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Inquiry-Based Learning in the Preschool Classroom

Inquiry-based learning encourages children to use critical thinking and creativity to solve problems. Learn more about this teaching approach and how to apply it to an early education setting.

Inquiry-Based Learning in the Preschool Classroom

Inquiry-Based Learning in the Preschool Classroom

The method you use to teach children can be paramount to how they learn and grow throughout their academic careers. Because of this, many preschool educators are seeking out new pedagogies. One more recent educational method, inquiry-based learning, is becoming popular in schools across the world because of its commitment to driving children’s curiosity forward to unlock problem-solving skills that will help them later in life. 

In this article, we will explore inquiry-based learning in more detail and examples of how this learning methodology can apply to preschool teachers and their classrooms.

What is inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning is a teaching practice that encourages children to use critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills to find the solution to a problem. From the child’s perspective, this type of learning helps them go beyond their natural curiosity and think outside the box to reach the solution to their problem, making learning more fun. For teachers, inquiry-based learning is a great way to encourage children to investigate beyond what’s right in front of them, creating more engaged learners.

Developed in the 1960s, this methodology encourages open dialogue between teachers and children, while also promoting structured autonomy within the classroom.

There are four steps to inquiry-based instruction:

  • Children create (or are presented with) a question.
  • They research the topic in class, asking for questions and guidance along the way.
  • Once they’ve created an investigation method and found a solution, the children present their findings.
  • The children are encouraged to reflect upon their process.

This process, and the types of activities that go along with it, serve to break up the typical lecture structure found in a lot of classrooms.

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The four types of inquiry-based learning

There are four different types of inquiry-based learning, all of which have different levels of structure associated with them. 

  • Structured inquiry: With this type of learning, you supply children with an open-ended question and an investigation method, which they then need to use to create an evidence-based conclusion. As the name suggests, this is the most structured of this methodology. 
  • Confirmation inquiry: This type of learning gives children the question, its answer, and the method used to reach the answer. Children then need to retroactively build the investigation and learn how the specific method works.
  • Guided inquiry: Here, you give your children a question and, typically working in groups, they create investigation methods to reach a conclusion.
  • Open inquiry: With this least structured type of learning, children are encouraged to pose an original question and work towards an answer through their own investigation methods.

The pros (and cons) of inquiry-based learning

Because of its emphasis on critical thinking and creative problem solving, inquiry-based instruction brings a lot of benefits to the table for teachers, especially those operating in early childhood education. 

Reinforces the curriculum

After teaching a core concept that’s tied to their curriculum, teachers can then use inquiry-based learning principles to help children retain that information and understand it more fully. This is because children will be able to better grasp what the problem is, why it was developed, and why the solution resolves that particular problem. 

Makes learning more rewarding

Instead of just being talked at and then tested on, inquiry-based learning gives children more of a say over their education. Because it encourages curiosity, children will seek out answers on their own and, once they find them, they tend to be more fulfilled with their education.

Builds intuition and self-reliance

The core of this teaching methodology is to encourage and guide children to learn for themselves and rely on their natural curiosity to find a solution to a problem. These lessons will help build their confidence, trust in themselves, and give them the tools they need to break down complex problems into manageable solutions. These will not only be useful in the classroom, but will also carry over into other life situations down the road.

Like with most things, however, there are some drawbacks when it comes to this type of methodology. 

Poorer standardized test scores

Even though this type of teaching can help deepen children’s understanding of a curriculum, it’s not the best method to use when teaching for standardized tests. Standardized tests play a key role in many districts’ accreditations and funding, and inquiry-based learning doesn’t leave a lot of room for educators to teach every core topic that may be included in these mandated tests.

It may make children uncomfortable at times

Inquiry-based instruction thrives on child participation, but not every child will feel empowered enough to want to do that. Children who are more shy and those who live somewhere on the Autism spectrum may not thrive in this type of learning environment. Additionally, if some children were to participate and incorrectly answer a question, they may feel embarrassed and not want to speak up after the fact. So, teachers will have to be incredibly prepared to deal with all of these scenarios within their classroom. 

Teacher unpreparedness

For some educators, this method of teaching can be less structured than they’re used to, which can make it hard to both control their classroom and meaningfully engage with their children.

Is inquiry-based instruction right for preschool classrooms?

Given what this type of instruction is and the pros and cons associated with it, preschool teachers can experiment with inquiry-based learning in their classrooms. Early childhood education is important because it sets the foundation for how children will learn throughout their academic careers and how they will solve problems throughout their lives. Because this type of curriculum is focused on building a deeper connection with problem-solving and encouraging even more engagement with learning, inquiry-based instruction has a place in these classrooms.

Inquiry-based learning examples for preschool curriculums

Once you’ve decided to adopt this type of instruction into your classroom, it’s important to have a collection of learnings that will match your lesson plans, be developmentally appropriate, and, of course, be fun for the children. Below are a few inquiry-based learning examples you can use for your preschool classroom.

Watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly

There are a lot of biological and anatomical processes that butterflies experience throughout their lifecycle. This activity will allow children to investigate this lifecycle from the egg stage to the butterfly’s ultimate release.

You can begin by providing information about how caterpillars hatch, form a chrysalis, and then, eventually, turn into butterflies. Then, have them create ideal environments in individual boxes that will house the caterpillar and keep it safe until it’s ready to be released. For this, provide a variety of different containers, food types, and materials that the caterpillar will want to house themselves during their transformation.

Grow a plant from a seed

Growing a plant seems like an easy thing to do, but there is a lot that goes into creating the ideal environment for a new plant to grow. So, this activity will help children investigate the factors that are required to propagate germination and growth.

Start by explaining the basics of principles like photosynthesis, where different types of plants thrive, and what food and energy sources plants need to survive. Then, split your class into small groups and have them use this knowledge to create ideal growing conditions for a plant.

Discover colors and patterns found in nature 

Invite preschoolers to become young explorers and discover the beautiful colors and patterns found in nature through this interactive activity. Start by taking a nature walk with the children. Encourage them to use their senses to observe and collect different items from nature, such as leaves, flowers, rocks, or shells. Once back inside, lay out all the collected items and have a discussion with the children. Ask them questions such as: What colors do you see? Do these items have any patterns or designs on them? How does each item feel? Is it smooth, rough, bumpy? Where in nature did we find these items?

Next, take out a large piece of paper or cardboard and have the children arrange their nature items on it. Have them use markers or crayons to draw and color around the objects, creating a portrait of nature's palette. Encourage them to continue asking questions and exploring as they create their artwork.

Use inquiry-based learning in your classroom

Challenging your children to think critically and solve problems based on their own experiences will create a more well-rounded learning experience. Once you’ve incorporated this type of instruction into your classroom, both you and the children you teach will see the merit of this type of instruction. From more confident children to a better-engaged classroom, inquiry-based learning can change the way everyone sees education.

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