Teaching Inquiry Learning: A Simple Roadmap for Teachers

Inquiry-based learning can be incredibly powerful and engaging in the classroom. However, if you’re new to inquiry learning, it can be overwhelming to know where to start and what path to follow. There are plenty of articles online about the phases students go through during an inquiry. However, very few address how teachers can plan and structure the teaching components of inquiry-based learning.

Teaching inquiry learning can be broken down into five basic stages. First, use curriculum expectations to frame the inquiry. From there, decide what skills students will need to be taught. Next, schedule the days and times when students will work on their inquiries. Finally, organize students’ individual work periods and plan for assessment.

The outline below will guide you in planning the overall structure of your inquiry and help you when it comes to teaching inquiry.

1. Use the curriculum expectations to frame the inquiry

Before anything else, begin by thinking about a specific topic or theme you want your inquiry to be about. For example, if you are starting a grade 7 geography inquiry, some topics might include:

  • Preserving resources around the world
  • Challenges and opportunities presented by the physical environment
  • Political implications of global natural events
  • How resources are extracted and harvested around the world
  • Global responses to environmental challenges
  • The social and economic consequences of resource extraction
  • Environmental issues with resource extraction

Choose a topic or small cluster of related topics. Next, think about what you want students to know by the end of the inquiry. Consult the specific curriculum expectations for this. The table below provides a few example topics that align with the Ontario Social Studies curriculum, and shows what students should know by the end of an inquiry on that topic.

Topics and related knowledge

Topic/ThemeWhat we want students to know
Example 1: Preserving resources around the world– Resource development is affected by many factors (social, political, economic, etc.)
– Some countries are better able to extract and use natural resources in a sustainable way
– Environmental stewardship and helping to preserve natural resources is important
– How certain groups, agencies, and organizations are helping to preserve natural resources
– How students can contribute to a more sustainable world
Example 2: Challenges and opportunities presented by the physical environment– People respond differently to environmental challenges and opportunities according to values, monetary gain, power, etc.
– How different groups live with and adapt to constant challenges in their environment
– The location and characteristics of landforms and water systems around the world, why they are important, and how they have been used
– Natural processes and human activities that create and change landforms
– How to use a topographic map, climate graph, and atlas
– Patterns of climate regions, vegetation, and human activities 
Example 3: Environmental issues with resource extraction– The relationships between location, accessibility, mode of extraction, and the use of natural resources
– Sustainability practises around the world
– The benefits and drawbacks of specific resource extraction methods and practises
– Short- and long-term effects of natural resource extraction on people and the environment
– Perspectives of different groups regarding resource extraction and responses to environmental challenges

Among these expectations, students will also learn how to engage with the inquiry process; this includes formulating questions, gathering and organizing data, and analyzing and constructing maps. Furthermore, students will also be learning how to interpret information, evaluate evidence, make conclusions, and communicate their results.

For a more detailed break-down, we’ve written an article that outlines the steps for integrating the Ontario curriculum into your inquiry units.

For a blank inquiry planning template, Ophea has a great template for this.

2. Decide what skills need to be taught

Once you’ve decided what knowledge students need to have by the end of the inquiry, you need to figure out what specific skills need to be taught. Since inquiry-based learning is mostly student-led, students need to be taught skills that will enable them to work with minimal assistance. These skills can be taught in the beginning, or along the way. In my experience, I like to teach things like question development and personal organization at the beginning. Then, I teach skills like skimming and scanning, note-taking, and analyzing along the way.

Remember, some skills are more efficiently taught using a traditional approach. For example, students may need to know how to read or make a topographic map. A brief teacher-directed overview on the parts of a topographic map and how to use one would suffice in this case. In this instance, class time is better spent and students are given more time to explore the map as opposed to figuring out how to read it.

Teaching inquiry skills as mini activities

Alternatively, you may decide to teach some skills as mini activities. For example, younger students might benefit from a short activity on how to analyze a map. Planning a short 20-minute activity on skills like these really pays off when students are investigating on their own. This way, they also have a page in their inquiry books that they can refer to if they forget a skill or need it scaffolded again. Other short skills-based lessons include:

If you are teaching inquiry skills as mini activities, make sure to provide opportunities for students to use active learning and group work. Using scenario-based learning or problem-based learning can be a terrific way to challenge students to problem-solve and work together to gain the necessary skills needed for inquiry learning. We’ve written a short, helpful guide on the difference between types of student learning

3. Schedule the days and times when students will work on their inquiries

Determining the exact days and times for inquiry will depend largely on the schedule you currently work with. Consult your schedule and allocate blocks of time for students to work on their inquiries by first asking yourself some questions. For example, what days are computers or laptops available? What skills need to be taught first before moving into the next phase of learning? Where will these be taught throughout the week?

