How to Support Independent Student Inquiry

Click to Tweet
Here's some ways teachers can ensure students keep learning and transferring skills outside of school.
"To ensure skill transference occurs, we as educators must break down learners’ ability to compartmentalize school and redefine education as something that happens everywhere."

In order to be successful in the adult world, young learners must build independent inquiry and problem solving skills. Without the ability to dissect a problem, the knowledge of how to gather the resources needed to discover or create a solution and the confidence to put that plan into practice, it’s impossible to become a truly independent, empowered citizen and professional.

Much of the purpose of school is to model these skills and provide a safe, scaffolded laboratory for practice and coaching. However, in order to ensure that students are authentically ready for graduation and the removal of the safety net of education, teachers must do their best to push learning beyond the traditional limits of the classroom and into the real world. That means encouraging independent inquiry and helping students feel empowered to learn and grow in any situation.

Here are some tips and strategies for educators looking to push their students toward further developing their independent inquiry skills:

Model Tools and Strategies in an Outward-Facing Way
Any skill, approach, or piece of technology that’s introduced in the classroom has transferrable real-world applications that students should be able to connect to authentic situations in their own lives. Unfortunately, there is a massive gap when it comes to students making that connection. In part, that’s because young learners want to compartmentalize school as a physical place and set of routines that they get to leave at a certain point in the day. However, educators are also a part of this breakdown, as pacing and content-related concerns often become excuses for a lack of transferrable authenticity.

As educators, we must work to bridge that transference gap by teaching our skills and content in an outward-facing way. Outward-facing means looking beyond the classroom, lesson, or assignment and ensuring students are brainstorming and understanding different ways the skills and information they’re learning in class can help them in their daily lives. Guided student reflections or group brainstorming sessions great ways to effectively to help students understand how curricular skills and subject-area thought processes can be applied to real, non-classroom situations. Once you have students thinking in this way, you’re setting them up for success!

Encourage Communication & Documentation
When students create breathtaking, high-quality work, it’s usually the result of internal motivation and natural passion. However, the accountability and structure of school are also key reasons that students are capable of so many great things. Part of what pushes students to achieve in school is their desire to show what they’re capable of and share their creativity with an audience of peers and trusted adults.

Unfortunately, though, part of why many students don’t practice transferring the skills and knowledge they’ve learned at school into their daily lives is because they don’t feel the same pressure to improve and accountability to others outside of school. Part of our responsibility as educators is to help learners see other opportunities for that kind of achievement in the world around them. That can mean helping students connect with community groups and extracurricular activities that align with their interests and provide opportunities to workshop relevant skills as they continue to learn in new contexts. It can also mean inviting students to communicate with you and document their independent inquiries through your class Learning Management System (LMS) to build opportunities for mentorship, feedback, and positive coaching.

Celebrate Independent Work in the Classroom
To ensure skill transference occurs, we as educators must break down learners’ ability to compartmentalize school and redefine education as something that happens everywhere. A key part of that is allowing students to share buzzworthy learning experiences from their authentic lives in the classroom. When teachers ask kids to share their experiences using curricular knowledge and skills in their “real lives,” it helps students see their teachers as positive allies who truly care about them in more than one context. It also helps students learn from each other’s insights, epiphanies and learning moments, which can be far more powerful than any amount of teacher talk.

Ironically, part of fostering independent inquiry is by giving those activities a seat at the table in the classroom. When learners are empowered to see learning as something that’s going on all around them at all times - not just something that happens in school - it transforms their sense of purpose, their enthusiasm to learn and their metacognitive understanding of their role in the world.