Tag der Lehre | Inverted Classroom and Beyond 2024


⚡ Inquiry-Based Learning for sustainability – a unique opportunity

#Inquirybasedlearning #Educationforsustainability #Sustainabledevelopmentgoals #Transformativelearning #Teachingmethodology


Lydia Kolano-Law, Anja-Bettina Zurmühl

UNESCO‘s Agenda presents 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). It is emphazised that higher education institutions (HEIs) have an important role to play in addressing these global challenges. The contribution follows a reflection that explores the potential of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) as a teaching methodology to integrate the SDGs into the curricula in a sustainable and profitable way for all parties involved.

Poverty, inequality, climate change. These and other global challenges are addressed in UNESCO‘s 2030 Agenda with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Die Bundesregierung, n.d.). SDG4 - Quality Education - emphasises the responsibility of higher education institutions (HEIs) to tackle these issues through the cross-cutting theme of education. This raises the question of how teaching needs to be designed to enable students to acquire the knowledge, skills and values needed to address SDG issues (Kolano-Law et al., forthcoming).

Teaching methods that stimulate transformative processes (Blum et al., 2021; BMBF, n.d.) and enable experiential learning (Frank & Fischer, 2018) have an important role to play here. We therefore venture a thought experiment that considers inquiry-based learning (IBL) as a suitable concept.

What is IBL?

According to Huber 2013 and others (Huber & Reinmann, 2019; Reinmann, 2016, 2019), IBL is characterised by the following: It starts with a question or problem, chosen by the students themselves or at least guided by their interests. At the end and throughout the process, it focuses on reflection and discussion within a scientific community. The outcome of IBL should be a gain in knowledge. This knowledge should also be relevant (so say significant) to third parties. The overall aim is also to develop a research-based (reflective) attitude, which is achieved by going through and actively shaping an entire research process. This "should enable the cognitive, emotional and social experience of the entire arc, which extends from curiosity or initial interest, from the questions and structuring tasks at the beginning, through the ups and downs of the process, feelings of happiness and uncertainty, to the (co-)found knowledge or problem solution and its communication" (Huber & Reinmann, 2019, p. 8, own translation).

The potential

With this in mind, a closer look at the characteristics of IBL reveals parallels with experiential, situational and transformative learning:

Finding a research question, independently conducting a research process, discussions or other research situations can confront students with new challenges, problems and perspectives that can challenge their own beliefs and routines (Ahel & Schirmer, 2023; Huber, 2013; Huber & Reinmann, 2019; Vilsmaier & Meyer, 2019; Wessels et al., 2016; Winterseel & Vaupel, 2023). According to Mezirow (2009), these irritations can stimulate essential processes in transformative learning such as critical self-analysis, planning, experimentation and (behavioural) change. Furthermore, these processes can be guided by typical characteristics of IBL, such as reflection, emotional involvement and a research-based attitude (see also Blum et al., 2021; Mezirow, 2009; Singer-Brodowski, 2018). This is linked to situational learning, wich also reflects practical, social and experiential components of IBL (Reinmann, 2009).

Best Practices

The following examples provide an insight into the different forms that IBL can take in a higher education setting:

  • One-course approaches

The Integrationsseminar at the Cooperative State University Baden-Wuerttemberg (Duale Hochschule Baden-Württemberg, DHBW) offers the opportunity to implement research projects with students in line with the subject area - and thus on a variety of SDGs. The final presentation in the presence of partner companies or the publication of the results in a research volume (see e.g. DHBW Stuttgart) conveys a high appreciation of the students‘ research work and enables them to develop an individual profile (Vilsmaier & Meyer, 2019).

The annual Sustainability Challenge organised by the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Research (Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Lehre und Forschung, INDIS), shows a similar approach. Students can participate with their own questions on selected SDGs and research them in interdisciplinary teams. While doing so, they receive learning and scientific support from INDIS coaches (DHBW Stuttgart, 2023).

Frank and Fischer (2018) report on IBL in the field of sustainable consumption at Leuphana University Lüneburg. By facilitating reflection, students are sensitised to the issue and confronted with their own patterns of action. Situations that can be particularly significant for transformative learning.

  • Degree programme approaches

At the same university the entire degree program Sustainability: Sustainability Science is dedicated to the topic. Transformative Innovation Labs (TIL) are being tested, which integrate the full research cycle on various sustainability topics into teaching using a real-world laboratory approach (Wanner et al., 2020).

  • Whole institution approaches

The Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development is committed to sustainability as an entire institution. IBL is a core element of transdisciplinary teaching, which focuses on situational, world-related learning (Nationale Plattform Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung, 2017).

What needs to be done?

It is legitimate to ask why IBL has not yet been widely used to integrate sustainability issues into teaching. For a holistic perspective, obstacles to implementing IBL must also be considered.

IBL is considered time-consuming (Kolano et al., 2023; Wulf et al., 2020). Concepts and content need to be regularly revised to keep up with rapidly evolving topics and issues (Pretorius et al., 2016). At the same time, there is a need for continuous support from lecturers as learning guides. HEIs often lack established structures to assist teachers (and students) in overcoming these obstacles (Schneider et al., 2018). Similar issues arise for HEIs when introducing sustainability topics (Filho, 2018).

Despite the challenges, there is a unique opportunity. Combining sustainability topics with IBL can create a triangulation between teaching, science and practice. Not only does this provide new chances for students to become competent agents of change, but the HEI itself can reposition itself in relation to partners and other stakeholders.