Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL)

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Imagine two geography class scenarios:

classroom1.pngScenario 1: The teacher projects a PowerPoint entitled “Population Growth Problems in Canada” onto an electronic whiteboard at the front of a room and introduces students to the topic, making links to information covered in last day’s class. She lectures for 20 minutes on the topic and, after answering a couple of student questions, assigns a section from the textbook for students to read and use to answer a series of questions. She circulates through rows of desks to ensure students are working and to address problems that arise. At the end of class, the teacher reviews the answers to these questions in a class discussion, taking answers from students and elaborating upon them where necessary.

classroom2Scenario 2: The teacher poses a question to the class, “What do you think is the most important population issue Canada will face in the next 10 years?” She asks students to brainstorm population problems facing Canada, some of which may have been discussed previously, while others may be new. Students, who sit in small groups, ask their own questions about the topic to determine what new information they need to find in order to answer the question and then conduct research from various sources (e.g., textbook, internet articles, video, library resources, etc.). The teacher guides students through their investigations by making suggestions, asking questions, modeling analysis, and asking them to reflect on their process to improve their work. Students compile their findings, complete with rationale for their choices, and present to the class in a variety of ways (e.g., poster, video, slideshow, dramatic skit, etc.).

These scenarios show two very different social studies classrooms. The methods used in the first are familiar to many and reflect traditional standardized methods of instruction in which the teacher runs the show and “delivers” facts and knowledge to students, who have the task of remembering them. The second scenario makes use of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL), in which a problem is posed and students collaboratively investigate, propose solutions, and take ownership of the process. In the first case, the teacher is front and centre lecturing, while in the second, she relinquishes a degree of control to students who construct their own knowledge.

These pages, based on a paper written for my M. Ed., explores the tension that exists between these two educational styles and poses the question: to what extent can Inquiry-Based Learning be incorporated effectively into secondary social studies classrooms within a predominantly standardized system of education?

Standardized Education vs. IBL