Inquiry-based learning has been quite the buzzword in education for some time now, but what exactly does it mean? There seems to be a lot of confusion about what inquiry ought to look like. Harvey and Daniels outline four types of inquiry in their book Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action: Mini Inquiry, Curricular Inquiry, Lit Circles Inquiry, and Open Inquiry. There are many others out there who have also attempted to define inquiry in some sort of practical way. Regardless of the specific inquiry model or approach, there are a few key factors to consider when deciding on an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning.
What are your students’ interests?
Engagement comes from being invested in the learning process, so students’ interests are key to developing engaging inquiries. However, it’s perfectly ok to start small and within a given curricular area. For example, if life cycles are in your primary Science curriculum and you’ve been learning about butterflies, why not start by simply asking students what they are wondering about the life of a butterfly? For older students, consider sharing a video, article, or photo to spark their curiosity about a topic and develop wonders from there. This could be anything from social justice to ocean life to story writing. Simple curiosity is the birthplace of inquiry. By asking students what they want to learn, even within a given content area, we provide them with voice and choice in their learning. Mini Inquiry – asking questions and finding answers – is a great introduction to the inquiry process for teachers and students, as it can be as structured and guided as you would like.
How flexible is your time?
I feel I am so lucky to work Grade 6/7 students in an elementary school context. We have a ton of freedom in how we organize our day, which allows for powerful cross-curricular connections to be made and sometimes, time to explore Open Inquiry. However, even within a block system in a middle or high school context, there is room for inquiry. Whether it is Lit Circles in Language Arts or Curricular Inquiry in a content area like Social Studies or Science, there is an approach that will work for you and your students. Contrary to popular belief, structure is not a bad thing when it comes to inquiry, and in fact, it is essential to developing key skills and competencies in our students. However, inquiry is ultimately a frame of mind; students simply need modeling and encouragement to develop such a mindset. I find Getting Started With Student Inquiry a good place to start understanding the role of the teacher and the student in the inquiry process.
How will you help students access resources?
This one comes up often and, unfortunately, it can be the factor that scares teachers off of inquiry. If students are pursuing different questions, how am I supposed to support them in their learning? Where do I access resources? What if I don’t know anything about their topic? The answer to all of these questions is that you are not an expert, but you can figure it out. With amazing online resources like Discovery Education and access to experts all over the world through social media, the information students need and want is out there somewhere. For those who don’t have easy access to technology, there are still plenty of books, magazines, and guest speakers out there. Regardless of the medium used, teachers roles are shifting from being experts to curators, and this is a very exciting place to be! It’s also a great opportunity to model an inquiry mindset for your students, as you ask questions and learn alongside them.
Inquiry doesn’t have to be scary. It can start small and be designed by the teacher. It can also be entirely student-driven and open-ended. The possibilities are endless, but the competencies developed throughout the inquiry process are what make this approach so valuable.
How might you “do” inquiry in your classroom this week?
Photo Credit: Milos Milosevic via Flickr
If you’re still not sure what inquiry might look like in a classroom setting, check out Galileo Educational Network for some examples. You can also read about some of the things my students are doing this year on our class blog.