The Intersection Between Inquiry and Culturally Responsive Education
Over the past decades, educators have seen exciting reforms, incentives, and policies flood the K-12 realm. While these concepts are well-intentioned, the sheer number can create confusion and provoke reform fatigue, keeping even the most promising and thoughtful approaches from taking root, let alone from reaching the lofty goals of revolutionizing educational experiences for students. Essential initiatives such as Culturally Responsive Education (CRE), Anti-Racism, Inquiry-Based Learning, and Humanizing Curriculum can start to feel like an endless list of buzzwords piled on top of each other. A crucial way to combat reform fatigue and give these vital concepts traction in the classroom is for district leaders to help educators see how two of these key instructional theories, CRE and inquiry-based instruction, complement each other. In fact, the two are inextricably linked, and together can lead to improved learning outcomes, higher-level complex thinking, and engaged, independent learners.
Improved Learning Outcomes
Inquiry-based instruction leads to improved learning outcomes and centers the student in the classroom. Beyond just asking kids what they want to learn about, inquiry-based instruction posits that expertise in a classroom is held by everyone; knowledge and ideas flow back and forth between the educator and students, culminating in communicating conclusions about real-world issues.
Research has linked inquiry-based instruction to more inclusive classroom environments and improved student learning outcomes. A recent meta-analysis (Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016) examining the power of inquiry-based learning found that teacher-supported, inquiry-based instruction was consistently more effective than other pedagogies at improving learning outcomes amongst students. Other research studies agree, with evidence showing that inquiry-based learning that focuses on real-world problems significantly impacts student achievement more than other variables, including student background and past achievement (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008).
Higher-Level Complex Thinking
While the research shows that inquiry-based learning leads to enhanced learning outcomes, it also connects another popular educational initiative: culturally responsive education (CRE). They go hand in hand—you can't do one without the other. While there are many interpretations of CRE, researchers agree that curricular resources and instruction should affirm the lived experiences for students. Inquiry-based classrooms center on student voice, choice, and high expectations, which are central components of CRE. In inquiry- and CRE-centered classrooms, students ask and respond to compelling questions and think through solutions to real-world issues in their lives, communities, and the larger world. For example, students may engage in sustained inquiry focused on developing a policy proposal to advocate for more inclusive and diverse workplaces or schools. Or students can analyze and research the issue of food deserts in traditionally marginalized communities and propose a solution. In both cases, students would leverage their own community-oriented expertise, ask questions, research and utilize evidence, and take informed action to advocate for positive change.
Grounding a classroom in inquiry allows students to explore issues that resonate within their individual and community-oriented identities.
The very approach itself respects the individual and community and sends a clear message that students' passion, expertise, and cultural capital matter and are worth both learning about and exploring further. As students engage with compelling questions, ask their own questions, and take informed action about authentic and relevant problems, they also engage with higher-level complex thinking, another essential component of both CRE and better learning outcomes.
Engaged and Independent Learners
The College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies (C3 Framework) stipulates that students should apply disciplinary thinking and research to identify possible solutions to complex problems. Through the inquiry cycle, students are equipped to communicate conclusions and take informed action, putting their engagement, relevance, and critical thinking skills into practice. This process asks educators to blend students' expertise, passion, and lived experiences with disciplinary grounded research (engaging in thinking and disciplinary literacy skills similar to experts in the field) while utilizing research, analyzing sources, and developing claims and counterclaims. Students' cultural capital is also valued and leveraged, along with evidence and reasoning, to drive a standards-aligned inquiry process grounded in complex thinking and reasoning, which encourages independent higher-level thinking.
Thus, the C3 Framework's inquiry arc explicitly connects to CRE because it affirms learners' identities and pushes classrooms to create environments and processes centered on high expectations for culturally and linguistically diverse students, which is essential in an equitable classroom. For example, Hammon (2015) argued that although numerous students begin school with minor learning variances, they are exacerbated over time for students of color and English learners "because we don't teach them how to be independent learners" (p. 15). Inquiry closes that gap by pushing teachers to move beyond the "sage on the stage" method and encourages all students to critically think, process, and collaborate with peers and their community. As students research, apply past knowledge to new experiences and learning, and use cognitive strategies to move beyond feeling "stuck", they shift from dependent learners to independent learners, which supports the development of new cognitive skills and habits of mind (p.15). As all students engage with inquiry-based learning, they develop more sophisticated thinking, attempt new tasks, and learn how to retrieve information (both from their own lived experiences and evidence) to become confident and engaged disciplinary experts themselves, empowered to tackle complex problems. As such, embedding the C3 Framework in the classroom ensures all students benefit from the processes involved by affirming their lived experiences while supporting high-level cognitive skills and maintaining high expectations.
Educators may be inundated with initiatives that can feel disjointed, but research shows us that the areas of inclusive CRE and inquiry-based instruction are strongly linked. At its heart, inquiry-based instruction is culturally responsive instruction. The more directly we can clarify these links for our educators, the more we can ensure that inquiry and CRE won't fall victim to the newest "buzzword" trend in education. The power of inquiry to transform the student experience is huge, and when educational leaders (policy makers, district and school administrators, and curriculum developers) draw that explicit link for educators, inquiry-based instruction will take root, increasing engagement and drawing students themselves into the center of their educational experience. At its heart, inquiry-based instruction is culturally responsive instruction.
Barron, B. and Darling-Hammond, L., 2008. Teaching for Meaningful Learning a Review of Research on Inquiry-Based and Cooperative Learning Distributed. [ebook] San Rafael: George Lucas Educational Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 15 October 2021].
Hammond, Zaretta. 2015. Culturally Responsive Teaching And The Brain. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
Lazonder, Ard W., and Ruth Harmsen. 2016. "Meta-Analysis Of Inquiry-Based Learning". Review Of Educational Research 86 (3): 681-718. doi:10.3102/0034654315627366.