Using a large, editable classroom calendar to schedule work periods gives students structure and helps them anticipate expectations.

This rustic-style calendar and trees and forest display calendar are beautiful choices!

In my experience, I’ve had between 2 and 5 time slots per week (between 20 minutes to 1 hour in length) for teaching inquiry. During those times, I planned skills-based lessons and activities. My goal was to give students opportunities to practise the skills needed to work independently. It’s important to think chronologically about when to teach specific skills and when you’re going to give students independent work time.

Keep in mind that all learning done during these work periods, whether skills-based or independent work, needs to satisfy the learning expectations you planned for in steps 1 and 2.

The photo below is a screenshot of a sample week of an inquiry about Indigenous history in Canada.

Sample week plan

You can download the sample 2-week plan here.

Moreover, make sure you are scheduling time to check-in with students occasionally to see how they’re getting on with their inquiries. Ask guiding questions periodically such as:

  • What have you observed so far?
  • How are other students working toward similar questions?
  • What is your current understanding of this issue?
  • How do we know when we’ve achieved our learning goals?
  • What kind of learning experiences might be useful for learning more?
  • In what ways does uncovering information lead to more questions?
  • How does our learning change the way we think about this topic?

4. Organize student’s individual work periods

In this stage, things get a bit more precise since we are now looking at what is specifically happening in each lesson. For this, set a goal for the function you want a specific work period to have:

  • Student-to-material: Students use the work period to conduct research, watch videos, listen to interviews, collect data, or read articles. In this type of work period, students are usually working towards a specific goal that will help answer their inquiry questions. Moreover, the majority of learning happening in these sessions is primarily student-led.
  • Student-to-peer: In these work periods, students interact with a peer or small group. The intention could simply be to share ideas, or work on analyzing information together. Another way student-to-peer work periods can be helpful is by providing time for students to reflect and give advice to each other. Students may also benefit from interviewing people in their class and collecting information; this document on interview techniques is a useful tool for students to use in this case.
  • Student-to-expert: Sometimes a work period is used to bring in a local expert, scientist, or guide to talk to students about their inquiry topic. For example, bringing in a wastewater specialist for a geography inquiry on sustainability would be hugely beneficial to students. In some instances, you may act as the “expert” by teaching inquiry skills to students.

Putting it altogether

All of this sounds good, but how do you actually schedule these blocks of learning? Let’s use an example:

For example, if you’ve planned for a 1-hour computer period on Tuesday morning, use it as a student-to-material work period. Perhaps use the 20 minutes you scheduled on Monday to help students come up with a plan for how they’re going to use their time on Tuesday. Then, if you planned for a 1-hour social studies block on Thursday afternoon, let students use that time to consult with their peers to share ideas and feedback. Alternatively, schedule a guest speaker to come in and talk to students about the inquiry topic in that time slot.

By no means does an entire work period need to stay within the parameters mentioned above; fluidity and flexibility is always important. However, having a rough idea of how the work period is going to look is helpful so that students have some structure while they work.

The role of the teacher during work periods

During these work periods, the teacher’s role depends on the stage of inquiry students are at; and this could be different for every student. On the whole, teachers should be focused on subtly teaching inquiry skills, like helping students locate and select resources and organize themselves. They should also provide encouragement and non-evaluative feedback. In addition, teachers should help students overcome obstacles in their learning and challenge their understanding when appropriate. In this way, teachers act as facilitators as opposed to leading students down a predetermined path.

However, if students require a bit more attention, or run into problems, we’ve put together a troubleshooting guide for some of the most common problems with inquiry learning

Another area teachers should endeavour to focus on is helping students structure and manage their time. For example, make time to model setting time-specific goals, creating checklists, and ordering tasks by importance.

We’ve created a bundle of organizers for students to help them manage their workload; you can download them here.

