Inquiry-based learning is an approach to learning and teaching that encourages active engagement of students to share their questions, thoughts, observations, and ideas. The method encourages teachers to test, redefine, and respectfully challenge the students’ ideas. According to Attard, Berger, and Mackenzie (2021), the aim of inquiry-based learning is to ensure that both educators and learners take not of and fulfils their roles in the learning process. Inquiry-based learning replaces the traditional classroom with an active learning process where early childhood education learners actively work within groups, based on their teacher’s guidelines.

Children from such a class understand concepts better compared to those that take and memorise notes. By incorporating real-life experiences, inquiry-based learning nurtures problem-solving ability in the young learners. Inquiry-based teaching helps educators to take children from overall curiosity to a point where they engage critical thinking and comprehension. The teaching and learning method requires teachers to motivate learners to ask questions and then guide them on conducting investigation so they understand the beginning and the entire structure of inquiry process (Attard et al., 2021).

Inquiry-based learning system is appropriate for STEM curriculum because it shows children the relevance of the content taught inside the classroom in real-life (Attard et al., 2021). Again, inquiry based learning creates connection within a discipline and across disciplines in a curriculum. Attard and colleagues also noted that inquiry-based learning helps to build and keep interpersonal relationships in the classroom environment so children can have positive interactions.

These relationships help to combine cognition with operative and affective attributes to help early childhood learners to enjoy the STEM-based learning at school and trace the link between the STEM concepts/activities and their lives. Moreover, STEM skills required for every child include problem-solving, active learning, complex communication abilities, critical thinking, and adaptability (Murphy, MacDonald, Danaia & Wang, 2019). Inquiry-based learning helps children to acquire these skills.        

Effective Teaching Strategies in STEM

Appropriate teaching approaches should encourage active involvement of the children in the learning process and turn them into curious thinkers (Murphy et al., 2019; Attard et al., 2021). The methods should also emphasise experiential learning and help the young learners to create meaning. Murphy et al (2019) argued that educators are responsible for providing inquiry-based STEM education through ways that enable the children to develop essential STEM capabilities (Murphy et al., 2019). Teachers at all levels, including early childhood, should be highly skilled in teaching STEM subjects. 

The following teaching strategies are recommended:

  • Intentional teaching: Here, teachers plan the learning experiences carefully, prioritising the objectives of mathematics and science. This strategy involves the use of technology, which connects the mathematics and science to engineering.  Examples of technology-based tools to use in an early childhood classroom include a hand-held magnifying glass for observing insects outdoors, balancing scales for weighing objects, and timers. Murphy et al. (2019) reported that application of digital technologies (such as robotics and computers) is highly recommended in STEM education as these broaden access to learning resources, promotes problem solving, and enhances thinking skills. The authors also explained that digital learning motivates students, making them more interested in the learning process.When planning the STEM experiences, educators should ensure that the selected approaches enhance understanding. Children will only put acquired knowledge to use if they understand the contents of these STEM subjects. In this teaching strategy, inquiry appears when children begin asking questions, determining relationships, and exchanging ideas. Generally, science and mathematics are disciplines that involve creativity. To enhance the effectiveness of this strategy, teachers should allow the young learners to interact with real materials and relate them to their personal experiences in life (Attard et al., 2021). Educators should also find situations, materials, and experiences that children find interesting to promote learning of these subjects.

  • Engaging inquiry: Inquiry is essential to learning of mathematics. As Attard et al. (2021) explained, inquiry-based learning requires children to take an active role in the learning process. Active participation helps children to interact with real-world materials and learn their characteristics through observation, questioning, and exploration. In mathematics, for example, a teacher may tell that children have developed understanding of algebra if they can arrange objects or items according to categories based on colours, sizes, or shapes.     
  • Arranging for real-world contexts: Attard et al. (2021) argued that children learn better when they can connect classroom activities to their real-life experiences. Science teachers should provide the preschoolers and kindergarten children with materials to explore, as they are still in the phase of distinguishing fantasy from reality. When a child gets experience with real animals and plants, for example,they are able to distinguish the real-life objects from characters from storybooks. Even in physical science, children should interact and experiment with materials and observe results. Real-life experiences with scientific processes makes children aware that such procedures are not magical.    
  • Assessment of learning: Formative assessments help with identification and establishment of appropriate STEM knowledge, attitudes, and understanding in early childhood education (Harrison & Howard, 2011). Assessment also helps educators to actively engage children in the learning process and make them acknowledge their thinking processes. Teachers should possess the skills for creating safe and supportive educational contexts, introducing affective pedagogical activities,and allocation of adequate learning time (Murphy et al., 2019). These skills can be attained through professional development.
  • Teachers can also use motivation and affect to encourage children to respond positively to mathematics and science activities (Crfat et al, 2012). Educators with the ability to create appropriate social environment are essential for attainment of learning objectives of STEM subjects. Teachers should design early childhood settings  in such a way that science learning is possible indoors and outdoors.
  • Reflection and reasoning: encourages development of reflective awareness and deliberate regulation of cognition competencies (Bancroft, Fawcett, & Hay, 2008). This practice requires educators to take time to think about their past teaching strategies to identify what work or what did not, and why negative outcomes were obtained. By doing this, educators challenge their practices and make changes that will help children to develop new understanding, and advance learning.

Effective Learning Strategies in STEM

Several approaches are applied during the early years to enhance science knowledge and understanding in children. The foundation created in STEM subjects at early childhood education level determines the child’s competencies in such subject matters at higher education levels and the future outcomes (Murphy et al., 2019). The following inquiry-based learning strategies help children to understand the world around them:

  1. Exploration: playful experimentations are part of young children’s activities (Goswami, 2015). For instance, children may be engaged in exploration when learning biological science to recognise animals and plants as living things that grow, have basic needs and have requirements (sunlight, food, and water) that must be provided for their successful growth. Similarly, exploration activities may make young children aware of physical changes that occur when things melt, or freeze. These STEM-based activities help students to exercise their STEM-based capabilities and enable them to see the relevance of STEM to their lives (Murphy et al., 2019).
  2. Collaboration: Inquiry-based learning requires cooperation between educators and students. Engaging in dialogues improves creativity inside the learning environment and assists with learning of science and mathematics (Mercer & Littleton, 2007).The dialogues can happen between a student and peers or a STEM teacher. Dialogues provide children with the opportunity to ask questions and find answers. From the educator’s perspective, dialogue creates awareness of the level of children’s understanding of the subject matter and can aid with identification of improvement areas.
  3. Problem-solving: Children’s questions, ideas, and physical experiences may be analysed through scaffolding to enhance creativity (Craft, Cremin, Burnard, Dragovic, & Chappell, 2013). Teacher scaffolding recognises the importance of educators as mediators in the learning process. The role of teachers is to meet the needs of children (Bonawitz et al., 2011). Scaffolding is important during the teaching of new concepts, as it grant the teacher a chance to assist children in learning new ideas. When introducing a new science or mathematics for example, a teacher may employ scaffolding reading to allow the children to preview the class textbook to identify vocabulary then engage them in a discussion session to help the young learners understand the meaning of the selected vocabulary. Murphy et al. (2019) explained that real-world inquiry as well as learning through problem-solving positively contribute to students learning of STEM disciplines by improving the ability of the children to understand the subjects.
  4. Curiosity: questioning and curiosity help teachers to promote speculation and creativity in science and mathematics (Chappell, Craft, Burnard, & Cremin, 2008). Curiosity makes children more observant and engages them in a critical thinking process to enable them understand the concepts. When children begin exploring their curiosity in a STEM subject like science or mathematics, they expand their understanding of that subject by focusing on what they think, hear, see, and outcomes of experiment.
  5. Measurements: During investigation, mathematics and science involve comparisons of measurements (Murphy et al., 2019; Attard et al., 2021). Children may, for instance, observe the fastest car in a video game or even the differences in spots on the body of a leopard and a cheetah.This form of measurements help early childhood learners to identify the similarities and differences between items. Quantification is another aspect that closely relates to measurement. When teaching numbers for instance, a teacher may use appropriate number of sticks to help children identify the differences in quantities.When a teacher uses two sticks to represent number 2 and four sticks for number 4, the children understand that number 4 has more sticks than number 2.