10 Inquiry Based Learning Examples for Back to School

Inquiry based learning is an excellent way to garner student questions and ideas and use them as a starting point for deeper learning. However, many teachers run into problems coming up with inquiry based learning examples that are meaningful and simple to execute.

Examples of inquiry based learning are authentic and meaningful. They incorporate real-world problems and issues and give students opportunities to develop soft skills like problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity.

Below is a comprehensive list of ten inquiry based learning examples for back to school.

1. Community Gardening

What impact can growing our own food have on the community?

In this inquiry based learning example, students investigate the connections between resources and health. Students explore concepts like urban farms, food sovereignty, and food scarcity. 

One path students can take is addressing the issue of resource availability. For example, how easy is it for senior citizens to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables? Or, what financial barriers prevent people from accessing locally-produced food? These questions can be explored through interviews with community members, food banks, and organizations that seek to address these problems.

Another route students can take is exploring the impacts that the pandemic has had on local food accessibility. On one hand, people have shown an increased interest in growing food in their own gardens, but on the other hand, people who cannot afford that luxury have had many sacrifices to make. This ties into the idea of resource availability, but narrows in on the impacts that the global pandemic has had on food management locally.

Finally, students could explore the connection between food sovereignty and good health. For example, does growing your own food impact your health? Furthermore, they could explore the concept of composting, and perhaps think of ways that communities can salvage food scraps to benefit others. This can lead to a broader discussion on sustainability and food scarcity.

Cross-Curricular Links:

  • Math: students measure and calculate the perimeter and area of planting beds, use cubes to measure the heights of pre-existing flowers and plants, calculate the cost savings of growing their own food vs. buying food at a local grocery store
  • Science: students conduct a scientific inquiry into the conditions favourable for growing healthy flowers, or into the best soil for optimal vegetable growth

2. Habitats and Communities

What impacts do humans have on habitats?

This inquiry based learning example is great for classes studying habitats and communities. There are plenty of routes student learning can take. For example, students can focus on the characteristics of different habitats to compare and contrast them, or they can investigate the ways animals and plants depend on each other in a specific habitat.

A meaningful direction students can take with this inquiry is to focus on the impacts of humans on habitats. For example, how does deforestation affect habitats in Brazil or other timber-exporting countries? Furthermore, what effect does home building and residential development have on habitats? Several activities, downloads, and related articles for this topic of inquiry can be found in our recent Inquiry Pack about Habitats and Communities, free to download.

Not only can students explore the impact of human activities on habitats, but they can also go deeper to investigate the ways plants and animals adapt to these changes. They could also explore the impact of hunting, climate change, or invasive species. Give students space and materials to investigate their natural curiosity about the topic and see where it takes them.

New to teaching inquiry? Need help organizing the flow of your inquiry lessons? Check out our article on Teaching Inquiry: A Simple Roadmap for Teachers.

Cross-Curricular Links:

  • Science: students conduct a scientific inquiry about creating an ideal honeybee habitat, construct labeled, to-scale dioramas of two contrasting habitats
  • History: students construct maps showing how habitats have changed over time and the causes for the changes, interview members of the community to hear their perspective on how their local community has changed and highlight their voices in a mini documentary

3. Contingency Inquiry

What if ___?

In this particular example, it is important for students to understand the concept of contingency, which is a big part of teaching history. Contingency explores how historical events and trends are a culmination of a variety of factors. However, most students think that historical events happened in a logical order, which is hardly ever the case.

There are multiple paths students can take with this inquiry. Most questions begin with “what if” and proceed to explore what the outcome would be if an event had never occurred. Some examples include:

  • What if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus?
  • If reconnaissance planes hadn’t been developed, how might WWI have panned out?
  • How would WWII have ended if the U.S hadn’t intervened?
  • What if JFK hadn’t been assassinated?

To get students excited and curious about the “what ifs” of history, an excellent book to include in your planning is Anthony Beevor’s “What Ifs? of American History”. Although it is American-leaning, it is still an excellent resource full of interesting hypothesis about what would have happened if history hadn’t panned out as it did. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive analysis of worldly events, including ancient history, then “What If?: The World’s Foremost Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” is a better choice, and less than $20 on Amazon.

