Inquiry Based Learning applied to health and physical education

The Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) process provides a model for educators to help make deeper connections to health education or physical education curriculum in the classroom. It is a strategic instructional process meant to produce and ignite questioning. Through this process, students gain deeper knowledge about the topic at hand and become more proficient with the skills involved.

Inquiry Based Learning is an instructional approach that supports student engagement with and analysis of ideas. It allows students to dive into an area of study through questioning, predicting, investigating, recording, discussing, and reflecting. In contrast to a lecture where students are supplied with answers, the IBL process creates an environment where students are actively developing habits of the mind. Students are asking questions, interacting with one another, gaining insights based on research and shared thoughts, and are supported to elevate their question levels as they get deeper and deeper into the work being done.

In the IBL process, teachers guide students through a series of steps designed to answer an essential question. These five steps are: 1) explore/ask foundation questions, 2) investigate to gather information, 3) create new knowledge and experiences, 4) share/discuss discoveries, and 5) reflect and take stock. It is not necessary to follow the same order every time a teacher guides students in this process.

Teachers pose or students generate an essential question and students work through the steps described above to answer the question.  Student discussions may generate additional questions that will need to be investigated and eventually discussed again or a prediction may lead to new questions which then stimulates a continuation of the process. Through active engagement in the process, students gain a deeper understanding of the essential questions.

IBL in the health education curriculum – Let’s start with a question about stress management that will lead to a group discussion. For example, “How important is it to learn to manage stress?” This discussion will establish baseline data or insights about where students are at the beginning of the process. Then guide students through the next steps of the IBL model. Students will make predictions about possible helpful stress-management tools, investigate the predictions, and engage in small group discussions. Allow for reporting out and possibly additional large group discussion which may raise new questions…possibly fueling new predictions and investigations.

IBL in the physical education curriculum – The teacher starts by asking students questions such as, “How important is it to be physically active?” or “What are things that you do that help you to be physically active?” Then the teacher has the students turn to the person next to them and share their answers. This is the explore/ask step that also offers practice in speaking and listening. In the next step, students ask each other questions about the benefits of physical activity, i.e. physical signs, physiological changes, etc… This leads to a deeper understanding of the reasons for being physically active, so students can respond proficiently for their grade span when asked, “What are the benefits of physical activity?” After discussing these questions and sharing during class, have students read an article on the benefits of physical activity and the problems associated with inactivity as an extended learning opportunity. Teachers who offer different reading levels in these materials support all students to read with comprehension. Students then add in thoughts from class discussions, facts from the reading and describe in writing why physical activity is important. The teacher can continue the process in subsequent lessons which can scaffold to meet additional performance indicators through INVESTIGATION (by tracking activity), CREATING (design a personal wellness plan to improve your benefits), and REFLECTING (create more questions or another inquiry). The goal is for students to understand the merits of physical activity and embrace physical activity for a lifetime. Engaging the students in this process will have greater success than just having students listen to the benefits. (Inquiry-Based Learning: A Review of the Research Literature, Dr. Sharon Friesen, Galileo Educational Network, University of Calgary)

For more information on IBL for health education and physical education, click here and view the two Cross Discipline Literacy Network webinar presentations titled Be Great! Motivate the Digital Generation in Health Education & Physical Education Using Inquiry-Based Strategies 1 & 2 featuring Stacey Vannah, health education teacher Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham and Denise Priesser, physical education teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Portland.

For more information about IBL or health education and physical education, contact Maine DOE Health and Physical Education Specialists Susan Berry at or Jean Zimmerman at

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