IBL and learning.

I have been using an inquiry-based learning (IBL) approach for the past four years in various courses. Each inquiry has looked a little different as I learned how to design, roll-out, and support it. But there has been one constant in all of them. Many students are not engaged in the process, which in turn, does not lead “to increases in critical thinking, the ability to undertake independent inquiry and responsibility for [their] own learning, intellectual growth, and maturity” (page 8).

The question must be asked then, should I persist in using IBL?

This book study will provide me with the opportunity to think deeply about learning, IBL, and my practice.

Here it goes…

Inquiry-based learning is a pedagogy. As the authors state, “Inquiry-based learning is a process used to solve problems, create new knowledge, resolve doubts, and find the truth” (3).  Before I dive into thinking about this pedagogy, I want to think more about what learning is.

I don’t think that this is a crazy idea. I don’t think that because we are teachers, we automatically have a clear idea of what learning is. And I don’t think that we should be embarrassed about this. I do think that now is the time to wrestle with what researchers in various fields are discovering about learning so that we can evaluate any pedagogical moves through that lens. In other words, given my context, what do I believe learning is and how can I best support my students so that they do learn? Where does IBL fit into the learning process?

What is learning?

Learn (noun)– the characteristics or parts of what it is to learn

“Learning is an increase, brought about by experience, in the capacities of an organism to react in valued ways in response to stimuli” (Black & Wiliam, 2009 p. 10).

“Learning is a relatively permanent change in a behavioral potentiality that occurs as a result of reinforced practice” (Hilgard & Marquis’s Conditioning and Learning, 1961).

Learning is a multidimensional process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person or persons, and consequently how that person or persons will perceive the world and reciprocally respond to its affordances physically, psychologically, and socially.” (Alexander, Schallert & Reynolds, 2009).

“Learning, which in the Behaviorist era was defined as a change in behavior, should now have been defined as a positive change in long-term memory.” (Tobias and Duffy, page 131).

Learning is tripartite: it involves retention, transfer, and change. It must be durable (it should last), flexible (it should be applicable in new and different contexts) and liminal (it stands at the threshold of knowing and not knowing). (David Didau)

Learn (verb) — the process of acquiring new capabilities

“A process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential of improved performance and future learning.”

From How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose, et al.

“Learning is a broad term that includes any gaining of new knowledge or skill. We learn through experience, practice, study, and other means” (Watt and Colyer, page 3)

In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham says this about learning.

For material to be learned (that is, to end up in long-term memory), it must reside for some period in working memory-that is, a student must pay attention to it. Further, how the student thinks of the experience completely determines what will end up in long-term memory. (page 49)

And he says this about discovery learning.

In discovery learning, students learn by exploring objects, discussing problems with classmates, designing experiments, or any of a number of other techniques that use student inquiry rather than have the teacher tell students things. Indeed, the teacher ideally serves more as a resource than as the director of the class. Discovery learning has much to recommend it, especially when it comes to the level of student engagement. If students have a strong voice in deciding which problems they want to work on, they will likely be engaged in the problems they select, and will likely think deeply about the material, with attendant benefits. An important downside, however, is that what students will think about is less predictable. If students are left to explore ideas on their own, they may well explore mental paths that are not profitable. If memory is the residue of thought, then students will remember incorrect “discoveries” as much as they will remember the correct ones. (page 63)

Learning theories:

Image shows four perspectives on learning based on theoretical principles. Instructional methods associated with each, adjacent to respective quadrant. Orange quadrants represent a student-focused learning approach, blue instructor-focused. By Debbie Morrison @ Online Learning Insights


Watt and Coyler tell us that IBL is influenced by constructivism (page 4), and they also acknowledge that IBL is only one pedagogy amongst many that we decide to use based on our knowledge of how our students learn. This point is important, and it is why I have begun the book study by thinking about what learning means.

I believe that novice learners (regardless of age or grade) need more “traditional” learning processes; that is, instructor-focused practices. In behaviorism, for example,  “a teacher creates an environment and stimuli (such as lectures and presentations) that produce desired behavior, learning is thought to happen as a response to that stimuli. This response is further reinforced when the consequence is positive and pleasant. Successful learning is thought to occur when the learning process starts from the student’s initial knowledge and then increased gradually. In order for students to master the information, the teacher often provides practice, drill and review activities.” (Wongyauhsiung)

Or  “in cognitivism, learners acquire information, processing and organizing it into their cognitive structures (schema).  Information is processed through the sensory registers and goes into the short-term and then long-term memory. The teacher organizes the information in such a way that the learner can assimilate it. The concepts and skills must be shown in a logical sequence and go from simple to complex. The main points must be emphasized and the differences and similarities among concepts should be pointed out. The content must show relation and continuation from chapter to chapter.” (Wongyauhsiung)

More advanced learners need “progressive” learning processes that are, experiential, inquiry-based or student-focused learning. For example, in constructivism, or active learning, “if the materials are useful and beneficial to [students], they will be likely to master [the learning].  Students should actively understand the learning materials rather than passively absorb and memorize it. The students should be able to construct their own understanding and build on what they already know. They make connections between new information and old information.” (Wongyauhsiung)

Who are the learners in my classes? Are they novice or advanced learners? How prepared are they for IBL?

I am not just thinking about the content (new and prior knowledge) that students need to have in order to achieve positive learning outcomes as John Hattie speaks of below.

I am thinking about the “when” of IBL in terms of Watt and Colyer’s Reproducible #1 How to Model and Assess Inquiry Dispositions. I think that teachers might believe that the dispositions would be an outcome of the IBL process, rather than necessary at the outset.

So, some questions that I am currently thinking about are

  1. Do students arrive in grade 9 with the dispositions required for IBL? Some? Most? None?
  2. Does it make sense to teach (direct instruction) to the dispositions in grade 9 and 10 to prepare them for IBL as senior students?
  3. Does it make sense to focus on the inquiry process in stages (to teach to particular stages) over grades 9 and 10 so that students truly learn them and are able to use them independently in senior courses?


Willingham, D. (2017).  “On the Definition of Learning”.


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Filed under Professional Learning, Teaching

One response to “IBL and learning.

  1. Pingback: This Week in Ontario Edublogs – doug — off the record

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