It is also helpful for students to grasp the idea that events in history happened simultaneously. For example, while the Black Death ravaged Europe, the Incas were flourishing in Peru; and woolly mammoths existed while the pyramids were being constructed in Egypt. For more guidance on teaching this concept, check out Easy Ways to Teach Events That Occurred at the Same Time in History.

4. Canada’s Food Guide

How can we teach others about Canada’s Food Guide?

Canada recently updated its food guide to include a more comprehensive breakdown of the types and quantities of foods we should be eating. Students have plenty of opportunities to investigate different aspects of the new guide in this inquiry example.

A meaningful contribution students can make in this inquiry based learning example is by carefully contrasting the old guide and new guide and making some notes about what they observe. They should be guided by their own questions as they arise, and incorporate them into their overarching question. Talking to members of their family, friends, and members of the community about the changes is also a great way to honour their perspectives. Some examples of questions include:

  • Why might meat alternatives be receiving more praise than standard meat products?
  • How can we ensure our plate is half-full of vegetables and fruit?
  • What has accounted for the most significant change between the old guide and the new guide?
  • What science has shaped the new food guide?

Other project ideas include creating a mini documentary that incorporates various opinions about the new guide, an art installment highlighting the changes made and how they reflect our current world, or a pamphlet that simplifies the new guidance for young children. Students who enjoy cooking and preparing meals might also like to design and prepare a menu for someone with a specific health condition, or show off their safety and food handling skills in a cooking demonstration video.

5. Revisiting History

How does history look from a different perspective?

Inquiry based learning examples like these encourage students to examine a historical event from a different perspective. This is sometimes referred to as “multiperspectivity”, which requires exploring history from different views. Instead of just focusing on the perspectives of dominant groups, students seek to employ multiple perspectives. Doing this helps construct more accurate and all-encompassing interpretations.

Take an example from Facing History, where students investigate the Reconstruction period: instead of simply learning about the period in American history, students focus on the perspectives of not only the Northern Radicals, but also Southerners and former slaves. By approaching the topic from three perspectives, students learn more about contrasting opinions, thinking critically, and making sense of history based on information from different groups of people.

It’s also important for students to know the difference between opinion and perspective, whereby an opinion is an idea expressed by someone, and a perspective is the point of view from which someone views a situation. More about this distinction can be found here.

Some other examples of topics that can also be explored from multiple viewpoints include:

  • The North American fur trade (some guidance for this topic here)
  • Bombing of Pearl Harbour
  • The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad
  • The French Revolution

6. Eliminating Homelessness

How can we address the problem of homelessness in our community?

This is an example of the kind of inquiry that really gets students talking. Not only do they have opinions about how to help homeless people, but they also have interesting ideas about what got them there in the first place. Done right, this inquiry helps to open student’s minds to possibilities they may not have considered about the circumstances surrounding homelessness.

Selecting photos and preparing analyses on the social science aspects of the issue is important. While photos and stories usually evoke an empathetic response, concrete data about the societal factors that contribute to homelessness help to fill in the blanks for students.

Drawing on the three main branches of social sciences  – anthropology, psychology, and sociology – is a great starting point for this inquiry based learning example. Some students will be drawn to the issue from a sociological perspective, while others would prefer to examine the mental health side of things. Another consideration is whether students will examine the issue from a more broad, macro perspective, or from a micro perspective, which focuses on individuals and small groups.

During their inquiries, students can analyze several components of homelessness, including but not limited to:

  • The impact of gentrification and lack of affordable housing
  • Psychological traumas and mental health issues
  • The dehumanization of homelessness
  • Risk factors for homelessness and intervention measures
  • Transitional housing and support

7. Stop-Motion Animation with a Twist

How can we convey an important message through stop-motion animation?

Stop-motion animation is a fun way to make videos where objects are moved in tiny increments between photographs to give the impression that they’re moving. When the photos are played in order, the objects appear to be moving and interacting. There are so many benefits to stop-motion animation; for example, encouraging creativity, supporting storytelling, and providing students with ownership over their own project.

This inquiry project has a unique spin; students are challenged to portray a specific idea or communicate a particular message. For example, students who are interested in pollution could create a stop-motion video highlighting the effects pollution is having on our planet. Moreover, students who feel passionately about ending bullying could create a PSA using stop-motion.

