9 Powerful Inquiry Learning Examples to Use in the Classroom
Inquiry-based learning is a teaching approach that focuses on student-generated questions, ideas, and observations, and uses these as an anchor for learning. Most teachers are familiar with inquiry-based learning; many of them have implemented it in their own classrooms. However, it can be difficult to find high-quality inquiry learning examples to implement with students.
Inquiry learning should be authentic and reflect problems and events that impact our world. It should help students become more creative in their problem-solving, and encourage the development of essential skills, such as planning, organizing, processing, and designing.
The inquiry learning examples below will give you some ideas for launching a successful project or unit with your students. Moreover, they are engaging, motivating, and challenging for all grade levels.
What do I need to include in my inquiry learning project?
All inquiry projects should include a few essential components in order to be successful. Firstly, they should be meaningful and include real-world components. Second, they should include low-floor, high-ceiling tasks so that all students can access them. In addition, inquiry questions should be cross-curricular so that projects cover a variety of subjects, topics, and learning objectives. Finally, they should be student-led to encourage essential skill development.
They should be meaningful and include real-world components
Inquiry learning focuses on encouraging students to ask questions, make connections, and problem-solve. Therefore, teachers should take into consideration problems and challenges facing the world and encourage students to come up with solutions. In this way, making learning relevant in your classroom is incredibly important. For example, topics like environmental protection, government transparency, eliminating poverty, and curing disease are real-world topics that appeal to students.
They should include low-floor, high-ceiling tasks
Second, your projects should include tasks that balance student motivation with increased challenge. They should be accessible to students of all learning levels (low-floor), but allow learning to extend limitlessly (high-ceiling). Using tasks like these means that students of all abilities are engaged in the task at a level that they’re comfortable with and that can be extended to a difficulty that suits them.
They should be cross-curricular in nature
Inquiry projects are inherently cross-curricular, as they typically do not include content about one singular subject. Instead, core concepts in an inquiry project tend to come from a variety of subjects. The goal of cross-curricular teaching is to incorporate the main ideas and skills from more than one subject. In addition, it is a great way to get students to see the connections that exist between various subjects. Creating driving questions that are cross-curricular in nature and building in opportunities for transferable skill development are useful strategies. We wrote an article all about integrating cross-curricular elements into inquiry-based learning that you might find helpful!
They should be student-led
Finally, it is important to remember that in inquiry-based learning, the role of the teacher shifts; from being a deliverer of knowledge to playing the role of a facilitator. As the process progresses, students should also begin to work more independently, with the teacher providing support. This can be done through mini-lessons, encouragement, and check-ins. The inquiry model encourages students to take ownership of their work, to be independent and responsible, and to develop essential skills such as problem-solving, organizing, initiative, and reflection.
9 Inquiry Learning Examples
The inquiry learning examples below are not only suitable for elementary students, but also secondary students. They are also scalable to different grades and can be tweaked to suit the specific needs of your class. Moreover, they include a broad, cross-curricular approach.
1. Historical Novel Inquiry
How do novels help tell real-life historical stories?
Using a historical approach to inquiry-based learning is a fun way to dive into the past and make connections. It provides students with a way to view the past through literature and learn about people and events that help them make sense of the world. Basing an inquiry on a historical novel is a fun way to examine history while asking questions about place, significance, and impact.
Firstly, choose a book that aligns with the curriculum and your school’s parameters. Consider your students’ interests and topics that spark their curiosity. In the past, my students have loved Tom Palmer’s historical fiction books, which are geared towards elementary-aged students and combine sports like rugby and soccer with historical events. For example, his Wings series are about friends at a soccer summer camp near an old airfield. They need to learn how to fly war planes in order to return to the present.
Next, plan opportunities for students to examine different perspectives. Examining diary entries, letters, or excerpts from historical events helps them understand history from a unique perspective. For example, the novel “To Look a Nazi in the Eye” is a story about a 19-year-old’s account of the trial of Oskar Groening (known as the bookkeeper of Auschwitz); it is an incredible read that offers students the chance to understand the motives of Nazi officers during the Holocaust.
Students could also compare novels to gain a deeper understanding of how historical events are portrayed in fictional texts. For example, comparing the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, and “Night” by Elie Wiesel gives students a glimpse into the perspectives of two prisoners. Moreover, comparing the two novels helps students understand how the experiences of the two men were similar and how they were different.
Other Historical Novel Inquiry Questions:
- What are the most significant lessons we can learn from studying the Holocaust through novels?
- How do themes of suffering, dignity, and human nature emerge in this book?
- What can we learn from the study of this book about continuity, change, and causation in history?
- High School Historical Inquiry Project Ideas
- How to Respectfully Teach Indigenous History
- Powerful and Purposeful Black History Questions
- The Holocaust: Bearing Witness
- After the War (Tom Palmer novel): Student workbook resource
- How to Plan a Fun and Engaging Social Studies Inquiry
2. The Problem with Pollution
How can we limit or reduce air/water pollution?
Pollution and topics like environmentalism and climate change are very popular. These topics get students feeling creative and excited about making a real difference.
There are some different paths an inquiry like this could take. For instance, you could focus on one particular kind of pollution or let students explore the type of pollution that interests them. Furthermore, there are plenty of innovative ways students can share their findings; through pamphlets and posters, or through community initiatives like fundraisers, art installations, or partnerships with local businesses.
To start, create some pollution provocations for students. For example, show them photos, create a small pollution display, do an experiment, or let them browse maps and statistics. In the past, I’ve used the “See, Think, Wonder” strategy, where I show students a photo and have them respond with what they can see in the photo, what they think about it, and what they wonder about it. (Download the template here). This usually branches out into a discussion and the generation of deep inquiry questions.
In addition, using scenario-based learning also works. For example, tell students that the U.N has tasked them with creating a plan to reduce pollution in a specific country where pollution is a huge problem. Alternatively, give students a scenario where they must create a device to eliminate garbage in the ocean, or where they need to produce a plan to reduce smog in their city and submit it to their mayor.
Finally, ask students what they want their final product to look like. For example, do they want to create a bulletin board display? Do they want to write a letter? Would they like to design a beach-cleaning machine to help pick up garbage? Discuss these ideas with students so they know what their end goal is.
Questions About Pollution:
- How does litter affect our lives?
- In what ways can we reduce air pollution in our community?
- Why are some places more susceptible to pollution than others?
- Download 50 Nature and Environment Inquiry Questions (PDF)
- Fish: A tale about ridding the ocean of plastic pollution
- Science Experiments to Teach About Pollution
- Plastic Pollution Activity Guide (PDF)
- Other At-Home Science Experiment Ideas
3. Redesigning Cities of the Future
How can we redesign cities of the future that address real-life issues?
In these kinds of inquiry learning examples, students explore the problems that city planners and engineers face. For example, obstacles such as a lack of affordable housing, transportation, and utilizing open spaces effectively. This example is loosely based on the Chicago Architecture Center’s unit called “No Small Plans” which includes amazing resources for a project about city design. Students also get to explore what elements make up a neighbourhood or community. Furthermore, they get the opportunity to listen to and understand the perspectives of members of the community, or long-time residents of an area help to paint a picture of the history behind a particular place.
In this inquiry learning example, students may also choose to examine issues like homelessness, vacant land use, weak transportation links, and other issues that face their communities. This project presents an opportunity to understand more deeply the causes of these issues and viable ways of addressing them.
Not only do inquiry learning examples like this incorporate voices from the community and give students a chance to design their futures, but they also include basic skills such as reading a map, working systematically, using basic math concepts, and communicating with others. A resource called “A Kid’s Guide to Building Great Communities” is also super helpful for anyone considering this project!
Questions About Redesigning Cities of the Future:
- What kinds of places are in my neighbourhood?
- How can our community serve more people?
- Who is our city leaving behind, and how can we ensure they are working for everyone?
