Inquiry Based Learning – Are we just slapping a rubric on life?

iStock_000026852527XSmallThis weeks topic for my #tiegrad class was inquiry based learning and how technology can facilitate it. I have to admit, I have not been caught up in this new fangled method of teaching yet. Perhaps it is just because I am just too long in the tooth or that back in the day, inquiry learning was known as being a kid.

As a result, I was not sure what I was going to write this week but as luck would have it, a colleague and I ended up having a bit of a chat on the subject and lo and behold! My blog post was born. He is much like me, a miserable curmudgeon who looks at education from more of an Eeyoresque point of view and quite frankly, neither he or I quite get this whole inquiry learning movement. 

We talked about the good old days when “inquiry learning” was a simple endeavour. Give something a go, fail, then try something else. There was always the alternate scenario as well. Give something a go, have a brush with failure’s evil twin success and get a pat on the back from your adoring fan. Either way, it was rarely planned. It just happened, no adults needed.

My concern here is why are we trying to apply rubrics and quantify that which was once called life? As well-intentioned as the inquiry learning model may be, why do we have to formalize learning that was once just part of growing up?

When I was a kid I learned all sorts of good things without an adult looking over my shoulder

Meteorology:  When your hair stands on end while standing in the middle of a baseball field as thunderheads are rolling in from the South, lightning is about to strike.

Physics & Firearm Safety: Don’t shoot a pellet gun at a power line insulator in -40 degree celsius weather.

Environmental Sciences: Don’t  play with matches, in the middle of a grass field during dry season.

Mechanics and family dynamics: If you crash your new moped into the side of a car, don’t try to hide it from your dad and fix it yourself.

Physics & Gravity: Jumping off your roof with hefty bag parachutes does not work.

Anatomy & Emergency Medicine: You break multiple bones when jumping off your roof with hefty bag parachutes.

I shudder to think of what we might have come up with if we had the internet at our disposal but even without the internet, the things we accomplished were monumental. All we had at our disposal was our imaginations our bikes, some sporting equipment and a couple of dogs. I guess what I am trying to get at here is that we didn’t need someone to set up learning opportunities, instead we discovered all on our own. It was just part of our daily lives but now, it seems that life has to be a curricular objective.

After our maudlin bit of meandering down memory lane, I did a Google search for: “what is inquiry based learning” and I found a site where I found this one line.

Inquiry based learning is mainly involving the learner and leading him to understand.  Teachnology, Inc.

I really don’t mean to be a buzz kill here but after reading that, I have two burning questions.

  • Is it true inquiry if students are being led to understanding?
  • Are we now trying to create curriculum to replace life experience?

Perhaps this is just the brave new world but I am sad for our children if we have come to a point in our society where everything in their lives has to come from a lesson plan.



Further Reading

Free Range Kids

Parenting Old School


  1. D.Mo

    Hello Mr. Rispy,

    Love the point you are making. Have to add some ramblings. I met with a keen & cool & young…I’m not any of those…teacher today in our District. He told his students to bring a mole of something to school Monday. They have never learned formally of moles. I’m sure he’s not the first to do this, but isn’t this what we….sorry, they, are talking about?

    It is a “hook” into learning. You have to hook the kids into a topic, which is what good teachers (most teachers) can somehow do. “Leading them to understand”. I think some teachers can make that “hook” or question very vague and are able to go with it because they are either experienced and knowledgeable and can anticipate what will happen, or they are willing to take the leap and learn with the students at the same time (oops, I mean “Collaboratively” – capital C).

    Nothing has changed, it’s just relabeling….and maybe asking those that haven’t cared so much in the past to care a bit more. I see the newbies in my Department and would be happy to have my own kids have them as teachers. Not so much because of Inquiry or Tech (which they are well versed in), but because they get it… definition of “it” anyways.

    As for assessment. My opinion: Did you give it a good try? Full completion marks…..but yes there will be a test eventually…(sorry, I’m still a old “curmudgeon” teacher – and liable).

    Ha! Loved the garbage bag gravity anatomy thing. Wish we lived closer, we could connect in person instead of this online personification.

    1. Post

      Hey D. Mo, I to would love the opportunity connect and chat but alas you probably live much to far away but I imagine you live in much the same way as me. Hell I bet you even live in a rundown ramshackle townhouse complex that looks remarkably similar to mine.

      I think in many ways you are correct, we are relabelling many things teachers already do or at least good teachers do, not ones like me. I think however, where the people who are heading up the inquiry movement want to go is to a place where kids have the digital freedom to do or try and do what I did when I was a kid. The question is, does it compare to living in analog.

  2. Doug Smith (@bcphysics)

    I guess there are different types of inquiry based learning. Here is a brief overview of a good inquiry lesson in physics. Instead of telling students about friction and giving them notes, we can start with a simple question: What factors affect friction?

    Students then brainstorm ideas such as mass, speed, gravity, temperature, surface area, surface material, etc. Most of these can be tested, so the students are divided into groups and asked to come up with an experiment to test out a hypothesis. The students do this, and results are brought back to everyone for discussion.

    That’s just a quick example. So the idea is that the students ask questions and then search for answers. We don’t have to even ask the question for them. Again, take the friction example. I can slide a block on a table and ask kids what they observe. They will say things like, “it’s slowing down,” “it’s decelerating,” and “there’s friction.” A-ha! What would you kids like to know about friction? And for sure the kids will say, “what causes it?”, “what affects it?” They are then ready to learn about their own question. They are not necessarily led to the answer. Finally, inquiry definitely does not replace life experience. I think those two things are often separate topics/ideas.

    1. Post

      Hey Doug, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Especially a comment with so much thought. I appreciate that.

      Don’t get me wrong, I see no issues with inquiry learning within the school system but is it really all that new? To me what you described is just good teaching and people have been doing that for generations.

      In the past 30 years two things have changed our education system more than anything else.

      1. Access to information and our ability to share it has been revolutionized
      2. We no longer raise children we micromanage them.

      If we look at grade school has changed in this time, We no longer encourage kids to experience the world on their own because well gosh… Kids can’t be left to their own devices and since we have access to all this information these days, we now try to bring the real world to them. The question is, is this the best thing for kids?

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