How to Integrate Ontario Curriculum Expectations with Inquiry Learning


A common problem that educators have when trying to implement inquiry-based learning is how to integrate the Ontario curriculum into their planning. In my classroom, I’ve done a few simple things over the years to make this as seamless as possible.

Focus on the big ideas of a unit that can be approached from and broken down into many different ways. Incorporate a cross-curricular approach so that you can touch on a variety of overall expectations; this also helps students see the interconnectedness of the entire inquiry.

When I first started using inquiry learning, I found it helpful to have some examples of how the process works; from choosing a big idea to picking out specific expectations that would complement my students’ natural inquiry process. In this guide, we’ll provide some examples of simple ways to do this.


What are the big ideas?

Big ideas are the main concepts that students should understand about a particular strand or unit in a subject. Some examples in the Ontario curriculum include:

  • Social and political conflicts and changes in the first half of the 19th century have had a lasting impact on Canada
  • Plants and animals are interdependent and are adapted to meet their needs from the resources available in their particular habitats
  • Writing helps us organize our thoughts, solve problems, reflect on a variety of issues, and communicate effectively

When planning an inquiry, think about the big idea you want your students to understand. Then, think of ways to break those ideas into mini steps (discussed in the next section). The purpose of anchoring an inquiry to a big idea is to make room for a variety of questions and help students to make connections. By focusing on an overarching idea, rather than specific expectations, students have more flexibility to steer their questions down a path that interests them. The conventional subject-specific boundaries become blurred, and cross-curricular learning can flourish.

The big idea of an inquiry can be shared with students at the beginning of the inquiry, or revealed later on. The benefit of sharing the big idea at the beginning is that students have guidelines that provide structure to their inquiries. On the other hand, opening an inquiry with a broad question and giving students time to explore it on their own before committing to a question gives students the chance to come to the big idea themselves. 


How do I break down and use big ideas from the Ontario curriculum?

Having students tackle a big idea as a whole isn’t realistic. Instead, try to figure out how to break it down for them in terms of framing questions, mini lessons, and student research.

1. Create more specific framing questions

Framing questions help students to make sense of the big idea. For example, if you want students to understand the experiences and challenges that people faced in the past in order to better understand the current world, think about smaller questions you can ask students, either as a whole class or in small groups or partners.

Here are some examples from the Ontario curriculum:

  • Do we experience any of the same challenges people in Canada experienced in earlier times?
  • How are historical challenges different from challenges we face today?
  • In what ways are our struggles and obstacles similar to those faced in the past?
  • Why have our struggles changed over the years?
  • What can we learn from studying people in the past?

2. Use them to teach mini lessons

Beginning with a big idea helps to focus your attention on the specific skills students will need to practice in order to successfully work through their inquiries. In the example given above, students are investigating the experiences and challenges of people in the past. Some mini lessons to complement this big idea include:

  • Skimming and scanning skills: If students will be researching and doing any amount of reading, it is beneficial to understand how to skim and scan a text. Practising using headings, captions, and other text features will also help in this area.
  • Analyzing and constructing maps: This is a spatial skill that students will all benefit from. Knowing how to properly read a map and compass, as well as understanding a key and other geographic features helps students make sense of information that is presented visually. “How to Analyze a Map” is a great analysis worksheet for younger students. This handout, “Analyze a Map”, is geared towards older students.
  • Reading primary source documents: Students who understand that our language, writing styles, and communication methods have drastically changed over hundreds of years are better equipped to make sense of primary source documents; this is definitely a skill that students should spend time practising. Some amazing document analysis worksheets are available from the National Archives for this purpose.
  • Analyzing settlement patterns: These skills include being able to see how an area has changed over time, analyzing reasons for these changes, and understanding the impact of these changes on where humans decide to settle. 

3. Determine topics for student research

Big ideas help students to determine what topics and specific areas they need to investigate. Keep in mind that not all inquiries will require a lot of research, and there is a big difference between research and inquiry. However, the chances that students will conduct some research is fairly high (especially in a historical inquiry). By framing inquiries around a big idea, students can more easily figure out what to investigate. Using the example above, students may choose to:

  • Investigate the lives of a particular group of people in order to better understand the specific struggles they encountered.
  • Conduct interviews with community members to gain their perspectives on the challenges they face and the experiences they’ve had in their lives.
  • Consult primary sources of information such as diaries, letters, and official documents so that they have a better idea of the unique experiences that people from the past had.

How do I use a cross-curricular approach?

The goal of cross-curricular teaching is to bring together different subject areas by incorporating the main ideas and skills from more than one subject simultaneously. It is a great way to get students to see the connections that exist between various subjects.

Implementing a cross-curricular approach is actually a lot easier than you think! Here are some ways to do it:

1. Create a concept map

First, figure out the big ideas of your topic or inquiry. Once you’ve done this, create a map with your driving question or main idea in the centre, and branch out towards the subjects you want to incorporate into your students’ learning. The concept map below illustrates how this might look using the Ontario curriculum expectations:

2. Make questions the focus

A good way to frame a new topic or inquiry is by framing it around a broad question. Inquiry-based learning is a fantastic way to encourage students to utilize multiple skills and draw on knowledge from various subjects. A few example questions are given below:

3. Group related skills into your unit plan

Next, plan out how you’re going to integrate the skills and knowledge from the subjects you listed into your main lessons and activities. In this step, think about the natural progression of your weekly lessons; what subject-specific skills can you combine? Some ideas are shown below using skills from the Ontario curriculum:

4. Create multi-faceted lessons

Instead of devoting a 1-hour class period to studying Canadian geography, think of specific ways to seamlessly move from one subject to the next, or how to combine more than one subject within a lesson. Using a variety of group work methods helps tremendously with lessons like these. Below are some ways to do this:

Download all four photos as a PDF document


Key Takeaways:

(1) Focus on the big ideas of a unit that can be approached from and broken down into many different ways

(2) Incorporate a cross-curricular approach so that you can touch on a variety of overall expectations

(3) Break big ideas into mini steps by creating framing questions, teaching mini-lessons, and anchoring student research

(4) Utilize a cross-curricular approach by creating a concept map, making questions the focus, grouping related skills, and creating multi-faceted lessons


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