Brianne Gidcumb | August 2014

Inquiry Based Learning through the Arts

If you’re like me, your new year’s resolutions don’t kick into gear on January 1st. They begin on the first day of school.  In the weeks before school begins, I’m making a list of all of the things to do different this school year. One of this year’s goals: to include more inquiry-based learning in my music classroom.

To be honest, this resolution wasn’t completely intrinsically motivated.  Problem-based learning is a major priority in my district, being implemented in all classrooms.

The PBL Model

In this PBL model, students are presented with an authentic, real-world problem.  The process includes field experience, where students have an opportunity to speak with experts on the problem.

Students devise a solution to this authentic problem through a variety of lenses (economic, environmental, social, etc.).  Students have an opportunity to vet their presentation and their solution to an objective source.  And finally, students present to a panel of experts who provide feedback on the solution and the presentation.

The Challenges of Problems

After attending professional development on problem-based learning and seeking out examples of problem-based learning in the elementary music classroom, I was fixated on the challenges that this process would present in the arts classroom:

  • Project-based learning is a completely natural fit for the arts classroom, but finding an authentic, real-world problem for problem-based learning might be a challenge.
  • There might not be enough time to deliver foundational, standards-based music instruction and implement the entire problem-based learning process with only 50 minutes a week.

These challenges are very real, but after some reflection, I believe that for the arts teacher to attempt to align to the PBL process, the key will be to focus on the emphasis of inquiry-based learning for students.

Starting with Inquiry

It might not be an authentic, real-world problem, and it might not be as fully realized in process as it can be in the general classroom, but allowing students to explore arts topics through inquiry-based learning provides students with an opportunity to make their learning more authentic, to gain knowledge based in standards, and to develop 21st century learning skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity.

PBL BANNER, Inquiry Based Learning through the Arts, Education Closet

Let’s Start Here

Draw from essential questions.

Essential questions keep us accountable to our standards, and these essential questions are built right into the framework of the new National Core Arts Standards.  By adapting these questions to guide students to a specific learning objectives, we can begin bringing inquiry into the arts.

Let students take ownership of their learning.

This is a hard one for someone who loves control as much as I do.  If we can let go and trust our students to guide their own learning, this creates buy-in. (What do you want to know about this subject? How do you want to learn this? What can you listen/look for?)  Of course, there are times for explicit, teacher-led instruction, but there are times when I can let go of the reigns and allow students to make their own choices.  My goal is recognize these opportunities and take a step back.

Focus on the process.

At the heart of many current educational initiatives is a focus on process, habits, and learning and life skills.  Of course we want students to master content: that’s what we are responsible for.  But deeper than that, we want our students leaving our classrooms with the tools to be successful in life.

By providing students choice, asking them to inquire and investigate, helping them develop the skill to solve problems, and to provide a structure in which they can share what they’ve learned, regardless of the content area, we are allowing them an opportunity to practice a process they will need to be successful in life, and the bonus is that they will walk away with a deeper understanding of content.

Make real-world connections.

When students make meaning, the learning sticks.  A couple of years ago, I was teaching the melodic concept of re to my second grade students, and they were struggling with it.  As I drove home one day, I heard Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” on the radio, and as I sang along, I realized this was a great real-world application of the very concept my kids were having so much difficulty with.

I had the students listen to the song the next day, guiding them to listen for a re-do pattern, and two years later, they are still singing it with Kodaly hand signs, able to identify the melodic concept.  By integrating the theory with something relatable to kids, the learning stuck.  Inquiry-based learning should be based in real-world connections, in something tangible to children, and so my resolution is to create inquiry-based learning experiences that students will relate to and retain.

What challenges and successes have you had with problem-based and inquiry-based learning in your arts classroom?

Click here for resources of PBL and inquiry-based learning in the arts.

About the Author

Brianne is a former music educator from Chicago and current graduate class instructor with EdCloset’s Learning Studios. She earned her Masters degree in Music Education from VanderCook College of Music and has over a decade of experience in the elementary general music classroom. With her experience in the performing arts, Brianne is dedicated to building connections between the arts and Common Core Standards, 21st century learning skills, inquiry and project-based learning. In addition to her work with EducationCloset, Brianne is a yoga instructor in the Chicagoland area. You can also find Brianne here: