Quite simply, inquiry is a systematic investigation into a problem, issue, topic or idea. But there are many different understandings of what inquiry is, and what it should look like in the classroom.
Did you know inquiry-based learning has a strong history rooted in Ancient Greece? Starting with the notion that the only thing he knew was he knew nothing, Socrates would engage in a systematic and disciplined questioning process to discover basic truths about the inner workings of the natural world and ethical questions related to such enduring concerns as the nature of justice. By posing such seemingly simple questions as “What is justice?,” Socrates showed that many commonly-held assumptions were flawed and even illogical.
Socratic inquiry cannot be seen as teaching in any traditional sense involving transmitting knowledge from someone who is more knowledgeable to those who possess less knowledge. In The Socratic Method: What it is and How to Use it in the Classroom, Rob Reich explains the classroom experience is a shared dialogue between teacher and students “in which both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward through questioning.” In this understanding of inquiry, both the teacher and the student ask probing questions meant to clarify the basic assumptions underpinning a truth claim or the logical consequences of a particular thought.
Understanding the Socratic tradition helps us recover several elements that seem to be missing in how some people understand inquiry-based learning. A wealth of information on inquiry-based learning can be found here, along with a free download.