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Inquiry-based learning for volunteer-led youth programs

By Joshua Rice

Do you learn and remember better when somebody tells you the answer, or when you work through the problem yourself? Chances are you will say "when I figure it out myself". This is the crux of inquiry-based learning, and it's one of the things that 4-H does best.

From the time a 4-H member selects a project area until its completion, 4-H youth are immersed in solving problems hands-on. As you may know, the 4-H program is delivered primarily by volunteers using the resources of a land-grant institution. It's up to us as program leaders to make it possible for volunteers to help young people do hands-on learning in an effective way.

One challenge for 4-H is helping adult volunteers or mentors to guide youth down an avenue of scientific inquiry or problem solving without merely giving the answer. One approach is to lead the young person through a series of questions that build on one another, while adult help steadily decreases -- an approach known as scaffolding. In an inquiry-based approach, the volunteer must be a facilitator or guide. It's the subject of a webinar I'll be giving at 7 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Nov. 18.

To facilitate effective inquiry-based learning, there are six common steps that adult volunteers must make sure youth are taking:
  • Ask questions
  • Explore by observing and investigating
  • Analyze and describe findings
  • Communicate and share by writing and discussing
  • Reflect on what has been learned
  • Determine how the newly gained knowledge can be applied

Initially, the adult volunteer poses open-ended questions to kick start the young person's thinking process, motivating him to develop his own questions. These questions become the focus of the research and learning. It's important that the volunteers allow time for the young people to make discoveries, to talk with their peers about it, and to make mistakes. Mistakes are an important part of learning, because they give an opportunity to re-evaluate decisions and correct so that next time, he succeeds.

Inquiry-based learning helps young people become productive members of society because they have the ability to think critically, solve problems and succeed. The critical thinking that takes place while working on projects help to shape them into the adults that they will become. Doing inquiry-based learning provides young people with a unique look into their future careers and endeavors.

How can we as youth development program leaders build inquiry learning strategies into volunteer-delivered youth programs, so that young people gain higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills?

-- Joshua Rice, assistant Extension professor and Extension specialist, science of agriculture

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  1. Great information. Do you have an agenda for your webinar on the 18th? I'm interested in participating, but would like to find out more. It seems volunteers know they should be using inquiry based techniques, sometimes think they are using them, but in reality are not. I'd like some hands on workshop ideas on how to teach inquiry based techniques to volunteers. I've used an experiential model of tying shoes in the past.

  2. Hi JoLynn,
    Thank you for your comments. We will be going through each of the 6 steps in detail and provide examples of each. We will also discuss concept maps, timeline development, and what successful inquiry learning looks like when assess a group of youth engaged in the process.
    There is a great book, "Inquire Within" written by Douglas J. Llewellyn that has some great examples of simple activities to use to teach inquiry techniques.

  3. Your question about how we can build inquiry strategies in youth programs is a good one, and I agree with your assertion that volunteers are critical in how this plays out with youth. I believe volunteers will appreciate hearing the examples you will offer during the webinar on November 18. As youth development staff, do we do a good job of modeling inquiry? It makes me wonder about how we engage volunteers in inquiry as part of their training. How would volunteer training look different if developed through an a lens of inquiry?

  4. Hi Josh,
    Good information. I'm looking forward to future blogs as you conduct your seminars to include what you notice/comments folks have regarding inquiry and curiosity and inquiry used by content-aversive volunteers. Keep up the good work. Let me know more about your work with the fodder systems too :)

  5. In case you missed the "Implementing Effective Inquiry Learning for Youth" webinar on November 18, 2014, please follow the link to view. Feel free to share with others.


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