- Creating Stories of The Future with Inquiry-Based Learning
- Adventures in Engineering for Kids: 35 Challenges to Design the Future
- My Green City (PBL Project)
- Using Scenario-Based Learning to Design a Future City
- Future City Competition: Program Handbook (PDF) and Judge’s Manual (great for assessment)
4. Engineering An Ideal Airplane
How can we redesign airplanes to make flying more comfortable for passengers, while being cost-effective for airlines?
This is a project that I’m excited to dive into with my students. It’s also one that many people are talking about as we resume traveling again. Designing an airplane requires the consideration of many factors. For example, designers need to think about seating layouts, storage, environmental impacts, cost, and comfort.
To start this inquiry project, provide students with a variety of photos and models of airplanes. Discuss what their experiences have been on or around planes. Keep in mind that many students probably haven’t been on an airplane. However, let them know that this gives them a unique perspective because they are working with a fresh slate and are likely to come up with some out-of-the-box ideas. It is worth reminding students that everyone’s ideas are valid, regardless of whether or not they’ve been on an airplane.
Following that, spend some time discussing airplane vocabulary. For example, introduce words like commercial, cargo, regulation, airworthiness, taxiing, emissions, airframes, engines, atmospheric conditions, etc. Older students would also benefit from examining cross-section drawings of airplanes and considering ways to reduce the amount of carbon emissions airplanes put out.
Collect student questions and give them plenty of time and space to research and plan out their designs. Using this inquiry checklist helps students keep tabs on the tasks they need to complete. Moreover, our inquiry planning sheet is useful in providing further structure for students.
Questions About Airplane Design:
- How can passenger comfort be maximized while maintaining a reasonable ticket price?
- In what ways can we design planes to be more eco-friendly?
- How could we use recyclable materials to build planes?
- Create Paper Airplane Prototypes with this kit
- Bombardier Airplane Configurator
- 8 ways economy class might look different in the future to keep passengers safe
- Helping Students Form Rich, High-Quality Inquiry Questions
- Airplane Design Article Library
- Q-Matrix Template for Questioning (PDF)
5. Mindfulness Inquiry
What are the links between mindfulness and our health?
Mindfulness is a meditative technique where your mind is fully attentive of what’s happening and what you’re doing. You are present and aware of your surroundings. Many elements of mindfulness arise during inquiry-based learning, such as observation, acceptance, awareness, and process. Students who are aware of their surroundings, mindful of their processes, and accepting of themselves at their current stage tend to reap more benefits from inquiry-based learning as opposed to students who aren’t engaged in the process of inquiry.
During a mindfulness inquiry, students can choose to pursue questions about mindfulness and healthy eating, emotional regulation, conflict resolution, identity, and substance abuse. In particular, older students might also investigate the impacts of mindfulness on stress reduction and sexual health. We wrote an article all about creating strong driving questions for inquiry learning if you’re interested in learning more about this process.
Younger students may want to develop some kind of game or reflection journal. In the past, my Year 3 students opted to recreate a reflection game similar to this meditation card activity set using photos they took and quotes they came up with.
Other project ideas include creating informative pamphlets, hosting a workshop, designing posters and artwork to raise awareness about the importance of mindfulness, collecting and presenting data, or recording their own personal mindfulness journeys in a notebook or journal. We’ve put together a pack that includes templates, activities, and journal prompts to facilitate a mindfulness inquiry with both elementary and secondary students – you can download it here!
Mindfulness Inquiry Questions:
- What does it mean to be mindful?
- How can mindfulness help us identify and manage our emotions?
- How could incorporating mindfulness practice into my daily routine help maintain mental health and resilience in times of stress?
- The Important Links Between Mindfulness and Inquiry Learning
- Download the Mindfulness Inquiry Pack (PDF)
- Other Ways to Integrate Mindfulness in Your Classroom
6. Art in My Neighbourhood
How does art reflect and represent a community?
The purpose of this inquiry is for students to show what life is like in their neighbourhood. Facilitating an inquiry about the importance of representation and community is a way for students to feel connected to their neighbourhood and local area. It is a way for students to think flexibly and creatively, and to produce something that is unique and meaningful to them.
