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Getting Started With Inquiry Learning In Your Classroom

January 2012 • Sue Jackson

To further the discussion of inquiry-based learning, this month's tip focuses on the question: How can I get started with inquiry learning in my classroom?

Whether you teach Kindergarten or Grade 8, you will find students become more engaged and competent as readers, composers, and learners when taught curricular topics and learning strategies through inquiry (Wilhelm, Wilhelm, and Boas, 2009). It is the power of compelling questions that drives deep interest, understanding, caring, and the application of 21st century skills.

To introduce critical inquiry learning in your classroom, consider a large group inquiry approach which, potentially, can lead to small group or individual inquiry into finer aspects of an issue. During a whole group inquiry, students gain competence by being guided through the process and develop necessary skills and tools to aid in self-initiated inquiries. Often students don't have the necessary background knowledge to pose their own questions or lack understanding in identifying a question worthy of investigation so the large group approach is essential when getting started.

Begin by examining your curriculum and identifying a topic that you think will be interesting to students. In his book, Inquiring Minds, Wilhelm suggests that topics should be "engaging, edgy, important, involving debate and multiple perspectives, related to various disciplines, personal and world issues" (2009). The topic should be reframed into an inquiry or 'essential' question—a question written in friendly language, yet compelling and motivating for students. Questions are open-ended in nature with no 'correct' answer; in fact, the answer is unknown. Inquiry questions represent what is at the "heart of the matter" and frame the unit as a puzzle or problem to be solved. This 'problematizing' of the curriculum helps pique students' interest in the subject matter you need to teach (Harvey and Daniels, 2009).

Examples of inquiry questions tied to curriculum topics include:

Curriculum Area Topic Inquiry Question
Science Stewardship and Sustainability How do we care for the world?
Social Studies Relationships, Rules, and Responsibilities Why do we need rules and responsibilities?
Health Adaptive, Coping, and Management Skills How do people overcome health issues or physical challenges in their lives?
The Arts Music What purpose does music play in our lives?
Science Space What would it feel like to travel in space? What are some important moments in space history and space exploration?
Canadian and World Studies Human Rights Why do human rights matter?
Media Understanding Media Texts What are advertisers really selling?
Science Interactions in the Environment How easy is it to be green?

To assist with the organization of a whole group inquiry, create a 'Facilitation Plan'. This plan provides the general direction that allows both individual learners and the whole class to achieve the set goals. List what you want students to know (conceptual knowledge) and what you want students to do (procedural knowledge) during the inquiry unit. With this in mind, list the sources and resources that will be needed or made available to students. You may want to consider potential roadblocks to learning by listing problems and alternative solutions.

Your role in the large group inquiry is one of coach or facilitator. Learning activities must be designed so that students own much of the learning and teaching. With young students, large group inquiry is facilitated by providing materials and instructional contexts that can fully support learning. Gather texts for both Read Aloud and Shared Reading experiences where teacher support is readily available.

At the beginning of the inquiry, introduce the question to the students. Explain that the inquiry question will help focus students' thinking during this process. Post the question for easy reference. Next activate students' background knowledge and experiences with the topic through various frontloading activities.You may consider using a RAN chart, KWHL, Anticipation Guide, mind mapping, Four Corners, Value Line, etc. Introduce the culminating project that will allow all students to demonstrate mastery of concepts and transfer of skills to a new situation. The culminating project should be authentic and meaningful for students and may take the form of a performance, presentation, demonstration, project, or written composition. Work together with students to determine assessment criteria and create a rubric for the culminating project.

Think about an instructional sequence that will help students consolidate conceptual and procedural knowledge. Students will read, discuss, question, respond, seek connections and identify patterns as they investigate a topic. Remember to scaffold activities to allow time for modelling, exploration, practice, and assessment. Using webs and graffiti boards helps capture in-process ideas and questions. Another effective format to keep track of questions is an inquiry chart.

At the end of the unit, have students revisit the inquiry question, reflect on what they have learned and come to their own conclusions about the topic or issue. Record any new questions that may lead to new critical inquiries.

Harvey and Daniels, Inquiry Circles in Action, Heinemann, Portsmouth: NH, 2009).

Wilhelm, Wilhelm, and Boas, Inquiring Minds Learn to Read and Write, Scholastic Inc. New York: NY 2009

Sue Jackson, a classroom teacher for 20 years, is an enthusiastic and innovative author, speaker, consultant, and educator.

Scholastic Education
National Literacy Consultant

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Also available online, previous Teaching Tips for
Scholastic Education resources:

Literacy Place for the Early Years (K–3)

Moving Up with Literacy Place (4–6)

Stepping Up with Literacy Place (7–9)

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