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Inquiry-based learning in the museum: A beginner’s guide

Inquiry-based learning in the museum A beginner's guide

Museum education is evolving, and so are the ways we engage our audiences. The days of traditional lecture-style tours are numbered, as more and more museums want to offer more  dynamic, participant-driven experiences. 

Whether you’re just starting or looking to enhance your existing approach, this episode is for you. It’s packed with actionable tips and strategies to guide you. 

I’m going to share practical insights that will help you overcome common fears, embrace the unknown, and confidently step into the realm of discussion-based inquiry-based programs. And I’m going to be sharing 3 tips to get you started.

Why inquiry?

So I believe, in museum settings, inquiry-based learning has transformative potential. It turns traditional guided tours, and educational programmes into dynamic, interactive experiences that resonate with diverse audiences:

By shifting to curiosity-driven approaches, educators spark active participation and critical thinking. Inquiry encourages co-creation of knowledge, deeper engagement, and essential skill development. It enriches the museum experience, fostering a love for lifelong learning.

Now let’s move on to my 3 tips for getting started.

#1 Understand what inquiry-based learning is

So my first tip is so important. Begin your journey into inquiry by understanding the philosophy behind it. I want you to really understand what inquiry is & what inquiry-based learning looks like in the museum. 

I think this is critical. In essence, this understanding lays the groundwork for you to design and facilitate programs that cultivate curiosity, empower learners, and foster critical thinking.

So let’s start by exploring what inquiry is in general. 

What is inquiry?

Kath Murdoch talks about inquiry as a natural process in her recent book ‘Getting Personal with Inquiry Learning’. Inquiry is something that we are born to do and something that we are driven to do to help us learn throughout our lives. 

Inquiry is  the act of seeking information, knowledge, or understanding by asking questions and carrying out investigations. 

It’s a fundamental human process that drives exploration, discovery, and problem-solving. 

And inquiry is closely connected to curiosity – the two feed off each other to drive learning and exploration. 

Curiosity serves as the initial spark that ignites the process of inquiry. 

When someone is curious about a topic, they naturally start asking questions and seeking answers. This questioning and seeking behaviour is the foundation of inquiry.

What is inquiry-based learning in museums?

So inquiry-based learning is commonly used as an approach in formal education – for example, schools, colleges, and universities. And it is equally effective in informal learning environments too – such as museums, libraries, science centers, zoos, aquariums etc. 

Inquiry-based learning in museums is an approach that shifts the focus from delivering information to fostering active engagement and critical thinking among participants. 

Instead of relying solely on transmitting facts, this approach encourages participants to ask questions, explore, and analyse.  And this promotes a deeper understanding of what you’re looking at, discussing or learning about. 

Inquiry-based learning empowers learners to take an active role in their own learning process, encouraging curiosity, creativity, and a sense of ownership over the learning experience. 

It is rooted in the idea that participants learn best when they are actively involved, prompting them to investigate and seek answers, ultimately leading to more meaningful connections and lasting impact.

7 key characteristics of inquiry-based learning in museums

Curiosity-Driven: Inquiry-based learning begins with curiosity. It’s about nurturing participants’ innate desire to question, explore, and make sense of the world around them. 

Questioning: open-ended questions (and we’ll come on to this in the next tip) are central to inquiry-based learning. These are questions that prompt participants to think deeply, analyse, and make connections. These questions encourage investigation rather than seeking a single “right” answer. We talk about questions a lot on this podcast but if you’d like to brush up your skills, I’d recommend episode 87 – how to ask MORE open-ended questions. 

Active Participation: Instead of being passive recipients of information, participants actively engage with content, objects, or artworks. They themselves drive the learning process by seeking answers to their own questions.

Critical Thinking: Through inquiry, participants develop critical thinking skills. They learn to evaluate information, analyse different perspectives, and construct reasoned arguments.

Collective and collaborative inquiry: Inquiry often involves collaboration and discussion among participants. Sharing ideas, debating viewpoints, and building on each other’s insights contribute to a richer learning experience. And it’s really lovely to see a group discovering an artwork or an object together, building upon each others ideas and sparking new insights. It’s a process of shared exploration. 

Ownership: Participants take more ownership of their learning journey. They explore topics that resonate with them and make connections to their own experiences and interests. Participants play more of a role in actively shaping the museum experience. And this actually drives engagement as participants become more personally invested, motivated and absorbed by the experience. 

Participant-centred: Inquiry-based learning in the museum is participant-centred. It’s a way to design programmes that prioritises the needs and interests of the participants. The primary focus here is NOT on the expertise, knowledge and insights of the museum guide, or docent. Your role is to support and guide participants in their pursuit of knowledge and discovery. 

