How is Inquiry-based Learning Different from the Traditional Approach?

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Traditional classroom practices differ greatly from inquiry-based learning in a school setting. Philosophies tend to clash. To state the differences succinctly, traditional learning focuses more on what we know while inquiry-based learning focuses on not only what we know but also how we come to know it.

Refer to the charts below to check some other differences between traditional classroom practices vs. inquiry-based learning classrooms for students and teachers.


Traditional ApproachInquiry-based Approach
Listen-to-learn method of learningLearning is question-oriented with real and authentic goals
Little interaction, individual workPeer interaction, team work
Assessments in the form of tests and term papersShared end product with an audience
Limited knowledge imparted by the teacherAbility to dig deeper into a topic
Mastery of contentDevelopment of skills and questioning along with mastery of content
Receivers of informationPursuers of information
Mastery of contentDevelopment of habits of the mind
Students are passive recipients of knowledgeStudents are actively involved in learning and construction of knowledge
Moderate to low interestHigh interest
Textbook dictated learningStudent focused learning
Evaluation at the endOngoing assessment


Traditional ApproachInquiry-based Approach
Talks and lecturesCollaborative teamwork and discourse
Lesson plansFacilitated learning plans
Teacher centeredStudent centered
Teachers are teachersStudents and teachers are teachers and facilitators
Standard blocks of classroom time i.e. 1 hour blocksTime is of prime importance but timing is not i.e. periods lasting more than 1 hour
Objectives common to entire classSet objectives for individual students
Teach students thingsStudents learn about things
Teacher constructs learningStudents involved in construction of learning
Assessment determined on mastery of skillsAssessment determined by progress of learning skills and content understanding
Rigid Flexible
Textbook drivenStandards-driven/student negotiated
Limited resourcesExpansive use of resources in and out of the classroom
Technology lessons to learn about technologyTechnology used as a tool


Callison, Daniel., Ed.D (1986). "School Library Media Programs & Free Inquiry Learning." School Library Journal.

Callison, Daniel., Ed.D and Annette Lamb, Ph. d (2006). Information Age Inquiry. Indianapolis, Indiana University.

Community Informatics Initiative Faculty and Staff. (2007). What is the Inquiry Page Project? Champaign, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Duncan, Donna and Laura Lockhart. (2000). I-Search, You Search, We All Learn to Research, How-To-Do-It Manuals for Librarians, Number 97. New York, Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Exline, Joe. Concept to Classroom Workshop: Inquiry-based Learning. Ed. Godwin Chu. 2004. Educational Broadcasting Corporation. 22 Oct. 2007

Harada, Violet. H. and Joan M. Yoshina. (2004). Inquiry Learning through Librarian Teacher Partnerships. Worthington, Ohio, Linworth Publishing, Inc.

YouthLearn Learning: An Introduction to Inquiry-based Learning. Connecting Youth in a Brighter Future. Newton, MA, Education Development Center, Inc.

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