Recently one of my students and I embarked on a spontaneous detective case in the school library. We rolled up our sleeves, sorted through shelf after shelf of books and scoured pages of information. No, we were not on a scavenger hunt, nor were we taking a break from our reading sessions.

Our mission was to discover the answer to a question. At the beginning of our session he had told me about a snake he had seen in his neighborhood. He had ran away at the sight of it. “Snakes bite because they are mean, right?”

“Well, why do animals bite other animals?” I asked, answering his question with a question. He only shrugged in response, so I suggested we find out together.

Elements of Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry based learning is a method of teaching in which students are encouraged to ask questions, seek information, analyze discoveries and develop conclusions. Teachers guide students through the thinking process and provide support as the students develop meaningful questions that will lead to thoughtful analysis or more intriguing questions.

It can vary with different topics, but the basic process follows the scientific method to researching topics:

Question – Develop the “problem question” to be answered
Investigate – Gather information
Analyze – Evaluate information and ask new questions based on findings
Conclude – Report on learnings

This method of learning fits most naturally to science topics, which will appeal well to boys and their interests, but it can be used in all school subjects. It is often used in higher grades where independent and group projects are more involved and advanced than in the primary grades. A modified  version – asking questions and helping students ask and answer even more of them – can also be useful to develop skills and spark curiosity in younger students as well.

Student Involvement

My snake-fearing student is in the third grade, so it is likely he has not yet done a scientific research and discovery project. He directed me to the section of the library where we might find answers to his questions about snakes. As with our reading sessions, he was driving the direction of our research.

When boys are in the driver’s seat, they are in control of their own learning. Their ownership builds confidence and self-esteem, while the flexibility of inquiry-learning provides space for boys to explore their curiosity and discover new interests. For boys who may not learn well in an abstract, recall-based learning environment, inquiry-learning can engage them with a concrete learning experience where information is discovered first-hand.

Skill Development

We learned that snakes bite for many reasons, the main ones being – to kill prey or out of fear. My student and I discussed whether or not snakes preyed on humans and from there concluded that since they do not eat humans, they must fear them. In addition to using critical thought to discover the answer to his question, he asked more – Why are snakes scared of us if we are scared of them? Do snakes have teeth? Are all snakes poisonous?

While the information learned by students with this method is open-ended, which initially can be challenging for boys who favor task-oriented learning, the clear structure and hands-on nature of inquiry projects can appeal to even reluctant boy readers. The structured process of inquiry helps them develop critical thinking and analysis skills, which are applicable to any of boys’ scholarly interests.

I know my student’s curiosity did not end with snakes. The next time his questions may be about animal extinction, ancient empires, or story development and again questions will be asked and information will be followed like breadcrumbs on a trail to discovery.

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