You are here

An Arena to Excel: Inquiry-Learning and Outdoor Education for Students with Special Needs

Christina Schindler (US)
A unique relationship has been found between inquiry-based learning, outdoor education and success for all students, which is detailed in the following paper. Parkerscreek Primitive Technology structures their demonstrations around the principles of inquiry-based learning to provide a rewarding experience for all children.
Written in June 2002, Source, retrieved, 22/10/2010
"Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand."
~ Author Unknown

Since no educational system can possibly offer students all the knowledge they will ever need, we as educators have an ethical responsibility to provide them with necessary tools to continue a life-long pursuit of learning. In a society where emphasis is placed on "what we know" it is difficult to embrace the importance of a "how we come to know" attitude. The concept of students constructing their own knowledge originated with educational theorist Lev Vygotsky, and was coined constructivism (Wells, 1997). This action-based approach to learning "supports teachers in facilitating students reconstructing their own knowledge through a process of interacting with objects in the environment and engaging in higher-level thinking and problem solving" (Crawford, 2000).

Later, John Dewey built upon the constructionist philosophy by developing inquiry-based learning, which "emphasized the importance of involving students in the formation of the purposes which direct their activities and in selecting the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in future experiences" (Haury, 1993). With a strong foundation on student-centered, active learning, Dewey's model of inquiry provides a unique context for teaching all curricular themes, but most importantly it affords an arena for ALL students to excel (Crawford, 2000, Haury, 1993).

Interestingly enough, while reviewing current literature on inquiry-based learning, unique similarities began to emerge between inquiry-based learning and outdoor education. This literature review will attempt to connect these relationships by developing a unique path for incorporating inquiry learning in outdoor education, while supporting all students in a successful interdisciplinary experience.

What is Inquiry Learning?

Based on Dewey's philosophy that education originates with the curiosity of the learner and is grounded in real world experiences, inquiry learning can be defined as, an educational activity in which students individually or collectively investigate a set of phenomena - virtual or real - and draw conclusions about it. Students direct their own investigatory activity, but they may be prompted to formulate questions, plan their activity, and draw and justify conclusions about what they have learned (Kuhn, 2000).

Unlike the traditional scientific method, this path of instruction can be implemented across the curriculum. Even though inquiry teaching is often associated with science instruction, it transcends science instruction by providing a well-defined framework for students to investigate problems spanning all academic areas.

Inquiry is not a "method" of doing science, history, or any other subject, in which the obligatory first stage is a fixed, linear sequence is that of students each formulating questions to investigate. Rather, it is an approach to the chosen themes and topics in which the posing of real questions is positively encouraged, whenever they occur and by whoever they are asked (Wells, 1997).

As the literature indicated, inquiry provides a unique structure to explore numerous contextual issues. This concept will be explored further when the review explores inquiry's position in an outdoor educational arena.

How Does Inquiry-Based Learning Differ from the Traditional Methods of Instruction?

The traditional educational system in the United States does not promote a cycle of asking questions, seeking answers and reflecting on findings. Instead our schools primarily rely on mastery of content in a teachercentered environment. Often students are conditioned not to question, listen intently and supply the expected answers. Emphasis is placed upon thinking what as opposed to thinking how. Assessment is frequently based on students regurgitating the right answer while the steps taken to reach that final stage are often overlooked. "The inquiry approach is more focused on using and learning content as a means to develop information processing and problem solving skills" (Inquiry-Based Learning Workshop, 2002). It offers a way for students to seek "appropriate resolutions to questions and issues," because, in reality, there is rarely one right answer (Inquiry-Based Learning Workshop, 2002). When a teacher wishes to move towards a more student-centered, inquiry-based approach, the literature suggested that six key characteristics must be considered:
1. Situating instruction in authentic problems
2. Grappling with data
3. Collaboration of students and teacher
4. Connection with society
5. Teacher modeling behavior of scientist
6. Development of student ownership (Crawford, 2000).
In order to properly explore these aforementioned "six key characteristics," the redefinition of teachers' and students' roles need to be addressed. The literature provided numerous examples of the responsibilities both students and teachers have in an inquiry-based classroom.

Fig 1. Inquiry as Evolutionary Process (Bonnestetter, 1998)
Fig 1. Inquiry as Evolutionary Process (Bonnestetter, 1998)

Before articulating the specific differences, Figure 1 offers a succinct overview for these new roles.

Redefining a Teacher's Role for Inquiry Teaching

Collaborating with students, modeling proper techniques, asking open-ended questions, and reflecting on their own practice are just some of the roles successful teachers adopt in an inquiry-based classroom. Instead of leading group discussions, the teacher essentially becomes a participant in the learning process. The research stated numerous roles that teachers employ when using the inquiry model; specifically, Crawford identified the roles of motivator, diagnostician, guide, innovator, experimenter, researcher, modeler, mentor, collaborator, learner; all roles corresponded with the principles of constructivist teaching. She stated that a "teacher's work in an inquiry classroom requires taking a myriad of roles - roles that demand a high level of expertise" (2000).

Of all the roles identified, the literature most often stressed the importance of modeling proper techniques. "Teachers model the skills students need to allow process understanding to grow: they model questioning, use planning templates, introduce reflective thinking, and emphasize de-briefing and group sharing skills (Ash, Greene, & Austin, 2000). Stemming from these unique types of modeling, the literature overwhelming emphasized the importance of modeling effective questioning techniques. For example, Cheong (2000) noted that she, "always start[s] by modeling how to ask questions that can be investigated, and eliminating or rewording those that can't be investigated easily." Additionally, Bresnick (2000) stated, "Modeling questioning gives the children a sense of what is reasonable to ask." As one teacher observed, if you demonstrate proper questioning techniques, "they begin to see that a question is a bridge between what they know and what they don't know, or what they want to know" (Mott, 2000).