5. Plan for assessment opportunities

A big question educators have is how do I assess inquiry-based learning? To answer that, there are a few key things to keep in mind:

  • Assessment will take many different forms – assessment for, as, and of learning
  • Students are given multiple ways to demonstrate their learning, which gives teachers more options for collecting assessment information
  • Assessment happens in an ongoing manner throughout the inquiry cycle

Most importantly, the emphasis for assessment should be placed on the process of inquiry as opposed to the final product. During inquiry learning, teachers use multiple methods for collecting assessment information. For instance, they use observations, discussions, conferences, and demonstrative tasks. Below is an outline of the different types of assessment used in an inquiry classroom:

Assessment for learning

The purpose of assessment for learning is to inform teacher instruction. It is conducted before instruction is given in order to determine what knowledge students already have, and what skills they can already do. It is a formative assessment method that is mostly teacher-driven. Other characteristics of assessment for learning include:

  • Helps teachers plan for challenges and gaps in learning
  • Information about pre-existing knowledge and skills is used so that the teacher can monitor students’ progress
  • Is helpful for teachers to know what students’ next steps should be
  • Indicates students’ levels of critical thinking and knowledge retention

Assessment as learning

Assessment as learning is also a formative assessment tool. Using assessment as learning in the inquiry classroom is an ongoing process. In this type of assessment, teachers model and support students in learning to assess themselves and others. Other characteristics of this type of assessment include:

  • Supports students in analyzing their efforts in relation to their goals and outcomes
  • Is largely student-driven with teacher guidance
  • Utilizes self- and peer-assessment strategies
  • Involves the use of success criteria, feedback, and conferencing

Assessment of learning

This type of assessment happens when teachers gather and analyze information about student learning at the end of the inquiry cycle. It acts as a summative assessment of learning so that teachers can make judgements against overall criteria and standard and is an important component of learning for a few reasons:

  • It helps teachers evaluate student achievement against curricular outcomes
  • Allows teachers to summarize student learning in an easy way
  • Serves as a foundation for discussions about next steps, gaps in learning, and student progress overall
  • Helps teachers make judgements on the quality of learning that has happened

My favourite assessment tools for teaching inquiry:

Two-sided whiteboard answer paddles (pack of 6) – great for quick assessments at the end of a work period or mini lesson.
End-of-day reflection sticks – I’ve made my own version of these in the past, but these seem much easier to use for student reflection.
Scientific inquiry journals – These are fantastic for keeping students on-track and organized. (They are also half price!)
Dry-Erase shape bubbles – Again, I’ve made my own version of these in the past, but these are much more convenient!

Planning assessment opportunities

Now that the difference between assessment types is clear, we’ll explain how to plan for these varied assessment opportunities.

First, refer back to your inquiry learning schedule. Decide which lessons or activities would benefit from formative assessment or summative assessment opportunities. For example:

More great assessment strategies can be found in this list.

Here is an example of the assessment strategies I’ve used when teaching inquiry in my classroom:

DayActivityAssessment TypesAssessment Strategies
Tuesdaystudent-material work periodfor learning
as learning
of learning
Self-assessment: students answer the prompt in their inquiry journals (list of prompts PDF)

Exit card: ask students to complete three sentence prompts before they leave the classroom (“I understand…”, “I don’t understand…”, and “I need more information about…”)
Thursdaystudent-peer work periodfor learning
as learning

of learning
Peer-assessment: using this guide, students engage in discussions with each other about their progress

Two stars and a wish response card: students provide two positives of their partners’ work and one suggestion for further improvement – use this template

Choosing assessment strategies to use in your classroom will depend on the grade level you’re teaching, the inquiry topic itself, and the pace at which your students are working. In addition, take into account other factors such as initiative, teamwork, and cooperation among students.

Final thoughts on teaching inquiry

Make sure students understand that a huge component of inquiry learning is the self-reflection process. Often, students don’t realize that how they cope with challenges, roadblocks, and self-doubt is just as important (some would argue, more important) than the final product. Mistakes will happen, and they should be normalized in the classroom.

Key Takeaways:

(1) Before anything else, begin by thinking about a specific topic or theme you want your inquiry to be about. Consider the big ideas that you want students to know by the end of the inquiry; use the curriculum expectations to help you with this.

(2) Figure out the specific skills that students need to know prior to beginning their inquiries. These include work skills, teamwork skills, and other soft skills. Decide which skills can be taught individually and which ones students can learn as they go.

(3) Schedule the time slots throughout the week when students will get to work on their inquiries. Build in time for 1:1 discussions with students to check in with them and offer feedback and advice if they need it.

(4) Structure each inquiry work period and determine what function you want them to have; will students be working independently, with peers, or listening to a guest speaker? Will they have access to computers, library materials, or expert knowledge? Take time to put a plan in place so that students know what is expected of them during each session.

(5) Plan for assessment opportunities depending on the type of work period. For example, if students are working independently, build in opportunities for them to self-assess. If you are teaching a quick lesson on map-reading, utilize the traffic light system or response cards to check for understanding.

(6) Most importantly, cultivate a classroom of learners where mistakes are common and where the emphasis is on the process, not just the end result.

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