When I facilitated this project with my high school art class, we followed a simple path. Firstly, students brainstormed adjectives that matched the place they lived in, and chose the top three that best described what life was like in their community. Next, they chose places to photograph, sketch, paint, or draw that best represented their communities. They needed to consider the time of day, space, textures, and colours. The final product was up to them, but they needed to include at least ten artworks that represented life in their community.
Some preliminary lessons to facilitate with students include investigating how stories are told. Spend some time exploring how artists tell stories through their art. Look at how stories were expressed in the past, and how storytelling through the arts has evolved. For example, investigate cave art, religious art, sculpture, and architecture. Help students understand the ways in which civilizations have historically communicated meaning. Then, transition into more modern forms of storytelling – such as advertisements, photography, and photojournalism.
Furthermore, students should learn about things like cultural literacy, which means being able to understand the traditions, regular activities, and history of a group of people from a given culture. Furthermore, it means being able to engage with these things in cultural spaces, such as museums, galleries, performances, and so forth.
Questions About Community Art:
- What is the function of art in our lives?
- How have artistic expressions evolved over time?
- How has art historically been used to cultivate change?
- View student artwork from this inquiry project
- Neighbourhood Art Assessment Handout (PDF)
- Other examples of art-related inquiry learning questions (PDF)
- How Art Projects Can Improve Struggling Communities
7. Stop-Motion Animation Project
How can stop-motion animation be used to tell a story, or spread a message?
Stop-motion animations are examples of inquiry learning that are so fun to do. Firstly, students generate questions about stop-motion that interest them. For example, what do I need to know about prop design before creating a stop-motion? Next, students find resources to help them answer their questions and solve their problems. This step might see students looking at tutorials online, finding materials to create props from, or discussing their plans with a partner. My students went bonkers over this guide on making your own stop-motion LEGO movies.
The focus then shifts to interpreting what they’ve found out. For example, if they feel confident with creating a stop-motion animation, what is the next step? How can they use the information they’ve gathered to produce their own video? Finally, students create a project that showcases their process and their findings. In some cases, the stop-motion animation delivers a message, brings a social justice issue to light, or speaks to a larger problem in society. Some examples include pollution, homelessness, climate change, or other issues they are passionate about.
As a teacher, I’ve found that it helps to show students some behind-the-scenes videos that highlight the steps of creating a stop-motion animation project (you can find these in the resources linked below). It’s also incredibly helpful for teachers to assist students in planning their stories out and figuring out what materials they will need to flesh out their ideas. Students will also need to figure out things like the sequence of events, number of characters, and how the problem will be resolved. We’ve written an entire guide on facilitating a stop-motion inquiry project if you’d like a step-by-step outline!
Stop-Motion Animation Questions:
- How can we show the urgency of climate change using stop-motion animation?
- In what ways can we highlight the importance of eating locally-grown food?
- How could I teach people how to play hockey using stop-motion?
- Stop-Motion Animation Guide for Teachers
- Stand Up Tall Video and Behind-the-Scenes Footage
- Watch the stop-motion animations that my Montessori students created
- Storyboard templates we used
8. Managing Food Scarcity
How can we manage food scarcity?
The issue of food production and distribution has brought up questions about how to make our food systems more reliable. This inquiry is suitable for students in middle and high schools who grasp the concept of food scarcity.
In an article published by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the effects of COVID on the earth’s food supply is discussed. It points out that “The underlying cause of the pandemic has been attributed to agricultural activities encroaching into natural habitats. Now the pandemic is encroaching on agricultural production.” There are two paths students can explore from that quote.
Students can address the first part of the problem – agricultural activities encroaching into natural habitats – by conducting research on the agricultural activities that pose a risk to natural habitats. For example, the clearing of the Amazon rainforest to make room for cattle farming. From there, they can develop ways to potentially solve these problems – directly or indirectly. Direct methods could include designing solutions to limit the negative effects of mass deforestation. Indirect methods could include developing a plan to reduce the amount of meat in our diets to avoid clearing forests for cattle farming.
