Digital Age Teaching and Learning

How to Use Inquiry Based Teaching with Special Needs Students

How to Use Inquiry Based Teaching with Special Needs Students

A strategy that is getting a lot of attention lately is the inquiry strategy. It is based on the premise that you can “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” It is not a new strategy and can have many benefits for students with disabilities, but they have to have support for the method to be successful.

Inquiry has been around for thousands of years, dating back to before Socrates, although he is probably the most familiar inquiry teacher. It has been used in many new teaching strategies such as, “STEM,” “Makerspace,” “Make,” and others. But whatever name it goes by, the premise is the same, students are the learners, and teachers are to facilitate that learning. Although this is not a new strategy, it is not the traditional method of teaching and there is much confusion surrounding this method due to the different ways it is being applied.

Models for Inquiry Based Learning

The two models used most are the Inquiry Instruction Model- Guided Discovery and the Inquiry Discovery Model-The 5 E Model.

Inquiry Instruction Model- Guided Discovery

The guided discovery model usually involves the following six steps
1. Inquisition – stating a “what if” or “I wonder” question to be investigated
2. Acquisition – brainstorming possible procedures
3. Supposition – identifying an “I think” statement to test
4. Implementation – designing and carrying out a plan
5. Summation – collecting evidence and drawing conclusions
6. Exhibition – sharing and communication results

Inquiry Discovery Model-The 5 E Model

The 5 E model steps usually are:
1. Engagement – motivate the student, ask questions
2. Exploration – students manipulate materials and discover on their own
3. Explanation – students share their discoveries and the teacher may introduce theories and content
4. Elaboration – students create new connections to other concepts, or real world problems
5. Evaluation – students should evaluate themselves and the teacher should use formal and informal evaluations to check for understanding of the concept

The names and steps may be slightly different, but the focus is the same: on the student. What does this mean for students with special needs who may not have the pre-requisite skills for inquiry learning? They can benefit from an inquiry based lesson, or classroom, but they need extra support. Students with special needs are already struggling to keep up with the class. If you now give them the extra challenge of having to explore, elaborate, and evaluate with no support, they may give up and let the group members do all the learning, preferring to sit back and copy the answers or stand in the back of the group and not participate in presentations. How can we support our students with disabilities?

Give Them More Support During the Lesson

According to a study by Rosenzweig, Carrodegaus, Lucky (2013) “There are many challenges that students with special needs learning in inclusive classrooms may face, which include, but are not limited to; inability to keep up with extra work; inability to follow lab instruction, leading to lack of lab write-ups; lack of motivation; and lack of understanding.” Students with disabilities need support with instructions and comprehension. Just putting them in a heterogenous group of disabled and non-disabled peers will not give them the support they need. If you give them instruction prior to the inquiry lesson, or have the support of a special education teacher who will rephrase or scaffold the directions, the students with disabilities have a better chance of understanding and following through with the activity.

Factor in Time for Small Group sessions to Support Skills

Students with disabilities have gaps in their learning. This may include not knowing their multiplication facts, deficits in comprehension and vocabulary, or phonological processing deficits. Any of these may keep them from understanding the components of the inquiry lesson. There has to be some time set aside, either before the inquiry lesson, or during the work time part of the lesson, for the students to work on these skills with the special education teacher. It may even be a mini lesson during the regular classroom period, but these students have to have that support to do the work that is required of them.

Help Them Let Go of Fear

Many times students with disabilities will not answer in class because they do not want to be wrong. They have been teased and ridiculed all their lives and have learned to shut down. One positive side effect of inquiry based teaching is that it is okay to have a wrong answer. That is how you grow. If students with specials needs see that their peers do not always have the right answers and that hypotheses are sometimes proven incorrect, it can help them let go of their fear. To do this, there must be a classroom environment of acceptance and the freedom to make mistakes while learning.

So when implementing an inquiry lesson, don’t forget to build in support for your students with special needs. These supports can also benefit low achieving students who need the extra attention. If you think ahead to the needs of your students and plan accordingly, you will see success. A great teacher will always have a supportive learning environment, and inquiry teaching is just one more tool in your toolbox.

If you are already using inquiry methods, let us know what you have found to be successful with special needs students.