6 Back to School Inquiry Learning Examples

Sometimes the hardest part of integrating inquiry learning into your classroom is generating project ideas. While inquiry learning is designed to honour student interest and curiosity, it is always helpful to have a starting place, or a unit from which to dive deeper, especially during back to school time.

Inquiry learning should be dynamic and present a challenge for students to consider. They should be open-ended and require students to explore their topic in-depth. Ideation can come from anywhere – from something as simple as an observation to something as complex as planning for the future.

The list below offers a mix of inquiry learning examples that are perfect for back to school (or any time of the year).

1. Benefits of Biodiversity

What are the benefits of biodiversity?

This inquiry can have multiple focuses depending on student interests. Some may focus on benefits for humans, and some may focus on benefits for animals. Other students might explore the problems that occur when biodiversity is diminished. Wherever their starting point may be, students should begin by asking questions and placing them in a Q-matrix to pinpoint a good place to begin.

A meaningful path students can explore is the benefit of biodiversity in terms of interconnections among plants, animals, and humans. For example:

  • What are the benefits of planting a wide variety of crops on farmland?
  • How do humans and animals depend on biodiversity?
  • What impacts do humans have on biodiversity?
  • How might we create more diversity in our own backyards?

Not only can students explore the impact of human activities on biodiversity, but they can also dive deeper into the ways plants and animals adapt to these changes. Other topics such as the impact of fishing, monoculture systems, improper irrigation, and invasive species can be explored as well. There is also a great list of amazing nature and environment inquiry questions to consult if you run out of ideas. For older students, this resource on studying the environment is fantastic for facilitating an inquiry on topics such as energy consumption, population density, and resource scarcity.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

2. Creating a Sustainable Future

How can we create a sustainable environment to live in?

In this back to school inquiry, students are challenged to think like an engineer. A good starting place is to ask students to investigate common problems with our current world with regards to housing, transportation, and open spaces. From there, students investigate the elements that make a functioning city or neighbourhood and what issues they might face.

There are many paths this inquiry learning example can take. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Homelessness and lack of affordable housing
  • Vacant land use or misuse
  • Creating healthy communities
  • The impact of gentrification
  • Deforestation and land clearing
  • Creating equitable schools that address the needs of 21st century learning

These types of inquiries are excellent for students in upper elementary because they have so many opinions about how to create a better world. In addition, they have interesting ideas about how to implement them. 

3. Climate Change and Human Migration

How does climate change impact where people live?

Designing an inquiry around climate change and human migration is incredibly relevant in our current world. Students have surely noticed the extreme temperature fluctuations that have become more common, regardless of where they live. Furthermore, they’ve likely heard news stories about things like increased pollution, more efforts to care for the environment, and the irreparable damage human behaviours have caused.

There are a few different paths an inquiry like this could take:

  • Students could discuss the multiple ways in which forced human migration hinders development
  • They can explore the correlation between heat and conflict and what this means for nations around the equator
  • An investigation into the pressure on urban infrastructure might interest students who are looking to make connections between migration and housing
  • Students might want to tackle the issue from a governmental perspective by addressing gaps in immigration policies and proposing solutions
  • They can explore the ways in which climate change affects food and water supplies and what this means for families

Regardless of the path students take, climate change and human migration is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. Population movements will always occur because certain parts of the world will become less viable places to live. There is a lot of space for students to explore topics that intersect with one another; for example, weather and climate, geography, demographics, class structures, economy, and agriculture, to name a few.

4. Building a Garden

How can we build a garden that meets the needs of our community?

This inquiry learning example is perfect for students who love being outside, planting, and learning about where food comes from. There is ample room for discussions about solutions such as:

  • Urban farming – for example, creating rooftop gardens and “green spaces” in major cities and densely populated areas
  • Community and neighbourhood gardens – where people of all ages work collectively and share produce equally (with the option of donating leftover produce as well)
  • Allotment gardens – these provide plots for gardeners to rent for a fee
  • Therapy gardens – these types of gardens provide opportunities for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, and are usually found at hospitals, clinics, and elder-care centers

When discussing gardens, students will also need to know about food scarcity, growing conditions, and other related topics. For instance, if a student wanted to create a community garden to help feed impoverished people, they’d need to ask questions like:

  • What location is ideal for a garden with specific growth requirements, such as the amount of sunlight or shade needed?
  • What materials are needed to start growing the seeds?
  • How are the funds for this garden going to be raised?
  • Who is going to be responsible for maintaining the garden?
  • What benefits will this garden have for individuals and/or families?

Furthermore, if students want to create a garden that is maintained by them on school property, they’d need to come up with a plan that addresses the size and space of the garden, and the perimeter and area of planting beds. In addition, they might need to conduct a scientific inquiry into the conditions favourable for growing healthy plants.

Another great resource is this community gardening booklet from Food Share for students interested in starting a garden or bringing new ideas to their current garden(s).

5. Dinosaur Dive

What are dinosaurs?

Many students find dinosaur inquiries a lot of fun. There’s so much room for exploration and the questions are endless. While some students are interested in types of dinosaurs and their features, others find more enjoyment in investigating what they ate and what their habitats were like. Some students wonder why the dinosaurs went extinct, or how they disappeared from earth.

Peppering in lessons to introduce important vocabulary is important. Words like carnivore, herbivore, extinction, palaeontology, and other terms are helpful places to start. Introducing students to the term “Pangaea” adds another interesting dimension to student learning. Discussing the state of the earth during the time of the dinosaurs brings a geography overlap to the inquiries and provides another angle from which to explore the topic.

Some useful supplies to have on-hand during this kind of inquiry include:

  • Dinosaur fact and reference books (found at your school or local library)
  • Blank maps of different sizes that show the continents at different times throughout history
  • Name cards of the different dinosaurs, along with clay or plastic models for students to touch and explore
  • Laptops, iPads, or other technology to allow students to research their questions

Students can present their work by creating maps, fact books, or through any other creative medium. Timelines and comic books also work well with this kind of inquiry.

If some students find it difficult to understand historical overlap, check out our article on teaching events that occurred at the same time in history

6. Day in the Life Inquiry

How does my life compare to the life of a child in 1910?

This inquiry example is a lot of fun for students who love history. While the goal of comparing a child’s life today to a child’s life in the past is the same, the context will be different for each student. For example, some students might find it interesting to compare their lives to the lives of children in their hometown. Some students might want to focus on the differences in clothes, while others might focus on the differences in family structure or leisure time.

Regardless of the context, this back to school inquiry helps students to better understand the progression of things like children’s rights, as well as changes related to family structure and society as a whole.

Examining photos (Reader’s Digest and the State Historical Society of Iowa have some great photos) and reading primary source documents like journals and newspaper articles give students a glimpse into the life of children at the turn of the century. For a more Canadian focus, CBC Kids offers a great resource, as does the Library of Congress.

Students can present their findings in any way they like; for example, creating a side-by-side contrast, a video essay, or any other creative medium. This newspaper example highlights some of the key differences between life for children in the early 1900s and today.

Key Takeaways

(1) Inquiry learning examples should be dynamic, challenging, open-ended, and they should invite depth.

(2) Ideation can come from anywhere – from something as simple as an observation to something as complex as planning for the future.

(3) Learning needs to be relevant for students in order for them to care. It pays to take time to understand what your students are interested in and what they are curious about, and work your curriculum objectives around those interests. For advice on how to do this, we’ve created a guide on how to integrate Ontario curriculum expectations with inquiry learning.

Share your back to school inquiry ideas in the comments below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

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