The opportunities are endless for creating meaningful and impactful stop-motion animations. Not only that, but they’re so much fun! Some other topics or messages students could choose include:

  • Saving the rainforest from deforestation
  • Raising awareness about misinformation
  • Exploring the impact of sustainable farming
  • Highlighting a particular style of art or music

To begin this inquiry project with students, head over to our article “Easy and Creative Stop-Motion Animation Project for Kids”, where we laid out a step-by-step guide to planning and executing this inquiry learning example.

8. Leftover Pencils

How can we keep track of and repurpose our class pencils?

Inquiry based learning examples like these serve two functions; first, they encourage problem-solving by tasking students with real-world issues. Second, they encourage students to get creative to find ways of repurposing objects that are either broken, too short, or unusable.

There is a lot of room for creativity in this inquiry. Students who are design-oriented will enjoy creating something to keep track of pencils and store them neatly, while students who enjoy the process of problem-solving will take pride in developing a plan to keep track of pencils so that waste is minimized.

It is important to remind students that this kind of inquiry, although creative, should seek to address a problem. In this case, the problem is pencils disappearing with no understanding of where they’re going, why they’re disappearing, or how to fix it. Furthermore, to get to the root of the problem, students may need to do some research or conduct a survey about pencil use in the classroom in order to support their ideas.

Cross-Curricular Links:

  • Math: students calculate the average number of uses a pencil gets before being discarded, or how frequently students sharpen their pencils
  • Art and Design: students design a device or contraption that holds, tracks, or organizes pencils in a functional, stylish way

9. My Family’s History

What is my family’s story?

In this project, students explore their family history. Through conversations with family members, students can create a family tree (physically or digitally) that shows their family members and ancestors to showcase their family’s unique heritage and history. They could also record stories from their family members to create an oral scrapbook. There are many ways students can be creative in telling their family’s unique story.

Moreover, encouraging students to learn more about their family’s history serves a few purposes. First, juxtaposing their personal history against the backdrop of other historical events is an extremely powerful way to help them make connections. Second, having students take time to observe their home, community, and everyday life engages students and broadens their scope of learning. For example, they might notice that their local recreation centre has closed due to lack of funding. Maybe they also notice a discrepancy between the selection of books they have at home and the books available at the school library. 

With respect to students who might not have a traditional family structure, they could choose to explore the history of their community, their school, or choose someone who inspires them and conduct an inquiry project on them instead. Try to build inclusivity into your projects and be sensitive to the unique dynamics of your students’ lives. This inquiry based learning example also fits nicely into a unit on social justice issues as well.

Check out our article on How to Integrate Ontario Curriculum Expectations with Inquiry Learning for guidance on planning your inquiries.

10. Ocean Disruption

How can we preserve and protect the world’s oceans?

Students tend to enjoy learning about the natural world; this includes jungles, forests, deserts, oceans, and the creatures that live in those habitats. It is a topic rich with opportunity for discussion, investigation, creativity, and forward-thinking.

In particular, the topic of preserving the environment has piqued the interest of many students. Many are searching for ways to help; whether that is by lowering emissions, supporting community-led recycling initiatives, or working towards a healthier future. This inquiry example delves into the topic of the preservation of oceans, and what we can do to preserve and protect them.

As with the other ideas mentioned, this inquiry can also venture down a variety of paths. For instance, students may wish to investigate the ocean from a scientific angle. They could review research about the harm humans and our activities are doing to the ocean as a whole, or specific parts of it (like the Great Barrier Reef, for instance). From there, they could present their findings and recommend actions to take to reduce the harm we are causing.

Here are some alternative, but related ideas for students working in this stream of inquiry:

  • Create landscape portraits to show the beauty and complexity of the ocean
  • Prepare a presentation about the impacts of littering on ocean animals
  • Explore the different impacts that COVID has had on ocean systems worldwide
  • Construct a comparative diorama that shows an ocean at a specified time in history and how that same ocean looks today
  • Design an informative pamphlet or informational campaign to raise awareness about the links between climate change and ocean health

Looking for more inquiry based learning examples?

–> 9 Powerful Inquiry Learning Examples to Use in the Classroom

–> 4 Simple, Meaningful, and Impactful Inquiry Project Ideas for 2021

–> Pinned Ideas for Inquiry Projects 2021

Have some examples of inquiry based learning to share? Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

Cover Photo by Van Tay Media on Unsplash

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