Inquiry-based learning exercises require careful planning by the teacher, so students can use their time efficiently. As the onus for learning is placed on the students’ shoulders, students require a certain degree of familiarity with the concepts and procedures behind inquiry-based learning. In my practice, I found it best not to assume which skills students may or may not already know. For certain students, basic research abilities will need to be taught, so they may synthesize information on their own.
Research projects fit the inquiry-based learning model, and can be found in many teachers’ science classes. These projects require students to use a certain amount of critical thinking to determine which information is useful. For younger students, the teacher should guide them to appropriate resources, as many will be unable to differentiate the validity of one source of information from the next. I found it particularly useful to model the kinds of questions that would yield the best search results, and then review the students’ questions prior to them collecting their data. When studying first contact between Canada’s indigenous peoples and Europeans, my grade five students had trouble understanding why typing “why did they take the land?” into Google did not give them results pertaining to Canadian history. Teaching students how to be more specific with their questions allows them to be more efficient when searching for information.
It is not uncommon for classes to lose internet access, or not secure enough technology to make use of the internet for inquiry-based learning. To circumvent this, I would create little information packets for the units I taught. These would allow the students to find basic pieces of information that would clarify things, and give them something they could later refer to. This strategy also allowed me to properly vet the information the students would digest. My grade five students were unable to determine why certain websites were better sources of information than others. When doing their own research, they would often come across websites with suspect information and could not tell how they were unreliable. To prevent valuable chromebook time from being wasted on fake science websites, I would give them a list of trusted sites to use beforehand.
As far as I am able to tell, the skills on how to properly search for information online is not part of any curriculum in Ontario. While many of us take this skill for granted, and believe most students possess it inherently, thanks to computers and smart devices, that is not always the case. My students did not realize at first that they had to click on links, after typing into Google, to get the information they needed. They thought the results page would have the answers, and this led to frustration. Modeling basic research procedures beforehand would have prevented this.
Inquiry-based learning is certainly a powerful tool, and my students enjoyed using it in their science and social studies classes. It does come with a few caveats though, and the teacher needs to be certain basic skills are in place before proceeding. Preparing for different contingencies will make for smoother student learning.