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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 distasteful reputation that students may actively dislike the subject or find it intimidating.

New ideas and perspectives on teaching math may help overcome this challenge, and the online Master of Arts (M.A.) in Urban Education – Mathematics program from Norfolk State University (NSU) can prepare graduates to comprehend and implement approaches to math instruction that serve their students and reframe misconceptions about math.

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 discuss an issue 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

Cognitive psychology, constructivist learning theory and best practices for STEM instruction are the foundations of inquiry-based learning. This type of learning provides connections among activities and can result in greater understanding for students. The five characteristics of inquiry-based teaching are as follows:

  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 small groups when exploring a problem. Students assist one another throughout the learning process, enabling them to share and build upon ideas and articulate how they arrived at a solution. Learning environments that facilitate student agency and invite discourse also support diverse student populations with varying backgrounds and learning styles.
  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 two bags of candy. Each bag has four 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, including the following strategies:

  • 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 essential to inquiry-based learning, but what kinds of questions work? Teachers can successfully model questions to students in the following ways:

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

The following example illustrates 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, thought-starters that encourage students to pose high-level questions themselves. This type of teacher-guided inquiry can motivate students to think critically and appreciate learning. Students in NSU’s online M.A. Urban Education – Mathematics program learn how to apply this understanding to benefit students.

Learn about Norfolk State University’s online M.A. in Urban Education – Mathematics program.

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