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Inquiry and Play-Based Learning as an Instructional Tool

Educators are continually evaluating and adjusting their teaching approach to ensure they meet the educational needs of their students in the most effective ways possible. This has been a year where strong teachers were compelled into acceptance. Exploring instructional strategies is a way to use the research in a tangible way in a classroom. Investigation and application of additional strategies keep you learning and offer new approaches to content for students. To get you started, here are a few approaches to explore.  

Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning focuses on a student’s role in the learning process. Rather than an educator delivering all instruction, inquiry-based learning encourages students to explore materials, ask questions, and share ideas. Students use evidence-based reasoning and creative problem-solving to reach a solution, which they then defend or present. This takes practice and patience from both the teacher and the student. The idea is to move students from curiosity to critical thinking and understanding. Everything begins as a possibility. An inquiry-based learning approach lets students share their own ideas and questions about a topic. This helps foster curiosity about the material and teaches skills students can use to continue exploring topics they are interested in.

Inquiry-based learning uses small-group discussion and guided learning. Educators ask questions and support learning through the investigation process. Though complex in its implementation, some of the responsibilities move from teacher to student. Instruction happens through guided questions. Through questioning and trial, students learn what works and does not. They find the solution that supports their investigation. What is amazing is that when educators let loose of the restrictions of one answer, one path, students are offered the leeway to find their solution, and this may be something completely new. Students are still held accountable because they are required to produce evidence for the explanation, regardless of their chosen solution.

As a teacher, this may feel overwhelming. Embrace processes. Let go of some rigidity and embrace the freedom of students taking ownership of their knowledge formation. This shift can offer the teacher time to differentiate and support students in their individual needs. It allows for space to ask thought-provoking questions to challenge more advanced students’ understanding. Inquiry-based teaching methods provide flexibility to the teachers and students by facilitating student contribution of their strengths, so students of different developmental levels and strengths learn together.

There are different kinds of inquiry-based learning.

Confirmation Inquiry – With this process, the goal is to build investigation and critical-thinking skills while learning how the specific method works. The students are given the question, the solution, and the process of reaching that solution. The objective is the method, not the answer. What needs to be taught and encouraged in the learner is the ability to ask meaningful questions.

Structured Inquiry – With this process, similar to the Confirmation Inquiry, the student has the open question and the method, but not the solution. Students use the method to create an evidence-backed conclusion. What needs to be taught and encouraged in the learner is the ability to ask meaningful questions.

Guided Inquiry – Once again, the students are given the open question, however in guided inquiry students investigate methods to reach a solution. This is ideal for working groups. It is the educator’s role to support and guide, refocusing students on the question, but leaving the solution and method to them.

Open Inquiry –And here the training wheels are off. Students pose the question, and process and defend the solution. You give students time and support. Eventually, they must present their results and discuss and expand.

As they explore a topic, students build critical thinking and communication skills. Students are not just hearing or writing what they are learning, instead, students get the chance to explore a topic more deeply and learn from their own first-hand experiences.

Poetry Science

Poetry Science is a pedagogical method to engage students in science inquiry through imagination and play. It is designed to trigger children’s imagination, curiosity, and previous experiences with the scientific phenomena at hand. The shared story-reading and -telling helps children to bring forth or build their everyday concepts. It builds on imagination. Poetry Science uses imaginary situations in poems and related graphics that are fanciful to spark children’s curiosity. The flow of instruction begins with an orientation, moves to an investigation, and then a conclusion.

This merges the scientific, imaginative and play to form a space in which young children can play an active role in constructing knowledge. Consider how this might be exploited in a classroom of older students.

Play-based Learning

Play-based learning means that children are engaging in materials that are interesting to them. It is open-ended and child-led. It lays the foundation for a child to develop curiosity and explore They can make choices in their environment and use their own imagination to construct meaning with materials. With play-based learning, the teacher still uses standards to guide instruction by setting up an environment in which students have options for learning. Its core foundation is designed to be:

Self-chosen: Where a student chooses to play, how they will play, and for how long. By building the right classroom environment, there are well thought out choices, but the ultimate decision is the student.

Enjoyable: This is not work, this is play. This emotional aspect is essential. There may be some frustrations or disagreements during play but that is part of it.

Unstructured: A child has ample time to explore and discover during play.

Process-oriented: There is no end or assessment. There are options. The primary focus is on the process of play and exploration.

Make-believe: Play often involves imagination, ‘make believe’, or ‘playing pretend’. Some children can jump into this and construct amazing worlds of castles and alligator-filled moats; some students need a little support in tapping into their hidden imagination.

Play-based activities are not just for younger children. Seizing an older student’s imagination through play can help enhance motivation, participation, and generalization.

What does intentional and age-appropriate play-based learning look like for these students? Dramatic, constructive, and exploratory play can work well for upper-elementary, middle, and even high school students. Play-based learning encourages a student to develop holistically through social-emotional learning, fostering confidence and purpose, and applying cognitive skills.

In Vygotsky seminal text on play (1967), the essence of play is the creation of imaginary situations. Science is impossible without imagination. We hope that it can begin with young learners, but let’s not forget the older learner imagining a world where rockets are reusable and computers can fit in your pocket. Play is so essential to child development that it has been established by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

Gamification and Game Based Learning

The gamification approach to instruction uses lessons to scaffold instruction through game mechanics and an extrinsic reward system. In game-based learning, the content of the game is leveraged to accomplish learning outcomes. Using some games can enable students to think critically about issues from different points of view, consulting other sources, and understanding motives. This does take planning, if the lesson is not designed well, students can get caught up in the game and lose track of learning objectives. When designing a lesson that includes gamification or game-based learning, consider including Socratic seminars and discussions to keep students on track.

There are things that must be taught that are outside of the expectations of content norms. When students are exploring the inquiry methods and provided a place to play and create in these spaces, teaching shifts to support students as they develop thinking skills.

Just as there are different things that engage students or bring passion to teaching, these pedagogical approaches can excite the learner and electrify educators. There is a scholarly argument on whether an inquiry is a cognitive activity or social activity, whether play fosters the transition of imaginary to real-world motivations. However, the general understanding is that the process of transforming everyday concepts into scientific concepts can be aided by play and imagination. There is no more important role for an educator than to foster the wide-eyed world of possibilities.

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