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Inquiry-Based Instruction vs Traditional Teaching Approaches

By Kate Silber
Highland Park High School
Highland Park, IL

In order to better understand why inquiry works to engage and stimulate student learning, it is important to note how an inquiry approach to teaching differs from a traditional approach. For example, in a traditional model students are passive learners while the teacher provides all information. In an inquiry-based model students actively participate in learning and therefore are more engaged in the process and content. Below is a chart comparing the 2 teaching models.

  Inquiry-Based Traditional
Principle Learning Theory Constructivism  Behaviorism  
Student Participation Active  Passive 
Student Involvement in Outcomes Increased responsibility  Decreased responsibility  
Student Role Problem solver  Direction follower  
Curriculum Goals Process oriented  Product oriented 
Teacher’s Role Guide/facilitator  Director/transmitter  

Table 1. Comparison of Inquiry-Based Instructional Approaches and Traditional Instructional Approaches

(from http://www.brynmawr.edu/biology/franklin/InquiryBasedScience.html)

One approach to teaching inquiry is the 5E learning cycle. It starts with the teacher introducing an engaging experience. This can be anything from a YouTube video to a class discussion. Students then explore the content through a lab experience. This exposes students to the content without specifically telling students the information. Next, the teacher explains the content through direct instruction. This can take the form of a PowerPoint® lecture or class discussion. Finally, the teacher can introduce an extension exercise followed by an evaluation. The evaluation may be a formative or summative assessment.

The 5E Learning Cycle

The 5E Learning Cycle

When students embark on an inquiry experience, they can often feel overwhelmed because they do not understand where they are going. It is a shift for students to no longer be told the procedure and how to get the data. The 5E learning cycle gives students a framework in which to explore. The steps—engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate—are clear. They can also be used for any inquiry lab experience. For example, in the guided-inquiry activity "Why Don’t Whales Have Legs," students are given a question and asked to show why it is true. Students must brainstorm possible procedures to test the hypothesis and then carry out a quantitative experiment. After collecting data, students are asked to evaluate their experiment and share their results in a written lab report.

Instruction based on guided inquiry creates a rich learning environment by engaging students in the scientific process and helping them internalize scientific concepts by doing science.


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  • http://www.brynmawr.edu/biology/franklin/InquiryBasedScience.html