Inquiry-based Math Instruction

Inquiry-based math instruction is the opposite of performance-based math instruction. And the research shows that inquiry-based math instruction is more effective than performance-based.

Time Flies
by Neal | | CC BY

But performance is required if you’re teaching anywhere other than a homeschool. So what do you do?

You have to balance the requirement of performance with the need for discovery and inquiry-based learning. Which means you have to integrate discovery and inquiry-based elements into your math teaching.

You can do this formally or informally. You can say it out loud, or just do it. And which method you choose will depend on how much you are supported.

Set aside time for inquiry-based instruction.

Bring inquiry-based math instruction into your lessons by breaking up class time into “performance-for-tests learning time” and “discovery/inquiry-based learning time.”

You can have specific topics for the discovery learning time or even a “free math time” where there is no specific topic.

Make sure you keep the discovery topics independent from test based/performance-based topics. As much as you’re tempted, don’t connect the two. If the students connect them, acknowledge it briefly and keep moving.

Keeping them separate keeps the “must get the right answer” attitude out of the discovery time. This is very important.

For example, if you’re teaching multiplication this week in class, set aside the discovery time as patterns or geometry. This can be 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each class period or one day of the week devoted to it.

Create a safe discovery/inquiry zone.

Little girl under umberella
by philcampbell | | CC BY

If you want to include discovery in the regular curriculum, you have a little bit more of a challenge. Children learn early that performance is required in math classes. So they avoid being creative and asking questions. (See the research paper on that here.)

Which means you have to undo years of creativity-destruction to get them to participate in inquiry based activities. Depending on the students’ ages, you might have to start with introducing really goofy stuff to break them out of their comfort zone.

Let them wear fuzzy red hats and crazy glasses and tell tall math tales for the first few times. They’ll get warmed up to dig into some creative math inquiry. Anything’s easy when you’re wearing fuzzy red hats!

After a while they’ll be used to the safe environment and the inquiry-based math learning will start to flow from them.

Do both.

Ideally, you can have a “fun” time – where the math you have to do is set aside and you let the students dream about crazy math stuff. In addition, all your lessons involve the safe zone.

If you can make it work – do it. You’ll grow confident, adventurous, smart kids – the research supports it!

Will you try? Tell us in the comments.

* Inquiry based math instruction is really the wrong term. Instruction means giving of something – in this case knowledge. It really should be inquiry based math learning. Teachers and parents are inquiry-based facilitators.

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2 Responses to Inquiry-based Math Instruction

  1. Interesting article, but I respectfully disagree with the idea that inquiry-based learning cannot intermingle with, and ultimately benefit, testing content. When carefully planned, structured inquiry uses provocation to guide students to discovering and understanding larger math concepts. As the develop in the content they should be encouraged and supported in working with the concept as they would see it in a testing environment. The connects they draw should certainly not be brushed aside, but should be strongly encouraged and celebrated, as methods for solving testing problems. The purpose of inquiry based learning is that students draw connections between the lesson and other areas of their lives, making the learning relevant and transportable. Without the connections, the inquiry based learning is limited in its effectiveness, ultimately negatively impacting the number of strategies available to a student when faced with a testing situation. In order to be authentic and effective with inquiry, you must trust the inquiry process to yield meaningful learning that translates to higher test results.

    • I see your point chamlow, but life isn’t made of tests. It’s made of challenges. So if we focus on higher test results instead of genuine learning, we’re doing our children a disservice.

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