4 Back to School Inquiry Ideas to Use in 2023


Fostering an inquiry-based classroom starts at the beginning of the school year. By starting the year with more guided inquiries, students can more easily adjust to an inquiry environment. They will become more open with their curiosities and more willing to make mistakes, work collaboratively, and communicate better with their classmates.

Back to school inquiry ideas should focus on establishing a classroom where curiosities and wonders are encouraged and supported. They should be far more structured and guided initially, and, as the school year progresses, become less and less controlled.

This article shares some fun, guided back to school inquiry ideas that you can use to set the tone of your classroom for the year ahead. This post may contain affiliate links. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.


Back to School Inquiry Idea #1: How smart are animals?

This is an interesting inquiry that covers many of the Life Systems requirements for grade 4 students in Ontario. Studying animals is often a popular choice for inquiries, especially with younger students. Many of them have an interest in different types of animals, including their habitats, what they eat, and how smart they are. They also probably have some pre-existing knowledge about their favourite animal.

With this inquiry, students are challenged to investigate how smart animals are, and therefore it can take the learning down a few different paths. One option is to allow students to choose an animal to focus on for the entire inquiry; a lot of students will likely gravitate to this option. Another way of approaching this inquiry is to look at the question of intelligence as a whole.

Examining intelligence

Photo by Dana Ward on Unsplash

Examining the question as a whole means addressing the fact that we tend to look for human traits when we study animals. This is usually how we assess their intelligence – by comparing how many human traits an animal has. For example, some people suggest that chimpanzees are smart because they are our closest living relative. Others suggest that the Corvid family of birds (which includes magpies, ravens, and crows) are intelligent because they recognize faces, communicate in a complex way, and can invent their own tools, which are characteristics typically found in humans.

As a result, determining how smart animals are is a somewhat complex investigation. Some students will use the “human similarity” criteria to determine how smart animals are. However, they might find that what might be considered a clever or useful attribute for humans isn’t a viable attribute in other animals. Some students may find that intelligence can be measured based on brain weight in relation to total body weight.

If you are planning to use this idea as a guided inquiry, begin by discussing intelligence with students to determine what makes a human intelligent vs. what makes an animal intelligent. Use these questions in your discussion, or encourage students to come up with their own:

  • Is there a difference between “human smart” and “animal smart”?
  • Are certain animals considered intelligent in some cultures, but not in others?
  • How might different climates or environments impact the intelligence of the animals who live there?
  • What role did evolution play in the accumulation of intelligence in species?
  • How do researchers measure animal intelligence?
  • Is there a method for determining relative intelligence among different species?
  • What is the best way to measure animal intelligence?
  • What role does language play in considering the intelligence of animals?

Determining an “intelligence measure”

For thousands of years, animals have continually adapted to their changing environments. Whether they’ve adapted to survive climatic conditions or altered their behaviours to avoid predators, survival is a driver of adaptation. As students are researching their chosen animal, encourage them to consider the ways in which they adapt to their environment. For example, the limbs of birds have evolved over time to become wings, and polar bears have evolved with smaller ears and tails to minimize heat loss in cold climates.

Challenge students to find out how evolved a particular species of animal has become. Is evolution synonymous with intelligence? How can we measure how intelligent an animal is? Can we create a mechanism or scale to determine intelligence? What would this look like? Encourage students to think about how we view animals and what our criteria is for determining intelligence. More importantly, get students to think about intelligence from a factual position as opposed to simply judging animals against humans. 

Resources for this back to school inquiry idea:


Back to School Inquiry Idea #2: What strategies have different civilizations used in response to challenges imposed by the physical environment?

This inquiry idea is an amazing opportunity to deeply explore the ancient world and what challenges civilizations faced. Most students understand that ancient civilizations existed long before our modern world. However, many of them don’t know how those civilizations responded to large-scale environmental challenges. In fact, many of the challenges that ancient civilizations encountered hundreds of years ago are the same challenges we face in our modern world.

To start this inquiry, students should have a working understanding (or should be working towards a complete understanding) of a few basic facts:

  • By studying the past, we can better understand the present
  • The environment has a major impact on daily life in early societies
  • Not all early societies were the same
  • Human activity and the environment have an impact on each other
  • Human activities should balance environmental stewardship with human needs/wants
  • A region shares a similar set of characteristics

Using geography skills

The strategies civilizations used to survive were often shaped by the geographical features, climate, available resources, and other environmental factors they encountered. This is something that grade 4 social studies students will learn.

