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Warning: Inquiry-based learning requires facilitators who know the answers

By Hui-Hui Wang

Recently, I delivered a 30 minute presentation about experiential learning for new program staff. Naturally, I set up an intriguing hands-on, inquiry-based activity for the new staff members to experience this kind of learning for themselves.

One of the critical concepts embedded in experiential learning is inquiry. To do inquiry-based learning, an instructor presents a scenario or problem, then guides learners to identify questions and delve into them to develop their knowledge.

As they did the activity, I guided the new staff members to develop their knowledge and solutions without telling them the answers or what to do. They were really frustrated and asked me why didn't I just give them the answers. Eventually, one of them said, "See, this is how easy it is to be an instructor when you do experiential learning. You don't need to know the answer. You just keep asking people to find out the answer themselves."

This type of comment was not new to me, but I was shocked because this time, it came from a staff member. Of course she is new, but she had a huge misconception about inquiry-based experiential learning. To do it, an instructor needs not only to have solid and comprehensive content knowledge about the activity, she must skillfully lead learners to help them develop their own knowledge.

The comment was a red flag for me. We urgently need professional development to help 4-H staff fully understand, design and lead inquiry-based experiential learning activities. If 4-H staff believe that they can successfully do that by throwing out a bunch of open-ended questions and asking learners to find out the answers themselves, can you imagine what the quality of our 4-H educational programs will be?

I know that it takes more than a 30-minute "taster" activity to learn how to design and facilitate an inquiry-based experiential learning program. I also know that the opinion of that new staff member is not unique. To me, this is a sharp warning that we need to consider seriously! What do you think?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, former assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

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  1. Pam Larson NippoltApril 3, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    Hui Hui – Your post brings me back to a lightbulb moment in my own inquiry-based learning – a moment when I was literally investigating about light and filaments and shadows AND an “aha” moment that changed the way I thought about the facilitation of inquiry-based learning.
    It happened when I was an adult learner in a professional development workshop a few years ago. I was struggling to articulate my questions about why the lightbulb I was investigating was casting a type of shadow that I couldn’t yet explain that had to do with the type of light source I was investigating. I remember looking into my facilitator’s face for an answer (this would be so much easier/quicker/less embarassing for both of us if you would just give me a hint – kind of look).
    I will never forget that he looked back at me in a way that told me that he understood what my struggle was (that is, where I had gaps in my content knowledge), what question would help me to learn and cross that gap, that he had NO intention of giving me a hint, and he was going to wait and watch carefully while I investigated it. He knew what materials to put in my path so that I could come to my question. He had the content knowledge, he had the facilitation skills, and he believed in my ability to learn through inquiry enough to wait, to ask me strategic questions, and to place materials in my pathway. This was a powerful moment in my learning because he had deep content knowledge AND strong facilitation skills.
    Is the facilitators’ mastery of the content less important when facilitating inquiry with youth? Is youth learning less important than adults? Is nonformal learning less important than classroom learning? I think the answers to these questions seem obvious but your post forces me to think about how we prepare adults to work with youth in nonformal settings.

  2. I think that the content knowledge is important, but not as important as having a strong understanding of the inquiry based model. I think back to some of the groups I have led with First Lego League and 4-H Robotics clubs. I did have the base knowledge of programming, could provide answers but would refuse to.
    Supporting the youth by asking questions, directing them to resources where they could learn, and reflecting after completion of an activity provided the participants growth that went beyond my knowledge. I think it is important, especially in the beginning, that the coach/teacher/facilitator have base knowledge. Providing focus in the experience allowed youth the opportunity to become group leaders as they teach each other, look beyond the group for answers and create solutions that were not from a guide. With some youth I can confidently say that they had more advanced knowledge than I did.
    At the completion of many of the seasons I would ask the youth a simple question. "What did I teach you?" Answers quickly went to topics like engineering, construction and programming. Through a group reflection they youth would reach the understanding that they did not learn those skills from me, but from each other, and resources that were available.
    I taught youth how to use resources I provided. I taught youth how to ask questions and reflect on possible solutions. I taught youth how to support each other. I taught youth how to look for answers. What I taught was the ability to learn independently using an inquiry model.
    Is content knowledge important? Yes, but not as important as knowing how to direct youth as they find answers.

  3. Pam,
    Thank you for sharing with me your story. To me, it is much more difficult to do inquiry-based teaching approach than didactic teaching approach. Inquiry-based approach needs much more time and teaching skills to teach the same concept than didactic teaching approach. However, that “I got it” moment is so powerful that you will never forgot what you learned/discover from your own experience (even thought it was strategically planed by instructors).
    Yet, many learners are not thrilled to go down to that path, because it is really frustrated. If a facilitator does not have a strong skills and know how to guild the learners, learners could feel “I don’t know what I am doing” pretty soon. Therefore, as you mentioned, a good facilitator needs to believed that “you can do it”, to know what strategic questions that he/she should ask to guild your learning, and also to have a solid understanding about the concept that he/she is teaching.
    I always think in non-formal setting, if we plan well, we are more flexible then schools to do inquiry teaching. However, many people, like the new staff that I mentioned in the blog, think that doing inquiry is throwing bunch questions to learners and ask them to find out the answers by themselves. I really feel that is dangerous if we don’t let them know what inquiry-teaching is really about.

