5 Beautiful, Effective Inquiry Learning Environments to Try in Your Classroom

When planning for an inquiry topic or unit, careful thought and attention needs to go into the kinds of learning environments to create. Teachers need to consider what types of learning environments encourage students to think independently, which ones support teamwork, and which ones encourage a community-based approach to inquiry. Different learning environments can help address the diverse needs of students in the classroom. In addition, they give students the space and tools to develop specific soft skills. While transforming learning environments does take time and careful planning, the benefits (in my opinion) are more than worth it. {Cover photo by KJJS}

Exploration Environments

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These types of environments encourage students to explore and investigate. They are usually very hands-on with lots of moving parts. To create these kinds of learning spaces, take some time to build a collection of interesting books, artifacts, maps, posters, and other items for students to examine. Students love to browse, touch, and investigate, so think about including different textures, shapes, and forms. Providing them with a structured environment that gives them lots to explore is perfect for building the foundations of inquiry. Furthermore, the holistic benefits of doing this are remarkable.

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Some objects to consider placing in your exploration environment could include magnifying glasses (plastic if your students are young), reusable maps and posters, a collection of books, mirrors, measuring apparatus, and Playdoh or sand. In addition, consider equipping the space with notepads, clipboards, mini whiteboards or chalkboards, and writing utensils to encourage students to make notes, draw, write, and record what they see, what they feel, and what they do in the space. Post questions, conversation starters, and space for collaboration to encourage students to think deeply and share their wonderings with others.

The point of creating an exploration environment is to encourage students to investigate independently. Students should have the space and structure to explore things that interest them. While certain times of the day can be spent learning the basics (reading, writing, math, and so on), blocks of time should be built into the day where students – especially younger students – browse through books, tinker with new and interesting objects, collaborate with their peers, and learn something new.

Subject-Specific Learning Environments

For older students, or for classrooms with students who have specific interests and hobbies, subject-specific environments can be hugely beneficial. The ability of students to think and solve problems is not only a result of critical thinking skills, but also a benefit of subject-specific knowledge and competencies that can help them solve specific problems. Knowing what information students already have makes it easy for teachers to predict what they will understand about new information that is presented to them.

Environments that are subject-specific – for example, a math environment, science environment, or language arts environment – focus on providing information and activities to enrich student understanding of specific disciplines. Subject-specific environments also include opportunities for making connections. For example, in a math environment, provide access to books and information about topics like architecture, civil engineering, or space. Exposure to related subject matter helps students make sense of math from different perspectives. It also helps them think mathematically in different contexts. Furthermore, students see how different ideas can be utilized within their subject; this helps them acquire the concepts of math in an organic way.

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Setting up a subject-specific environment extends beyond providing tools, materials, books, and activities to students. It also involves thinking about the natural progression of learning, and the paths of discovery students will take in their inquiries. A learning environment doesn’t need to stay the same week after week. For instance, students who are interested in geometry and shapes may start out exploring shapes, lines, and forms. As they progress through their learning, the concepts of structure, forces, and angles may be introduced through a new variety of tools, apparatus, and visual material. Students working through their inquiries may feel compelled to explore civil engineering or home design. Having a subject-specific learning environment that adapts to students’ curiosities is a great way to foster deeper thinking. Using scenario-based learning can also help solidify concepts for students using real-world problems.

Collaborative Learning Environments

The development of students should not only include intellectual development, but also social and personal development. Making space for collaboration in the classroom does not have to be difficult. Depending on the classroom, creating a collaborative learning space can be as simple as swapping out a standard 4-person rectangular table for a curved semi-circle shaped table, or as elaborate as sectioning out a part of your room and decorating it with lightweight stools, whiteboards, soft benches, and pillows.

The purpose of creating collaborative spaces is to encourage students to work with each other. Even if students are engaged in different activities, they can still benefit from having peers around them. Considering the sizes, shapes, and materials of the furniture in your classroom can help you design a room that meets the needs of your students and encourages them to work more closely with each other. The benefits of having an inviting, flexible, and collaborative classroom aren’t limited by age or ability; students of all ages and abilities benefit from interacting with their peers, and a classroom that is purposefully designed to support that has many positive benefits.

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Take into account the way your students sit, lean, twist, and stretch. Think about the natural ebbs and flows of your classroom. For example, where do students go when they enter the room? If they need to access a book, computer, or resource, what path(s) do they take? What obstacles might be in their way? Consider how students can comfortably move from one area to the other, and reconfigure themselves when needed. For introverted students, make sure there are plenty of spots for them to work independently, but so that they can join a group or collaborate on a project with ease when they are needed. 

Creative Environments

Quite possibly the most fun class environment (in my opinion) is a creative one! However, this does not need to mean a classroom that is messy, disorganized, and full of chaos. Creative class environments should feel inspirational; it should be organized, productive, and one that fosters creativity. Labels go a long way in a creative environment, as well as pictures for younger students so that they know where supplies are supposed to go.

Creative inquiries often have different starting points. For example, some students may feel inspired to simply draw, sketch, or paint their thoughts and wonderings. Others may have felt inspired by a nature inquiry, or by something they drew in their journal. Additionally, some students may feel compelled to use recycled materials to create a diorama or a simple structure. Keeping your creative environment organized and well-stocked gives students the flexibility to create whatever is occupying their minds. Remember that students are full of ideas, movement, and spontaneity, so make sure the space is navigable and safe for them as well.

Creative environments can also encourage the development of soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and self-discipline. Students who share creative passions, or who value discussion with their peers, might find themselves thriving in a creative space that allows for constant communication and constructive feedback. Consider spending some time discussing with students how to treat each other with respect in regards to giving feedback, and model how this can be done in an honest, helpful, and constructive way. All students should feel safe and comfortable in any classroom environment, and making the time to show students how this looks can have huge benefits.

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Community-Centred Learning Environments

In community-centred environments, students are surrounded by things that remind them of being part of a community. For example, these environments can be filled with historical artifacts, photos, newspapers and articles, and video footage. The goal of these types of spaces is to engage students in thinking about their school, neighbourhood, community, or city, and their place within it. Inquiries that focus on community require students to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking. Students work with their peers and consider ideas and input from members of their community. These types of environments work well when a strong, close-knit school community has been established.

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In environments like these, students are expected to listen to and share personal stories, learn about the collective struggles and dreams of people in their community, and provide others with feedback and dialogue to help them learn and move forward. The development of community and the strengthening of the relationships therein act as both a stimulus and context for learners. Creating a community-centred environment seeks to develop students’ empathy, critical thinking, communication skills, and resourcefulness. Placing community at the centre of all learning helps students understand that what they learn not only benefits them, but has the power and potential to benefit members of their community.

To create a thoughtful and welcoming community-centred environment in your classroom, or in your school, it is important to first consider the history of your community. What do people in the community do, what do they talk about, and how do they interact? What are some issues facing the community? How are feelings of hope, resilience, and pride created within the community? Giving students the space to reflect on these questions and consider ways they can be more active in their community are simple yet effective ways to foster empathy and collaboration. Over time, things like exploration and play become more social, meaningful, and purposeful; these are great outcomes of a community-centred environment.

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