Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are two approaches that educators can use to engage students in authentic learning. Authentic learning happens when students can connect their findings and experiences from something they did in school to the complexities of the real world. This leads to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the topic.
In both inquiry- and project-based learning, students are at the centre of the research process. Teachers go from being the “sage on the stage” the “guide on the side”, taking on the role of a facilitator instead of a being a presenter of knowledge. The main difference between the inquiry- and project-based learning approaches is whether students are given a problem to solve (project-based learning) or they can pick and choose what they want to learn more deeply about (inquiry-based learning).
Let's say your class is learning about sustainability. If you were to take a project-based approach, you might want to learn more about how the school cafeteria can be more sustainable, and ask students to find out if it is better to use glass dishware or compostable dishware. Students could work collaboratively to investigate the benefits and impacts of both types of dishware, and each group could present their findings to the school administration to consider their options and make their cafeteria more sustainable.
On the other hand, you could use an inquiry-based approach and ask students how the school cafeteria could be more sustainable. This time students can choose their area of focus around the topic of sustainability. One group might be interested in learning how to reduce food waste, while another group might want to find out how to make their cafeteria more energy-efficient. The groups could create a project around their topic of inquiry, and present their findings to the class, to school administrators and other stakeholders to make a change in their school. Through both approaches, students are learning about sustainability in a way that is relevant and meaningful, leading to a deeper understanding of the concept.
Through a program like ours, teachers could invite a professional who works in sustainable event planning to share their insights with the class about the pros and cons of each type of dishware. Or perhaps a classroom could connect with someone from the city composting facility to answer questions about food waste. Through this interaction with professionals, students get an authentic learning experience, creating a connection between what they learn in class to a real-world situation.
Here are some helpful resources to learn more about inquiry-based learning and project-based learning:
The Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium Project-Based Learning Guide
The Galileo Educational Network Focus on Inquiry PDF/eBook
The Weed Lake Project- a cross-curricular inquiry on a local wetland that helped grade 2-4 students connect to the natural environment