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Creating a Classroom Where Students' Thinking and Questions Are at the Centre

January 2013 • Sue Jackson

This year we have explored the development of collaborative strategies and the habits of mind; both important aspects for successful student participation during inquiry investigations. This month's tip looks at creating an inquiry-based environment; one that promotes curiosity, fascination, and mindfulness and one where students are encouraged to raise questions and search for answers. Our question then is: How do I create a classroom where students' thinking and questions are at the centre?

Creating a classroom environment where there is genuine wonderment, questioning, and risk-taking is a challenge. Intentional decisions and deliberate planning need to be made to ensure the physical environment, classroom culture, and instructional strategies work together to build the features of an inquiry-based environment.

Physical Environment
At the beginning of the year, the walls in an inquiry classroom are usually quite bare; yet, over time, they become places for students' observations, ideas, and questions. Bulletin boards with headings such as: Our Wonderings, Our Discoveries, Our Action Plan for Inquiry, or See, Think, Wonder reinforce the growth of students' understanding and promote inclusion in the learning community. It is a good idea to leave evidence of students' questions and thinking on display for as long as possible, even when the class has moved on to another topic. This promotes connections with new content.

The configuration of classroom furniture also promotes conversation and learning from each other. Desks or tables should be arranged in small groupings so that students face each other, prompting collaboration and problem-solving. To promote whole-group sharing of ideas and questions a large, open space should be created where all students can gather.

"Research suggests that whatever possesses 'novelty, complexity, uncertainty, and conflict' invites curiosity, exploration, and investigation" (Barell, Why Are School Buses Always Yellow?, 2008, p. 19) Therefore, objects placed in the classroom can enhance students' curiosity. Everyday objects from around the house and unusual objects can both spark interest. Introduce the objects and challenge students to ask higher-order thinking questions about them, using a Q-chart to help with question design. You might also create a Discovery Centre to house special items and include clipboards and paper for questions and wonderings.

Culture of Curiosity
One of the best ways to encourage an environment where students freely ask questions and seek answers is to model your own inquisitiveness. "[B]y sharing those experiences, circumstances, objects, and ideas that we find fascinating and lead to our wanting to find answers", we demonstrate our curiosity for students. (Barell, Why Are School Buses Always Yellow?, 2008, p. 30)

With younger students, you may want to begin by modelling 'wonder talk'-a more informal way of asking questions. For example, after viewing a video about cheetahs, you might think aloud; "I saw that cheetahs are very fast runners and I want to know why they are so fast. I wonder if they can outrun a lion?"

With older students, it is often helpful to demonstrate how to keep track of your thinking and questions in an Inquiry or Wonder Journal.

Helpful sentence stems include:

  • There's a part I wanted to ask...
  • I am curious about...
  • I saw...and I think...
  • I'm trying to figure out...
  • This is what I don't get...
  • I saw...and I want to know...
  • I wonder why...
  • What if...?
  • Maybe...perhaps...

Instructional Strategies
There are a number of strategies you can use to stimulate students' curiosity and initiate the inquiry process. Choose one, or a combination of several of the following strategies, to spark interest in a unit or topic.

  • Connect the topic personally to students' lives by asking students to bring in a physical artefact related to the topic.
  • Take your class outside to observe the world beyond the classroom—encourage students to use all of their senses to explore their surroundings.
  • Engage students in interactive read-alouds, both fiction and non-fiction, to activate students' knowledge and questions about a topic.
  • Provide opportunities for students to witness observable natural phenomena (e.g., butterflies emerging from a chrysalis, chicks hatching, salmon eggs hatching).
  • Elicit prior knowledge first using a KWL, R.A.N. chart, or have students draw or write about what they know about a topic.
  • Pay special attention to questions, suggestions, or observations that arise spontaneously (e.g., in small group discussions, as students are working at centres).
  • Provide introductory hands-on experiences (e.g., planting or digging experiences, building and constructing).
  • Revisit related questions or topics of interest from previous inquiries as they sometimes provide helpful entry points into inquiry.

  • (adapted from Natural Curiosity: A Resource for Teachers, p. 15)

A highly effective strategy used in an inquiry-based classroom is the Knowledge Building Circle. During this communal activity "learners come together to pose questions, posit theories, and to revisit, negotiate, and refine their ideas" (Natural Curiosity: A Resource for Teachers, p. 11). The goal of the Knowledge Building Circle is to "identify shared problems and gaps in understanding and to advance the understanding beyond the level of the most knowledgeable individual" (Scardamalia, 2002, p. 12). It is a class discussion opportunity that is specifically reserved for working out students' emergent questions and ideas and deepens students' understanding through increased exposure to the diverse perspectives of the class.

The Knowledge Building Circle usually happens at the onset of a unit, following introductory activities that spark interest in the topic (see above). Another Knowledge Building Circle is held to identify which questions to pursue and to develop an action plan. Throughout an inquiry unit students continue gathering in Knowledge Building Circles to critically reflect on their work, report on new understandings, and share further questions.

Scardamalia, M. (2002). Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith (Ed.), Liberal Education in a Knowledge Society (pp. 67-98). Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Chiarotto, Lorraine (2011), Natural Curiosity: A Resource for Teachers, p. 11. Toronto, ON: The Laboratory School at The Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

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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