On the other hand, students can tackle the second part of the problem, which is that the pandemic is encroaching on agricultural production. Then, students could explore the effects on a global scale, or choose one country to focus their research on. In the article, the researchers focused on the food systems in Senegal, Ghana, and Zimbabwe. Students could imitate this study in their communities or within their school.
This is the perfect inquiry-based project particularly for students who are interested in the effects of health outbreaks and climate change on our food supply, or who want to delve into a topic that worldwide impacts.
Inquiry Questions About Food Scarcity:
- How has COVID-19 affected agriculture around the world?
- What is a food desert and how can we make access to food more equitable?
- In what ways can we help promote food production in our communities?
- Facts on Food Scarcity (updated June 2021)
- Classroom Vegetable Growing Kit
- Food Security Projects That Are Making a Difference
- Food Scarcity: Trends, Challenges, Solutions (PDF)
- Hunger and Malnutrition Toolkit for Teachers
- Change for Children Guide on Food Scarcity
9. Designing an Equitable School
How can we design a school that is more inclusive and/or equitable?
As we endeavour to create and support more inclusive classrooms, we need to sit back and ask students about their ideas. This inquiry delves into the ways we can make schools more inclusive and equitable for everyone.
First, students can consider physical inclusion. For example, are there any places at their school that could be more accessible? Do ramps, railings, or other supports need to be built in a particular area? Does the layout of certain rooms need to be rearranged to accommodate students with disabilities? An article published in February 2020 highlighted a community’s efforts to construct a temporary wheelchair ramp for a student, which might inspire students to take action. Not only does this inquiry-based project include the foundations of mathematics, but it also has a community service component that invites collaboration and problem-solving to the table.
Secondly, students can address the topic of inclusion within their classrooms in terms of the literature, language, and selection of materials used. Engaging with students, teaching empathy, and displaying your class values prominently are all ways to foster inclusivity. Moreover, this angle encourages students to think creatively, empathetically, and with sensitivity to cultural, gender, and race issues, and come up with solutions to benefit everyone. For example, students can design a class library to include more books written by people of colour, or create posters of influential women in the field of science or math to display in the hallways.
Using inquiry to teach social justice issues also encourages students to think about how inclusion is promoted in their classrooms. Perhaps students know some great books, paintings, or films that can promote inclusion. This is a great inquiry project for students who are always looking for ways to improve and enrich the lives of others.
Inquiry Questions About Equitability and Inclusion:
- How can we make our communities more inclusive?
- What are the key ingredients of an inclusive classroom?
- How can we promote equity at home and in our personal lives?
- 10 Steps to Equity in Education (PDF)
- Ontario’s Education Equity Action Plan (PDF)
- Learning for Justice – this website is packed full of amazing lessons and articles about this topic specifically
- 50 Inquiry Questions About Civics, Freedom, and Government
(1) Inquiry projects should be authentic and reflect problems and events that impact our world. Furthermore, they should help students become more creative in their problem-solving, and encourage them to develop essential skills.
(2) Some of these inquiry learning examples are more problem-based, while others are a bit more project-based in nature. We’ve outlined the key differences between the three in our article titled “What the Heck is the Difference Between IBL and PBL?” (Or you can download a handy venn diagram for quick reference here).
(3) Not only are successful inquiry projects meaningful and student-led, but they also include real-world components
(4) Inquiry projects should include low-floor, high-ceiling tasks so that all students can access them. They should also be cross-curricular in nature so that projects cover a variety of subjects, topics, and learning objectives.
(5) History, science, engineering, art, and citizenship are all subjects that have plenty of overlap. The inquiry learning examples listed above allow teachers to branch into multiple subject areas to provide a truly cross-curricular experience for students. Have a look at our excellent roadmap for teaching inquiry and our guide on how to integrate curriculum expectations with inquiry learning to get started.
Hopefully some of these examples of inquiry learning have inspired you!