The best models for inquiry-based learning help students get comfortable with the act of asking the big questions without worrying too much about finding immediate answers. Let's take a look at some of the differences and benefits of three types of inquiry: directed, guided, and free.
The first model, directed inquiry, involves the most up-front scaffolding for students. It's a great place to start implementing inquiry, because it helps introduce students to the act of inquiry itself.
Like all inquiry, this model involves investigating questions. But in directed inquiry, teachers pre-select those questions with known outcomes that are connected to the state standards and/or the school's curriculum framework. Teachers provide the students with material and instruct those students on how to interact with it. For example, a history teacher might give the class two different articles commenting on the Vietnam War, ask them to search for particular points of agreement or contradiction, and present their findings. The goal is to strike a balance between providing direction for students and giving them room to explore resources independently.
In contrast to directed inquiry, guided inquiry gives students more freedom in their investigation, which can often increase student motivation and interest. In this model, teachers and librarians function more as "guides," providing general topics or themes for students to explore. Then, those students can develop their own questions about the subject matter, as well as collect data on their own. For example, instead of comparing two provided Vietnam War articles, students can search for information by conducting their own research, interviewing relatives who experienced the war themselves, or watching films that show how society's view of that war has changed. Then, they can present the results of their investigation to their class.
The third model, free inquiry, can be considered the most "liberal" of the models. In free inquiry, students are given the opportunity to choose and explore a topic that interests them, without any prescribed outcome. They're encouraged to let personal curiosity be their guide as they explore their topic independently, formulate their own questions about it, decide how to pursue their knowledge, and document their own investigation. As with the other models, there's a great opportunity for students to share results with their class or community.
One of the great benefits of all three types of inquiry—directed, guided, and free—is that they are cyclical: as students explore topics and find some answers, more questions arise and the process of learning continues.