Defining the Student's Role in an Inquiry-Based Classroom

What is the importance of age-appropriateness in inquiry-based learning? Bresnick offered the following suggestion. While many educators may be doubtful that children as young as five and six years old have enough background knowledge, skills, stamina, or initiative to engage in independent investigations in science, I have found that they can and will with great success (Bresnick, 2000). Similar sediments were continually echoed throughout the literature. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that inquiry-based learning is not age restrictive.

Connect Magazine succinctly outlined the general characteristics attributed to students' roles in an inquirybased classroom as follows:
1. Students view themselves as learners in the process of learning.
2. Students accept an "invitation to learn" and willingly engage in an exploration process.
3. Students raise questions, propose explanations, and use observations.
4. Students plan and carry out learning activities.
5. Students communicate using a variety of methods.
6. Students critique their learning methods (2002).

While other literature agreed with these broad roles, practicing teachers highlighted one specific characteristic at the heart of inquiry learning - ownership. The process of investigation became meaningful because the ownership came from student work and not from a worksheet created for them… Because they had already discovered it for themselves, they were able to understand the concept better than if I had showed it to them initially. This gave them a sense of ownership over their discovery (Bresnick, 2000).

When deciding upon questions to investigate in an inquiry classroom, students' opinions are solicited and then implemented; this process authenticates the crucial ownership piece of inquiry learning. Opponents to this type of instruction often question the appropriateness student generated questions. To combat this argument, teachers in the literature stated how they use their role as collaborator to help formulate effective questions, while maintaining the retention of student ownership.

Over the past year, I have come to see that if I limit the questions to a manageable number like five or six, students maintain ownership over what to investigate, and we also move towards the content I need to cover… This way, the students still have ownership over the questions they can choose and investigate (Cheong, 2002).

In the beginning the children have a hard time articulating their discoveries , so I help them "find" the right words to explain what they have discovered. This is a crucial step, since it sets a tone that allows each child to "own" the experience while communicating it accurately" (Villavicencio, 2000). This idea of ownership epitomizes the philosophy of inquiry learning and is often intertwined with all the roles students obtain in this type of learning environment. As one middle school teacher stated, "watching how involved students become in their inquiries is for me the greatest evidence of the power of scientific inquiry in the classroom, [because] they feel empowered at being able to make their own choices" (Marrero, 2000). The students, [b]elieve they have the right (and the obligation) to understand things and make things work… believe that problems can be analyzed, that solutions often come from such analysis and that they are capable of that analysis… have a toolkit of problem-analysis tolls and good intuitions about when to use them … know how to ask questions, seek help and get enough information to solve problems… have habits of mind that lead them to actively use the toolkit of analysis skills (1997). This sense of ownership is the keystone to assuring that students will continue a lifetime of learning after their formal education has ended.
(2002). Inquiry-Based Learning Workshop. May 30, 2002,

Ash D., Greene C., & Austin, M., (2000). Inquiry by Teachers. Synergy Learning, March - April, 1-2.

Bonnstetter, R., (1998). Inquiry: Learning from the Past with an Eye on the Future. Electronic Journal of Science Education, V3, N1. May 30, 2002,

Bresnick, J., (2000). Facilitating Inquiry. Synergy Learning, March-April, 6 - 8.

Bruce, C., (2002). Inquiry Page - Learning Begins with Questions. May 30, 2002,

Cheong, W., (2000). The Power of Questioning. Synergy Learning, March-April, 9 - 10. Coulter, B., (2000). Technology for Learning. Synergy Learning, March-April, 23 - 25.

Crawford, B., (2000). Embracing the Essence of Inquiry: New Roles for Science Teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37, 9. 916 - 9137.

Farnham, M. & Mutrie, N. (1997). The Potential Benefits of Outdoor Development for Children with Special Needs. British Journal of Special Education, 24, 1. 31 - 38.

Haury, D., (1993). Teaching Science Through Inquiry. May 30, 2002

Knapp, C., (1992). Thinking in Outdoor Inquiry. May 30, 2002

Kraft, B., (2000). Stewards of a Vernal Pool. Synergy Learning, March-April, 14- 16.

Kuhn, D., (2000). The Development of Cognitive Skills to Support Inquiry Learning. Cognition and Instruction, 18, 4. 497 - 522.

Marrero, J., (2000). Inquiry in the Middle School: Content Learning. Synergy Learning, March-April, 17 - 18.

Mastropieri, M. & Scruggs, T. (1997). How Effective is Inquiry Learning for Students with Mild Disabilities. Journal of Special Education, 31, 2. 199 - 212.

Mastropieri, M., Scruggs, T., Boon, R. & Butcher, K. (2001). Correlates of Inquiry Learning in Science. Remedial and Special Education, 22, 3. 130 - 138.

Mott, B., (2000). Observation as a Springboard. Synergy Learning, March-April, 11 - 13.

Scruggs, T. & Mastropieri, M. (1994). The Construction of Scientific Knowledge by Students with Mild Disabilities. Journal of Special Education, 28, 3. 307 - 322.

Sugerman, D. (2001). Inclusive Education: Facilitating Groups that Include People with Disabilities. The Journal of Experimental Education, 24, 3. 166-172.

Villavicencio, J., (2000). Inquiry in Kindergarten. Synergy Learning, March - April, 3 - 5. Wells, G., (1997). Dialogic Inquiry in Education: Building on the Legacy of Vygotsky. May, 30, 2002,

Wilson, R. (1994). Integrating Outdoor/Environmental Education into the Special Education Curriculum. Intervention in School & Clinic, 29, 3. 1-8.