Most people who study learning these days generally take an approach that could be described as constructivist. That is, knowledge isn’t just transferred from teacher to learner passively; the learner must actively fit new knowledge into their existing mental frameworks through a building process. Constructivism, which stems from the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, has a lot of nuance and isn’t without controversy – but as a practical matter for working teachers, I’ve never seen the point into getting down into those weeds.

Learners have to do something in order to learn something.

So learners have to do something in order to learn something; they have to engage with the new knowledge and put it into use before they can claim it as their own. And one constructive method educators have hit upon is this:

Inquiry-based learning.

In an inquiry lesson, the teacher begins not by teaching facts or techniques but with a question. (Even deeper, the educator might simply describe a problem or scenario and letting the students themselves come up with the questions.) As the lesson progresses, the teacher facilitates the process of students’ gathering evidence, exploring the question, and explaining their answers, but does not generally just give data or answers.

But… does that work in informal education?

Yes and no.

Yes! Informal settings – museums, forests, after-school programs – are great places to do inquiry! These sites are unusual and often unfamiliar to the students, so they’re sure to have a lot of questions.

No… Most informal educators lack time. We have fifteen minutes or an hour to get through everything on our list, and we’ve been stuffed with so many facts by our trainers that we just want to spit them all out!

Inquiry-based learning works very well in informal settings as long as you’re willing to release your fact list. If you can say to yourself, “It doesn’t matter that they hear all the facts, because through inquiry they will really learn the facts with which they engage.

But.. what about standards?

Grade-level standards can often seem at odds with inquiry-based learning. Consider this California Social Studies standard:

6.2.5 Discuss the main features of Egyptian art and architecture.

If I were a docent at a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, how might I address this standard?

  • Maybe I would lead my group to a display and point out important artistic symbols, like the ankh or the eye of Torus…
  • And since I’m doing that, maybe I need to create a checklist of important Egyptian symbols…
  • And since I’ve got this checklist, maybe I’ll give a little narration about each symbol on the list…
  • And, before you know it, my presentation is an hour long narration about symbols. It’s an hour of teacher voice and not one minute of student voice until the “Does anyone have any questions?” right before lunchtime.

That group will now be stratified into a small number of learners who picked up a lot of facts (the lucky few who can learn through lecture) and a large number who disengaged and just managed to hang on through the fact-waterfall.

A better way…?

So back to our Egyptian docent. Are there better approaches she might consider?

  • She could introduce the scenario: “Symbols were very important to the ancient Egyptians.”
  • She could assign small groups and then have them rove the gallery for five minutes looking for symbols.
  • Then, the groups could report back on a question such as “What symbol did you see the most often?”
  • Now, the group can look around for that symbol and try to decode where it’s found the most. Religious garments? Food vessels like platters and pitchers? Buildings?

The teacher would, of course, require a lot of skill to facilitate this type of inquiry. Worst of all, many of her questions won’t have a specific right answer! And the follow-up won’t be scripted: sometimes the best way to keep the lesson going might be a story about the culture. Or leading the group to a specific exhibit that reinforces their discoveries. Or an age-appropriate art activity.

But that type of inquiry-based learning, in the end, will result in constructed knowledge in an engaged audience. Inquiry is not the only approach to constructivism, of course, and it’s one of the hardest – but it’s an important one.

A person examining a small plant with a magnifying glass.


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