8 Effective Ways to Create an Authentic Inquiry Classroom
Guiding students through their learning and creating fun experiences for them are some of the joys of being a teacher. But how can you create and sustain a classroom culture of inquiry, curiosity, engagement, and connection year-round? It all starts with creating an authentic inquiry classroom.
To create an authentic inquiry classroom, first consider the kind of classroom students enjoy learning in, and invite them to help create it. Incorporate more student-led lessons and design authentic learning experiences. Build in time for ongoing reflection, connection, and soft-skill building.
First, it is important to know the general characteristics of an inquiry classroom, and what practical elements are usually found in them.
What does an authentic inquiry classroom look like?
In short, an authentic inquiry classroom is one that:
- Fosters curiosity and supports imaginative thinking
- Welcomes and encourages ideas, questions, mistakes, and reflection
- Supports both individual and collective progress towards understanding
- Is predominantly student-led, with the teacher facilitating when necessary
- Focuses more on the process of learning, not simply the end product
The optics of individual classrooms varies. Some classrooms are modelled off of Montessori styles, while some include elements of the Reggio-Emilia approach. In general, inquiry classrooms include the following physical elements:
- The inclusion of provocations, invitations, and intentionally-designed learning spaces that encourage learning through play
- Flexible seating for independent work, group work, collaboration, and quiet reflection
- An assortment of creative elements, such as paints, crayons, building supplies, natural objects, paper, drawing utensils, stencils, and other supplies
- Reference materials, including books, maps, photos, iPads, primary source documents, atlases, infographics, diaries, and other tools
- Aesthetic appeal, meaning the classroom is inviting and enjoyable to look at and navigate through
How can I create an authentic inquiry classroom?
The strategies below offer insight into how to start creating and cultivating an authentic inquiry classroom where students feel engaged, supported, and connected.
1. Consider the kind of classroom students enjoy learning in
First, think about what excites students. Consider the kinds of activities that cultivate meaning for them. If you’re new to the school, or have several new faces in your class, consider giving out a “How I Learn” activity to help you figure out how to arrange your classroom. Generally, learning environments should be welcoming, intentional, and authentic.
Second, keep a well-organized room. Students are more likely to explore, play, and create when materials are accessible and organized. For many students, a disorganized room not only feels stressful, but also reinforces bad habits, like not taking care of classroom materials or putting them back where they belong. Do your best to properly label storage containers, shelves, and loose parts. Include a photo of how students should organize materials when they’re done with them too.
Put yourself in the shoes of a student. Look around the classroom and think about the types of learning areas they’d be excited about. Create inquiry environments that encourage students to browse books, use a variety of art supplies, and tap into their imaginations. Consider the most common ways that students learn; usually this is through hands-on activities that allow them to develop soft-skills such as problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking.
Furthermore, try to be intentional with decor. Studies have shown that “busy classrooms” can actually be detrimental to student learning. Instead of covering every inch of classroom space with posters, photos, and colours, be intentional with what you choose to include. For example, leave window frames and ledges empty so students can look outside and to let natural light come through. Incorporate multi-purpose objects such as clay, magnifying glasses, clipboards, and large maps for students to explore again and again. Keeping things simple and intentional is a good tactic in the inquiry classroom.
2. Design authentic experiences for students to explore
In the same vein as the point above, be intentional with the experiences you create for students. For instance, multi-purpose objects are more functional and appealing to students because they have an endless amount of uses in the classroom. In one instance, a map can be used as a reference for understanding place and proximity; in another, it can be used as a tool to contrast historical events with current happenings.
Remember that learning experiences in the classroom don’t necessarily have to have a predetermined outcome. In fact, most provocations don’t include specific learning goals, so students have the freedom to develop their own ideas and foster a sense of ownership. Similarly, invitations are intended to provoke student curiosities and get them engaged in new material. We have lots of great ideas for both provocations and invitations in our article: Provocation vs Invitation: What is the Difference?
The best examples of experiences found in authentic inquiry classrooms include “real-life” elements. For example, challenging students to create a recycling program that is simple and easy to follow, or asking students to design a community garden for senior citizens to access. Scenario-based learning is also an excellent way to help students understand the complexities that are involved in decision-making and analysis of real-world problems, such as climate change, poverty, and international relations. We’ve written an entire guide on how to Use Scenario-Based Learning in Your Classroom if you’d like to learn more!
