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How Inquiry-Based Learning Can Work in a Math Classroom

While many teachers recognize the value of inquiry-based learning, most find it a difficult approach to teaching mathematics. The traditional way of teaching math by figuring equations and plugging in numbers focuses only on computation. Teachers have taught math this way for years, and it has developed such a poor reputation that students may actively dislike the subject or find it intimidating. New ideas and perspectives on teaching math may help overcome this challenge.

What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?

In inquiry-based learning, teachers use questions, problems and scenarios to help students learn through individual thought and investigation. Instead of simply presenting facts, the teacher encourages students to talk about a problem and draw on their intuition to understand it. Inquiry-based learning also focuses on letting students ask their own questions — essentially providing their own inquiry. Student-led questions follow teacher-guided inquiry.

Instead of lecturing about learning goals, the teacher cultivates a learning environment and helps students explore it through questions and experiences.

5 Characteristics of Inquiry-Based Teaching

1. Process focus
When students solve problems themselves, they internalize conceptual processes. Inquiry-based teaching prioritizes process over product.

2. Investigation
The teacher may pose a problem derived from the class content or students’ questions. The students then investigate the issue to find an answer.

3. Group learning
Students may work in pairs or in small groups when exploring a problem. Students assist one another throughout the learning process, which enables them to share and build upon ideas as well as articulate how they arrived at a solution.

4. Discussion monitoring
As the students work together, the teacher can move from group to group, listening to their discussions. Teachers may ask questions to gauge students’ understanding and correct any misconceptions.

5. Real-life application
Students solve math problems that have a meaningful life application. For example, a teacher may present a multiplication problem as an interesting story: “Brittany has 2 bags of candy. Each bag has 4 candies inside. How many candies does Brittany have altogether?”

Teacher-Guided Inquiry

Teachers may wish to focus less on math computation and more on helping students determine which pieces of information are useful and how this information applies to the real world. Teachers can develop students’ understanding of the topic with guided inquiries.

A Few Tips for Teachers

  • Think about what you want your students to know or do before class.
  • Start with one or more overall guiding questions.
  • Inform students that there are multiple ways to solve a problem.
  • Model how students can develop their own questions.

Teaching Students How to Question

Teaching students to ask higher-level questions is an important aspect of inquiry-based learning, but what kinds of questions work? Three ways that a teacher can successfully model questions to students include the following:

  1. Ask big questions that have more than one answer.
  2. Think about how to model questioning across a range of grade levels.
  3. Phrase your questions in a way that fosters individual exploration.

The following example illustrates the use of an inquiry-based math strategy in the classroom:

An inquiry-based classroom discussion helps learners understand the concept of slope. The teacher draws a picture of two hills: one taller and one longer. The teacher asks, “Which hill is steeper?” The question may stimulate a lively discussion or a debate about the correct answer.

Inquiry-based learning involves guiding students by asking more in-depth questions — questions that encourage students to pose high-level questions themselves. This type of teacher-guided inquiry can motivate students to think critically and to appreciate learning.

Learn about the University of Texas at Arlington M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction — Math Education online program.


Edutopia: Inquiry-Based Learning: From Teacher-Guided to Student-Driven

Strategies for Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Inquiry Teaching: Models of Instruction

KQED: How Can We Teach Math to Encourage ‘Patient Problem Solving’?

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