Academy learning: inquiry-based teaching

Jay Steele is the associate superintendent of high schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools. He has played an instrumental role in the district-wide implementation of the Academies of Nashville program. In this post, he shares his insight and knowledge about the pedagogical research that supports inquiry-based learning, which is a cornerstone of the Academies of Nashville. Should education be focused on how students learn ideas and information, or consist of an inventory of the facts they know?  Should more emphasis be placed on the construction of knowledge through active involvement? In countless American classrooms, traditional instruction is a teacher-focused approach. Teachers give information and students receive it. This style of teaching prepares students for assessments and tests, but it does not adequately prepare students to be life-long learners. Assessments are focused on students knowing the “right” answer. A better approach focuses on students having the tools and mental strategies to discover the answer. Traditional learning encourages learning and recalling facts. Inquiry-based learning, on the other hand, encourages the active construction of knowledge through critical thinking and experimentation.

The academy structure allows teams of teachers to focus on project- and inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning revolves around using and learning content as a means to develop information-processing and problem-solving skills. This approach is more student-centered, placing the teacher in a facilitator role.  Inquiry-based learning involves the students in the construction of knowledge through hands-on practice, real-world experiences, and interactive learning. This teaching philosophy argues that students who are interested and engaged in the learning process will construct in-depth knowledge of the subject matter.  Learning becomes almost effortless when the curriculum captures the imagination of the students and reflects their interests. Inquiry classrooms are open systems where students are encouraged to search and make use of resources beyond the classroom and school. By opening student learning to new opportunities through community partners, all of Nashville becomes an interactive classroom that prepares and equips our students with academic and professional skills for success.

The role of the teacher in an inquiry-based classroom is considerably different from that of a teacher in a traditional classroom. Teachers using this method of instruction transform from givers of knowledge into facilitators of learning. Inquiry-driven teachers help students generate their own questions and lines of investigation in a discovery setting. Students in this environment are equipped with the skills required to develop critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities that prepare them for life-long learning. These skills are transferrable to all aspects of their lives, including college and career.

The academy structure allows for the transforming of teaching and learning to an inquiry-based method of instruction. Embracing this pedagogy is one key to closing the achievement gap. Research has proven that students from all sub-groups can be successful and thrive in this interactive environment. Today’s students must be equipped with critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, effective communication skills, and the ability to work in teams. Inquiry-based teaching provides these critical opportunities for students to develop these skills and thrive in a 21st-century learning environment.

For more on inquiry-based learning, visit Concept to Classroom's Web-based workshop.