In general, authentic learning experiences should be active, self-directed, open-ended, and garner an emotional connection with students. For more ideas on these types of activities, check out our article on Meaningful, Impactful Inquiry Projects.
3. Swap out more teacher-led lessons for student-led lessons
Students are very vocal about what they enjoy and don’t enjoy at school. If we take the time to listen to them and honour their opinions, life at school can become much more enjoyable and meaningful for everyone. In general, students prefer lessons when their teachers:
- Are engaging, excited, and learning alongside their students
- Answer questions when more detail is needed and clarify misunderstandings
- Create fun, immersive experiences that are predominantly student-led
- Provide one-on-one support in an encouraging (not patronizing) way
- Make learning hands-on, engaging, and meaningful for students
- Is excited about the topic, makes learning fun, and interacts with students
What many of these preferences have in common is the teacher taking a step back from the traditional role of “deliverer of knowledge” and instead becoming a co-learner with their students. To do this, review your plans and try to find lessons that can be student-led instead of teacher-led. For example, if you’re teaching a lesson about adaptive traits in animals, instead of listing the adaptive traits for students, let them explore animals of their own choosing and discover the traits themselves, and classify animals according to their own criteria.
Another way to swap a teacher-led lesson for a student-led lesson is by allowing students to pursue answers to their own questions. For example, if you’re introducing a topic about changes in 19th century Canada, allow students to generate ideas about the causes of these changes. Provide resources and space for them to investigate their ideas, and come back together as a class to share what they found out. Doing this frequently builds student’s feelings of ownership of their learning. We’ve written a helpful article with several examples on how to make these switches.
4. Build in time for reflection at the end of every lesson
Not only is reflection an important part of growth for students, but it is also a critical piece of the inquiry process. Building in time for reflection at the end of lessons, activities, and group work is important for many reasons. In addition, it is important to make reflection a habit, not just a singular event that happens once in a while. Our article on the Links Between Mindfulness and Inquiry Learning explores this concept more deeply.
One benefit of reflection is that it allows students to check in with themselves and their feelings. Model asking questions aloud and pausing to reflect on them. Ask safe, low-stakes questions that encourage a feedback loop. Some questions include:
- What was the most important thing you learned today?
- Which habits were you most aware of in your own learning?
- How did you monitor your performance – both work and attitude?
- How did you cope with struggles or difficulties today?
Second, reflection makes learning more meaningful for students. It also encourages insight and metacognition when done inwardly. Most teachers have probably heard students ask “why do I need to learn this?”; creating an authentic inquiry classroom is a strong antidote to this question because when learning is meaningful, questions like this rarely arise.
Reflection activities can take many forms. For instance, they can include retrieval activities, elaborating on new knowledge and making connections with prior knowledge (we’ve written a great article on Strategies to Activate Students’ Prior Knowledge), and self-reflection related to feelings and emotions. Reflection can be done through the use of group and partner discussions, journal writing, one-on-one conferences, and even through a class blog. At the beginning, reflection will need to be scaffolded so students understand that reflection runs deeper than simply saying “I did a good job on this”.
5. Create a culture of continuous learning
A lot of students think that when they go to school they are going to be taught lessons that they either “get” or “don’t get”. A test is a way to show whether they have understood the material or not. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is prohibitive to real, authentic learning, which often takes time. Experiences that build on one another create authenticity, interest, and meaning; these are impossible to replicate in one lesson, or in a single day’s worth of teaching.
While single lessons can be necessary in order to teach subject-specific concepts or skills, they should not dominate your classroom culture. Instead, create an environment where learning is an ongoing, continuous process. Emphasize the fact that learning doesn’t have an end. Normalize and encourage making mistakes and view struggles as learning experiences. When teachers frame learning in this way, students are more likely to take risks and try new things. Furthermore, they will feel confident in their ability to persevere in the face of difficulties.
Finally, remember that you do not need to be the expert in your own room. When students ask questions, teachers have an amazing opportunity to model curiosity and continuous learning. When a student asks a question, instead of ignoring it or answering the best you can, simply say “I don’t know, but that’s a great question… how can we find out?” Providing this answer tells students that you are honouring their curiosities, not brushing them off, and are interested in learning with them. Imagine how great that would make a student feel!
6. Encourage broader connections
Creating an authentic inquiry classroom means helping students find connections between the learning they do at school and their experiences in the real-world. Connections between historical documents and current events, or between school-led projects and community initiatives are just some examples of how students can think deeply about their connection with the broader community and learn more about how things are related to each other.