So, that’s the first tip – get to know and understand what inquiry-based learning in museums is about, what it looks like, what it feels like, go and see other educators in action, watch what they do and how they are doing it, make notes. Observe and see what you notice. 

#2 Craft thoughtful questions

Crafting thoughtful and open-ended questions is a fundamental part of inquiry-based learning. Questions serve as the foundation for exploration and discussion, guiding participants’ investigations. When formulating questions:

Prioritise Open-Ended Questions: Craft questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions encourage participants to delve deeper, share insights, and engage in meaningful discussions. 

Work on your questioning technique. Be a ‘student of questioning’ and read as much as you can around the subject or take a course on questioning. Don’t leave the questioning part to chance. There is skill involved in asking the questions in the right way at the right time. 

Episode 36 shares quick ways to work on your questioning technique and Episode 15 shares how you can use artworks or objects to improve your craft through brainstorming, sorting, evaluating, and reflecting on your questions. It’s a lifelong quest – be a questionologist like the author Warren Berger and get to love all questions, but especially the open-ended ones!

Use Thinking Routines: Implement thinking routines, such as Project Zero’s “See-Think-Wonder” to guide participants’ observations and reflections. These routines scaffold the inquiry process for both the facilitator (that’s you) and for the participants, prompting participants to analyse, question, and make connections.

If you struggle with formulating questions generally, then learning how to use a few thinking routines can really help to structure your discussions so that you’re not constantly worrying about asking the right questions or having to formulate too many of them on the spot. In my VTMO Beginners course starting at the beginning of September you can learn a variety of thinking routines to get you started. 

Inquiry-based learning can feel messy when you’re getting started. A structure is helpful. That’s why i created my Visible Thinking in the Museum approach specifically to help museum educators and guides to create participant-centred discussions that are a rounded whole, not a loose muddle of open-ended questions. 

Thinking routines help with this by serving as the backbone for the discussion. They help you to recall where you are in the process and where you’re going to go next. 

And lastly, embrace curiosity and wonder. When you’re crafting thoughtful questions, you’re not just seeking to gather information; you’re actively fostering curiosity and encouraging participants to engage deeply with the subject matter. 

Curiosity is a powerful motivator for learning. It sparks the desire to explore, understand, and connect with new ideas or objects. By embracing curiosity, you create an environment where participants feel excited and driven to seek answers and insights on their own terms. Try using some ‘What if…” questions in your museum programmes and see what happens. These speculative questions invite participants to think outside the box and explore potential scenarios:

“What if this sculpture could talk? What might it say?”

Or hypothetical questions, like ‘”If you were transported back in time, how might you interact with the people in this painting?”

As a facilitator, use phrases that naturally evoke curiosity, such as “I wonder why,” “What might happen if,” “Can you imagine,” and “What could be the reasons behind.” 

It’s a way of framing questions and statements that encourages participants to engage with the topic, consider possibilities, and delve deeper into their thoughts.

#3 Create a supportive environment

This is crucial for successful inquiry-based learning experiences. You want to be Fostering an atmosphere where participants feel comfortable, curious, and empowered as this enhances engagement and learning outcomes:

Establish Psychological Safety and trust by promoting an inclusive and non-judgmental environment. Encourage participants to share their ideas and perspectives without fear of criticism of judgement.

Encourage Collaboration: Design activities that promote collaboration and discussion among participants. Group inquiries and discussions facilitate the exchange of ideas, diverse viewpoints, and collective problem-solving.

Provide Supplement Resources: Equip participants with relevant supplemental materials, such as primary sources, objects, images, or texts or sensory items. These resources serve as catalysts for inquiries, offering participants the tools they need to explore their questions.

Emphasise Reflective Practice: Integrate reflective practices throughout the inquiry process. Encourage participants to reflect as they go along, to share any insights they have gained. Because Reflection deepens understanding and metacognition.

Model Curiosity: Model a curious and inquisitive mindset. Share your own wonderings, uncertainties, and questions. Your enthusiasm for exploration encourages participants to embrace curiosity themselves.

And finally…


Combining these 3 tips—understanding inquiry-based learning, crafting thoughtful questions, and creating supportive environments—will help you to lay a strong foundation for successfully facilitating inquiry-driven approaches in your museum programmes. 

If you’d like to be taken step by step through getting started with inquiry then you can join me in one of my VTMO Courses. In Autumn,/Fall 2023 I am running my 3 courses consecutively so that you can become a VTM facilitator by the end of the year. 

VTMO Beginners starts on September 5th with the first live class on Thursday September 7th. VTMO Intermediate starts on october 3rd and VTMO Advanced on 24th October.

Each course is a combination of live and self-paced classes taking place over a period of 3 weeks with 3 modules. It introduces you to the values, foundations and 8 practices of the VTM approach alongside a broad selection of Project Zero and other thinking routines. Places are limited.