As a whole class, examine an ancient civilization map to highlight where different civilizations existed (basic version here and version without the Americas here). Ask students to think about what they know about different regions. For example, point out that the Mayans existed very close to the equator – what can this tell us about their lifestyles? Discuss the impact of warm weather, soil, water availability, and terrain. Get students to generate some questions about the impact of these things on the survival of civilizations. Some questions to get you started include:

  • What agricultural techniques were employed by civilizations in mountainous or hilly terrains to maximize crop production?
  • How did ancient civilizations adapt their lifestyles and migration patterns to cope with the challenges of living in unpredictable landscapes?
  • What urban planning strategies were used to help protect against natural disasters?
  • How often did natural disasters occur in ancient civilizations?
  • In what ways did seafaring civilizations cope with wind and waves?
  • How did ancient civilizations overcome resource scarcity?
  • What techniques did societies in mountainous terrains use to prevent soil erosion?
  • How did ancient civilizations deal with extreme hot or cold temperatures?
  • What impact did the introduction of new plants and animals have on ecosystems?
  • How did the concept of ownership over natural resources influence ancient civilizations?

Example: The Mayans

Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

If you are studying the Mayans, an interesting question to start with is: What role did the natural environment play in the eradication of the Mayan civilization?

Although the decline of the Mayan civilization was complex and multifaceted, the degradation of the environment did contribute in many ways. To begin, ask students to complete a KWL chart (free template here) and share the “K” section together as a class to share their preexisting knowledge. Share a map like the one on the right and see what they notice about the geography of the Mayan civilization. Let them notice the prevalence of the ocean surrounding them, with mountains to the west. Discuss how these geographic features might have influenced their lifestyles, or contributed to their decline. For example, the storage of rainwater to irrigate crops during dry periods would have helped the Mayans with droughts and ensure a more stable water supply.

Making connections

Students may start to notice patterns or similarities between what one civilization did to survive and another. For example, the observation of weather and creation of water management systems was common among the majority of ancient civilizations. Students are likely to pick up on this and therefore build relational knowledge. Using the bridge routine for making connections is a good way to strengthen and utilize these connections.

Resources for this back to school inquiry:


Back to School Inquiry Idea #3: How would people in history react to today’s world?

This is a question that I think about so often! What would people from the past have to say about our current society? How would they react? What would they be the most shocked at? What would they appreciate the most? It’s interesting to think about what would go through someone’s head if they time-travelled from the Middle Ages or the 1920s to our modern world.

To approach this kind of topic, it’s important for students to understand that the question might appear simple, but it’s actually quite complex. For instance, students need to consider not only things like technology and medicine, but also social norms, cultural barriers, and language differences. They also need to consider cultural heritage and the gaps in understanding aspects of modern living. For example, an ancient Inca wouldn’t even fathom the concept of a flushable toilet.

A time-travellers’ perspective

To conduct an inquiry from the perspective of a time-traveller, students are put into groups and assigned different historical periods (ancient civilizations, medieval times, renaissance, etc.) Each group is tasked with researching the cultural, technological, and societal impacts of their assigned period. Then, groups come together to share their research using the jigsaw method to compare their findings.

Once information has been shared, tell students to imagine they are time-travellers from that time period who find themselves in today’s world. In their groups, students discuss and create presentations or short skits to present their ideas. To create a presentation or skit, students need to find and discuss the following information:

  • What level of technology was available to people from their time period? Students should investigate what tools and gadgets were commonly used and what their purposes were. Remind students that “technology” isn’t synonymous with electricity. Technology, by definition, is “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”. For example, people from the past relied on things like the abacus, astrolabe, printing press, trebuchets, and steam engines long before the invention of electricity.
  • What social norms were prevalent for people from their time period? Students can research cultural and social norms for their time period. This includes things like manners, language, cleanliness, and dress, among many others. Good search terms to use to find more information include social order, cultural norms, society in [civilization/time period], and social norms in [civilization/time period].
  • What global events took place during the time period? This is important because it provides historical context on human perceptions. For example, if a group is presenting from the perspective of someone living in 1870s Britain, they might be shocked to see modern vaccines and the alleviation of common health conditions with modern medicine.