To encourage your students to think more deeply, there are a few strategies to try. First, encourage exploration through play. For example, co-create a treasure map, put on a play, or do some nature journaling. Another way to encourage students to make connections is by explicitly stating the learning goals (if there are any) and making it clear how students will utilize prior knowledge and skills. They should be able to answer questions like:
- What is the purpose of my work today?
- How does the work I am doing today relate to what we did previously?
- What knowledge and skills do I have in order to accomplish my task?
- What resources and assistance will be available to help me?
Furthermore, broader connections between class content and the wider community can be made by encouraging out-of-the-box thinking. Help students see things in different ways and prompt them by asking them to consider different perspectives. For example, if you’re on a walk and notice a flower about to bloom, ask them how a bumblebee might feel about this impending event, or how an artist might be inspired by the colours and patterns emerging. On a deeper level, understanding historical events from the perspective of minorities or people of colour, or considering alternative viewpoints on the decision-making process are other ways to help students make connections and view topics more broadly.
7. Teach soft skills in an ongoing manner
In an authentic inquiry classroom, soft skills are taught continuously throughout the year. They include communication, teamwork, initiative, and many others that shape a student’s attitude and responses.
Since soft skills are rarely taught individually, they need to be woven into classroom instruction carefully and deliberately. They also need to be cultivated in a classroom that values empathy and offers a safe and judgment-free environment. At the beginning of the year, it is important to set the tone for your classroom in terms of the basic level of respect, care, and consideration you expect your students to have for themselves and each other.
Decide on different ways to teach soft skills to your students. For example, how will you teach students how to communicate and share responsibilities in a group? In what ways will students practise good listening skills? How will you scaffold problem-solving?
Some examples for soft-skill building techniques include:
- Explicit modelling of good manners; for example, holding the door open, saying please and thank you, etc.
- Talking aloud while adjusting body language; for example, saying “I should probably turn my body to face her when she’s talking so she knows I’m listening”
- Refraining from scolding students who make rude comments about others, and frame them as opportunities to more deeply understand that everyone has a story we don’t know about
- Involve students in real-world problem solving; for example, ask for student’s help with replacing batteries, teaching you how to use a new tool, asking them to help you clean up, etc.
- Compliment students in genuine ways; for example, instead of saying “good job!” when they’ve completed something, praise them for the effort they put in by saying “you really persevered when you tackled that challenge and it looks like it paid off, wow!”
8. Invite students to co-create their learning space
Both teachers and students should have a say in how their classroom looks and functions. From the beginning of the year, set goals about how learning should look, how students will collaborate, and how the space will impact learning. Not only does setting up a classroom together build a positive class culture, but it also honours student voice.
A good example of how this can work in your classroom is by considering the different learning spaces you’d like to have in your room. For instance, maybe you’d like one part of your room to be filled with provocations for more individual exploration, and another part of your room to focus on STEM-related materials. Print out a rough sketch of the classroom and invite students to consider these different areas as they draw out how they think the classroom could look. Let them walk around the room, measure the furniture, talk with each other, and design a plan. Come back together and discuss the plans and decide on one that incorporates as many ideas as possible.
Letting students design their classroom space makes for an excellent authentic learning experience for students. Furthermore, it provides them with opportunities to communicate with one another and think critically about their learning space. Dealing with real-world issues like the barriers of load-bearing walls, sticking to a budget, or working with limited space also forces them to problem-solve, be creative, and think outside the box.
Other ways for students to co-create their learning space are to take their suggestions on board about things like flexible seating, music choices, furniture layout, and anything else they think would positively impact their learning. Another great article about co-designed learning environments can be found here.
(1) Authentic inquiry stems from meaningful connections between concepts learned in the classroom and real-world experience.
(2) An authentic inquiry classroom is welcoming, open, supportive, and co-designed by both teachers and students; it is one that encourages broad connections, empathy, and community.
(3) Consider the kind of classroom students enjoy learning in; this means putting yourself in your students’ shoes and inviting them to co-create the space with you.
(4) Design authentic learning experiences that are largely student-led and not teacher-directed; be sure to honour student voices and elicit feedback whenever possible.
(5) Build a culture of collaboration, continuous learning, and ongoing reflection, and continually improve on this day after day.
(6) Teach soft skills in an ongoing manner; model the behaviours and actions you want students to embody and take the time to explain why they are important in school and in the real world.