

Instead of thinking about what good questions a teacher should ask, think about asking students questions in response to their ideas. Ask students to expand and elaborate.

Teachers could try pushing student thinking forward by asking:

  • What do you wonder about now?
  • Does this suggest any new approaches, ideas to you worth investigating?
  • What kinds of connections can you make?
  • Where do we go from here?

3. Slow down

Both Susan Stacey, author of The Unscripted Classroom: Emergent Curriculum in Action and this Ontario monograph titled “Getting Started with Student Inquiry” suggest teachers slow down.  Observation is essential. Slow down and watch what children are doing. Reflect and interpret what you see. Then try to provoke a next step.  Slowing down and taking time to reflect and interpret is the fulcrum on which we can balance student’s authentic questions and theories with teacher’s agenda and the curriculum. We do not need to pit student interest and freedom in a fist fight with the curriculum.  If we as teachers know our curriculum and take time to reflect and interpret what our students are interested in, there is a way to honour their interests and curiosities. This is a chance for teachers to get creative and innovative.

balancing T and S agendas with time

4. Be on the look out for student’s questions, theories and persistent interests

Student driven inquiry does not need to start with a question. It can start when a teacher notices a student has a theory about something. This can be challenging since students are often bringing a lot of ideas, questions, and interests forward. Which ones do we focus on as educators?  When we notice that a student or a group of students are consistently interested in a topic, we should head in that direction. It’s best to focus on ideas that have some persistence according to Stacey (2011). Or, if you aren’t sure the idea merits moving forward with inquiry, test it out by provoking students with materials and resources and see if they take the bait.  The teacher can not and should not respond to every question and whim in the classroom. Or else, he or she will be like the golden retriever in this video, chasing after every little flash of student interest.

5. Use previous activities to feed forward

Don’t let the learning come to a full stop. Let investigations and units propel new topics. I need to work on this in a major way. So far this year we have taken a PBL or IBL approach to learning about magnets, friction and extreme weather. When the final assignment was in and graded that was it!  I didn’t go back and reflect. I didn’t go back and ask the students to look at each other’s work and see if there were some new questions to move us forward. I was the driver.  I was leading teacher directed PBL and IBL.  Now I know.

6. Help students make sense of non fiction text

Reading about an interesting topic is a great way to open up new questions. Help students use a coding system to monitor their thinking as they read. With paper books sticky notes work great. If iPads are available, Good Reader is my preferred markup app. This strategy comes from Harvey and Daniels (2008) Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action.

coding as we read



7 responses to 6 Ideas to get going with Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) and Problem Based Learning (PBL)

  1. #5 reminds me of a conversation I had with a fired – and high school math teacher. We questioned why marks are not changed after a strand is complete. In other words, a student may not quite grasp probability right now but then nails it in January. If we have all year or term to assess and evaluate, maybe we should.

    Great post to get me thinking this morning!

    • Grades and Marking, Egads! Isn’t this comment directly tied to why so many are loving Carol Dweck’s Mindset book? If students and teachers are thinking beyond the grade, then the grades are not markers of one’s capacity, but a little token of where they were in that moment. Fleeting bits of information and data that help us move along the learning journey.

  2. “We do not need to pit student interest and freedom in a fist fight with the curriculum.” Great imagery! A needed reminder for us to redefine what success looks like. We can respect our professional needs to include curriculum, and be creative as we include students’ choice and voice.

  3. I appreciate your thoughtful posts on this blog. This particular one raises a persistent question I’ve been grappling with. I used PBL for many years, with anecdotal success (bearing in mind Graham Nuthall’s findings about the limitations teacher perceptions, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bav4RkHsbys). Recently, though, I’ve been questioning PBL’s value in light of John Hattie’s research (the “Visible Learning” industrial complex) that tends to disfavour PBL as having relatively low impact on learning. Wondering your thoughts on the value of Hattie and his impressive meta-synthesis numbers as they relate to PBL?

    • Hattie’s research is expansive and broad. Some have found problems with the statistical sturdiness of his claims. No doubt, academics like to call each other out on funny statistics all the time. But, it is interesting that he has acknowledged that his ‘buckets’ for assessment were not as clean as he might have liked.

      Inquiry and PBL ranked low for Hattie. True. But, largely he bases his research on PISA and test scores. I suppose a larger question would be about the validity and reliability of large assessments for teasing out what we are looking for in our students learning experiences. Also, a huge issue, as mentioned in my posts, is that variability of PBL and inquiry.

      I may sound defensive, if this is the case, please forgive me. I don’t really want to defend inquiry and PBL. I want to chase it down the rabbit hole and see what I see. I want a richness and engagement and joy in my classroom. I want deep learning. I want thinking. I think this may be one way to achieve this goal. I am going forward, despite Hattie. I think there is something there for my students. I will report back here. Thank you for engaging in conversation with me.

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