Diary of an immigrant

Another way to approach this back-to-school inquiry idea is by having students explore the perspective of an immigrant from a different religion or time period. To do this, students brainstorm the challenges associated with adapting to a new culture and society. This is a great option for a culturally diverse classroom because students from other countries or cultures can offer insight and perspective into their own challenges. They can shed light on having that shared experience with groups in history and foster discussions of empathy and understanding.

Leaders of yesterday

This final approach to the question “How would people in history react to today’s world?” encourages students to think about the leaders and visionaries of the past, and how they would view the world today. Students need to consider geography, politics, and technology with this inquiry. For example, if they were assuming the role of Cleopatra, how would she react to the boundaries and borders of the modern world?

To do this successfully, students need to consider how historical leaders tackled challenges and issues in their time. They need to have an understanding of their leaders’ temperament, interests, skills, and opinions. For example, Napoleon was known for his interest in military tactics and technology. Knowing this, one can assume that he would likely be intrigued by the advanced weaponry and communication technologies used in modern warfare. He was also ambitious in his goal to unify Europe, so what might he think of the European Union today?

  Resources for this back to school inquiry:


Back to School Inquiry Idea #4: How can we make shared spaces more inclusive?

Creating more inclusive shared spaces is something that has received a lot of attention lately. The discussion about whether shared spaces should be more accommodating is one worth having, especially with students who use them. Coming up with a thoughtful design that is both accessible and fun to use is something my students have really enjoyed. So how can this be turned into a back to school inquiry project to do with your class?

Brainstorm vocabulary and ideas

Setting aside some time to discuss key terms associated with this inquiry is important so that students know what different words mean. Some examples can be seen below:

Once students understand the appropriate terms, they can begin to examine pre-existing parks and shared spaces to identify how they can be improved. This guide provides an excellent overview of what goes into creating a park. For students who like to move things around and see their designs on screen, they might want to use Smartdraw, which is an online diagram tool where students can edit pre-existing blueprints and maps, or create their own version of what an accessible public space could look like. Get students to highlight areas of pre-existing spaces that could be improved, and challenge them to come up with ways to improve them. Encourage them to think of how to use the natural environment to their advantage.

It would also be a great idea for students to conduct surveys and interviews to gather opinions on what people would like to see in a future park. Challenge students to ask open-ended questions and reflect on how they can implement a wide range of voices into their planning.

Creating the criteria

While designing a park or shared space can be a lot of fun, students also need to keep in mind that certain criteria should be met in order for the park to be accessible to everyone. Prior to students embellishing their ideas, consider creating a success criteria with them that outlines the nonnegotiables that everyone should strive to include. This doesn’t mean their parks all have to have the exact same designs, but rather that their parks include the same level of accessibility and representation. Some considerations include:

  • Providing a safe and welcoming environment: This can include proper lighting, cameras, or other security measures.
  • Cultural sensitivity: Encourage students to think about the design of the space. What symbols or decorations might be perceived as exclusionary or offensive to some groups? How can you create a park that is free from those things?
  • Universal design: Priority should be given to designs that accommodate individuals with disabilities. This can include features like ramps, wider doorways, audiovisual aids, and other accessibility features.
  • Diverse representation: Explain to students that the design and management of their parks or spaces should represent the needs and desires of the community. Input from people of all backgrounds, ages, abilities, and cultures is important.

Putting it altogether

Students can present their ideas in a variety of ways. Presentations, posters, dioramas, or any other creative visual medium would work here. Encourage students to label or explain their ideas, and back up their proposals with evidence. For example, if a student has included a ramp to get from one level to another, ask them why they didn’t choose to include an elevator. Inquire as to why they made specific choices. Ask if they have any feedback from the community to support these proposed changes.

Resources for this back to school inquiry:


Final Thoughts

Fostering an inquiry-based classroom starts at the beginning of the school year. They should focus on establishing a classroom where curiosities and wonders are encouraged and supported. By starting the year with more guided inquiries, students can more easily adjust to an inquiry environment. They will become more open with their curiosities and more willing to make mistakes, work collaboratively, and communicate better with their classmates.

Do you have any back to school inquiry ideas you’ll be using this year?

Share them below, or join the conversation on Instagram!


Cover photo by Lala Azizli on Unsplash

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