  4. Mark,
    Thank you for sharing your teaching experience with me.
    I agree with you, what we want youth to learn is the problem solving skills. When they run into a problem/challenge, they have ability to think how to solve the problem/challenge. Yet for many educators, they do not want to do inquiry-based teaching because they afraid when kids ask questions that they do not have answers for them. Therefore, they want to keep their teaching in a comfort zone where they can manage it. Research suggested this highly relates to that educators think that they don’t have enough content knowledge. Therefore, helping educators acquire sufficient content knowledge is the first step to assist educators to use inquiry-based teaching approach.
    The content knowledge that I indicate in here is an instructor has a solid plan about “where is this going”. In your robotics example, you guided you students by asking questions, because you know where you want this to go with the questions that you asked. In other words, you know what you are doing and where this activity is going. You strategically planned your activity/program to reach your goal. Every question that you asked is helping you to reach your goal. This is definitely different from just asking bunch questions and hopefully learners can find the answers by themselves.

  5. Pam Larson NippoltApril 4, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    Hui Hui - How do we as educators decide or know when we have enough content knowledge to facilitate inquiry based learning? How have you come to think about this preparation? What does it take? Pam

  6. Pam,
    I think it is hard to say how “enough” is enough content knowledge to facilitate inquiry-based learning. Even Albert Einstein was always seeking answers for his inquiry. ☺ An educator should have a goal (learning outcomes) and a strategic plan before you do inquiry-based teaching. For example, if “light travel straight line” is a learning outcome that you want your learners to understand by the end of a program, you can ask yourself “if I am learning this, what my inquiry can be” to help you prepare your activities. An educator needs to strategically help learners to trim down their questions to fit his/her goal (the hidden agenda for learning outcomes) and that is the hardest part of doing inquiry-based teaching. This requires experiences. The more inquiry-based teaching you do, the more you could know what type of questions that your learners would have and the more you would know how to facilitate inquiry-based teaching.

  7. That is an unfortunate misconception that exists for those that are new to inquiry based learning. I would hope that once someone has actually practiced guiding inquiry based learning they would change their tune pretty quickly.
    I’ll throw this out for discussion – do you see a difference in how much the facilitator has to “know the answer” when looking at hard versus soft sciences? ( Perhaps hard and soft aren’t politically correct terms, so feel free to educate me!) I’m thinking of inquiry based learning activities that investigate ‘soft’ science questions in our living environment, and where many citizen science investigations reside.

  8. Hi Margo,
    Welcome! I am not sure that I understand your questions abut hard and soft sciences. Some people tend to think natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology and etc, are hard science. Social science, such as education, is soft science. What do you mean by "know the answer" when looking at hard versus soft sciences? Could you please help me to understand your questions? For example, maybe give me an example? :)

  9. My background is in wildlife ecology, which I consider a softer science. I tend to think of soft science as those areas where all of the variables aren't known, or all of the values of the variables aren't known. I suppose my bias is that I consider hard science to be science that can be explained mathematically (even if you have to get to the molecular level to do the math).
    As an example, if we want to investigate attracting birds to a feeder, there are many variables to consider, some that the we can easily manipulate (type of feeder, type of food) and some that aren't so easily changed (proximity to cover, types of cover). But, then there are those variables that aren't so obvious - perhaps things like construction activity in the area, intra- or inter - species interaction, loss or absence of critical habitat ....
    In this case, "knowing the answer" maybe isn't as important as exploring the range of potential variables. Preparation for the facilitator (for either hard or soft science) would be to guide the learner to identifying the variables that can be manipulated, but then I see hard and soft science diverging: hard science being able to mathematically explain how the variables interact, but soft science being only able to hypothesize.

  10. Maybe a good way to think about this is that adults don't need to have ALL the answers, but as you said Hui Hui, they need to know the answers that relate to what they are trying to teach using Inquiry and, as Mark emphasized, they need to understand the Inquiry process.
    I think that there is a balance here, and I would be concerned with adults not trying to do Inquiry because they feel they need to know it all.
    How does this relate to the adult facilitator "learning alongside" the young person doing an investigation? Seems to me that it a young person is conducting an (extended?) investigation, they may be discovering something very new to themselves - and to the facilitator too.

  11. Thank you Margo and Heidi for your comments.
    Yes. I agree what Heidi said. A facilitator doesn't need to know "all the answers". No one knows all the answers. :) Yet, he/she does need to know the propose of why he/she is doing inquiry-based teaching. Using Margo's example, designing a bird feeder, if the final learning outcome is to help students understand certain birds are losing their habitat because of human activities, the facilitator can start with what type of the food can attract the certain birds. Then the facilitator uses inquiry-based teaching, such as posting strategically questions to guild students to work on their inquiry about the relationship between bird food and their habitats. To do this, the facilitator does need to have some certain knowledge about the topic, such as food vs birds, that he/she wants to teach in order to post strategically questions to guild students. Allowing students to practice their inquiry skills, such as choosing variables, design experiments and communication and discussion, also can be emphasized in the inquiry-based teaching. I hope I answer your questions. Again, it is not easy for me to share with you how to conduct inquiry-based teaching by just using Blog. :)
    P.S.Margo, I don't think soft science or hard science is a matter for doing inquiry-based teaching. :)