Inquiry-based learning is a very important approach we take at Create & Learn to help kids develop problem solving and critical thinking skills. Many parents are not familiar with the concept. So today, Kathleen Tarlow, an experienced science teacher and a Stanford graduate, stops by to shares her views.

A recent study suggests that most parents are dissatisfied with STEM education in their children’s schools. In fact, only a quarter of American parents polled thought K-12 STEM education was above average. This is disappointing, because science education and the exploration of technology is a natural fit for kids’ intuitive interests!

What is inquiry based learning?

In education, we try to use an inquiry-based learning approach as much as possible to engage kids’ curiosity. In this approach, kids follow a pattern of inquiry, experimentation, and insight and reflection. Kids are naturally curious, and they can be easily guided into this pattern.

Remember when they were really little, and repeatedly dropped things from their high chair onto the floor? They were repeatedly testing gravity! Remember when they looked at you, to see how many times you would pick that object off the floor for them? Those were some of the first (of many) psychological experiments they conducted on you.

Kids want to ask about the world around them, and often all they need is a bit of encouragement and guidance to follow up their natural questions.

Learning about inquiry-based approaches can help you guide your kids on explorations involving everyday science and technology, without specialized materials or expertise. When you are familiar with how the cycle of inquiry works, you can find high-quality STEM summer camps and after-school STEM classes, discuss them with teachers, and evaluate the many STEM kits on the market.

1. The inquiry phase of inquiry based learning

Inquiry is about questioning, which most kids are great at. Use your child’s interests, or a topic they studied at school, or a topic that interests you to get them started.

For example, say your daughter recently had a school assignment to research Uranus. You could get books from the library, and when she looks at different sources of information, she might begin asking questions. As that happens, try to encourage her.

For example: How do we know what Uranus looks like? What kind of technology was required to take the pictures we see in the books? Why are there different distances from the sun listed? What does a gaseous planet feel like?

Treat your child’s questions as doors that open an interesting quest for you both. Asking questions means they are thinking. So they're a good test of whether real learning is occurring. There are many “STEM” kits and activities out there that involve lots of doing, but not too much real inquiry.

2. The investigation phase of inquiry based instruction

The word “experiment” scares some people. When your daughter is doing her report on Uranus, you don't necessarily need to do any direct measurements. What may be more helpful as the next step is “investigation”. What clues can you find or devise to help answer your questions?

Perhaps you can find different numbers for Uranus’ distance from the sun - look in several books. Then turn to the internet to see what you can find. NASA maintains an amazing website with resources geared to adults and kids, and you can even watch Uranus’s distance from the sun changing in real time! Every step you take will surely uncover new and interesting information!

3. The insight phase of STEM inquiry based learning

This last step is where kids need the most guidance. When you watch as Uranus’ distance from the sun changed in real time, it might not be immediately apparent to your child why this should be so. So this can take some looking at diagrams of planets’ orbits, and talking about what an elliptical orbit means.

Not all insights are intuitive. But you can guide your child to reflect on how their thoughts are changing based on their investigation. Prompt them to ask what new questions this insight has generated for them.

Do all planets have orbits that are equally elliptical? Why are they elliptical? Does the average temperature of the planet increase when it is closer to the sun? Remember that not every question has to be answered. If your child has engaged in real inquiry-based learning, they should be able to tell you some way in which their thinking changed from before.

Put STEM inquiry-based learning into practice!

This is a very informal way to think about inquiry-based learning. So if you'd like to keep learning more about it, get more information here. Regardless, now you know how to begin evaluating STEM activities to ensure great learning.

Science and technology require open-ended, creative thinking, so the way your kids learn about these fields should be, too!

Written by Kathleen Tarlow, Science teacher, Stanford B.S. Biological Sciences, MA Education, Loves science and kids, Has three children