Math Mondays: What inquiry-based learning is (and isn't)

Welcome back to Math Mondays!  I hope you had (are having) a great summer.  I am still on break, but of course, no teacher stops thinking about their classroom in the summer.  

Although I already used inquiry in my math class, I spent quite a bit of time this summer reading about and talking with teachers about inquiry-based learning.  What I found was lots of people effectively using inquiry to encourage deeper understanding of math concepts while others used the label, but really weren't teaching in the inquiry style.  So, rather than get too far into the how of inquiry learning, let's first let's clarify what inquiry is and isn't:

  • Not knowing the expected answer or result
  • An unknown process to solve

  • Students discovering joys, challenged and problems within a topic
  • Students deciding, investigating and researching information as they need it
  • Disruptive to a standardized system
  • The teacher as not the sole keeper of information and knowledge


  • Knowing the predicted result of answer

  • Specific steps laid out for students
  • Teachers relating why something is cool or interesting
  • Getting prescribed background information in order for the learning to begin.
  • Teacher directed

So, what does this mean for your classroom? 

  • It means shifting your mindset from being the expert to supporting students becoming the experts.  
  • Presenting problems as puzzles for students to solve.  What tools will they need to solve them?
  • Not giving all the information at the beginning.  
  • Supporting students when they fail and supporting them to try again.  Failure is part of the inquiry process.  
  • Not talking all the time - students figure concepts out by talking to each other, listening, exploring, and investigating.
  • Working less and cheering more!
A final note about inquiry...I am a big believer in inquiry-based learning, but I recognize the challenge of this from a practical point of view.  There is a certain amount of material that students "must get through" in order to make it to testing periods.  The current educational system isn't set up to let students explore and prove at the pace that best suits them.  So, inquiry-based learning requires balance with other methods.  And that's okay. Sometimes, we have to be practical in working with in the constraints of the needs of our students and the demands us.  

Math Mondays is a bi-weekly blog post (2nd and 4th Monday of each month) sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching math.  If you have questions or think there is something I should include, you can leave me a message in the comments section below or at the store in the question and answer section.