Useful Tips for Successfully Teaching Inquiry Learning
Implementing and teaching inquiry learning in your classroom can be a bit of a shock at first. If students aren’t used to the idea of inquiry learning, it can not only be hard to get them on board with it, but it can also be difficult to keep them engaged with the process.
Some tips for teaching inquiry learning include spending time creating an inquiry-friendly classroom, building necessary inquiry habits and skills, designing authentic and relevant activities, and modelling ongoing peer and self-assessment.
This post provides practical details on successfully teaching inquiry learning in your classroom.
Tip #1: Create an inquiry-friendly classroom
Many teachers attribute their success with teaching inquiry to the amount of preparation they did at the beginning of the year. Building an inquiry-friendly classroom means encouraging student’s curiosity and honouring their questions. It also means sprucing up your classroom to reflect and encourage a culture of inquiry.
Before students arrive in September, prepare your classroom. A few important components are all you need to get started, and they don’t have to cost much at all:
- Wonder Walls: This is where students post their questions, display their work, or share ideas and evidence of their work. Having one in your classroom is a powerful visual for students to see the progression of their thoughts and ideas. It is also a fun place for students to interact with others’ work and ask questions about it. You can also include a question matrix on the wall for students to post specific questions they are curious about. Download a blank copy of a q-matrix here or check out our Pinterest board dedicated to Wonder Walls.
- Inquiry Table: This is a designated area where students can explore chosen materials. They can be related directly to your inquiry or unrelated. Inquiry tables include materials like books, photos, magnifying glasses, an iPad, or provocation materials. The goal of having a dedicated inquiry table or workspace is so that students have a place to research an idea, explore something, draw a mock-up of a project, or reflect on their learning. There are so many beautiful ideas all over Pinterest and Instagram.
- Loose Parts Station: If you have the room, fitting in a loose parts station (or an “upcycling/STEM station” as I’ve called it in my room) is a great addition. This space acts as a creator’s dream! All you need is a desk, and some space for storage of all the upcycled materials you’ll collect. These materials can include pieces of cardboard, empty plastic bottles, pipe cleaners, dowels, and other craft items. Hanging blueprints of simple projects, instruction manuals, or photos of structures also serves as some building inspiration too.
Tip #2: Spend time building habits and developing inquiry-related skills
Having an inquiry classroom is a great start, but getting your students into the habit of asking questions and exploring their curiosities takes a bit of time. It is helpful for students to understand that problem-solving, collaboration, resourcefulness, and patience are important skills to have in any classroom, let alone an inquiry-driven one.
Emphasizing metacognitive skills (also referred to as “learning to learn” skills) is also important. So many students go through school thinking their end goals should include:
- Getting their work done as fast as possible, preferably ahead of their classmates
- Being “right” about their predictions and responses
- Expediting the process of problem-solving and reaping the benefits of finishing early
- Memorizing every fact or piece of knowledge and recalling it better than others
For some students, it helps to think about inquiry learning like a puzzle. It helps them to understand that coping with difficult problems, dealing with challenges and changes, and working through things that may not have clear solutions are all a part of learning. Being able to work resourcefully and with the notion that learning is rarely linear is essential in preparing students for lifelong learning.
Naturally, it takes time to recalibrate this way of thinking. Students need time to un-learn these outdated standards of intelligence and readiness and learn how to work through the process of learning in ways that encourage resilience, patience, and critical thinking. Some simple ways to habitually reinforce these ideas include:
- Pausing during a difficult problem and verbalizing your thoughts – this helps students hear your process and understand what you’re thinking about as you try to work through a problem. It also reinforces the idea that problem-solving takes time and that talking about the process is a natural part of it.
- Using positive language – when students hear you talking kindly to yourself (e.g “I thought this was the answer, but there might be another way of doing it which can help me understand this even more – lucky me!”) they will slowly begin to adopt this language for themselves, which promotes positive self-thoughts and curbs self-criticism.
- Authentic praise for soft-skills and processes – switching your approach from traditional praise (e.g “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!”) to process-based praise helps students recognize and value their own strengths and feel confident in their efforts as opposed to what they can produce.
Tip #3: Design inquiry activities that correlate with the curriculum
Typically, students aren’t given a lot of time or freedom to explore things that interest them because the day is usually filled up with curriculum-specific teaching. However, you can definitely foster the habits and skills needed for inquiry to flourish while still sticking to the curriculum. Using cross-curricular planning and finding areas of overlap between what students are curious about and what they need to learn in a particular grade is possible.
A good place to start when designing these activities is by working backwards. Determine the main concepts that students should understand and work from there. Once you’ve got your big idea pinned down, create more specific framing questions. These smaller questions will act as specific pathways students can take in their inquiries.
Related: How to Integrate Ontario Curriculum Expectations with Inquiry Learning
At some point you’ll need to explicitly teach students some inquiry-related skills; this can include skimming and scanning skills, map reading, or uncovering bias. Build in opportunities to teach these skills to small groups using related materials. For example, if students are studying the challenges that Indigenous people in Canada faced when Europeans arrived, plan to teach a lesson on map reading. Use a map analysis guide or follow the steps listed on this page. You will probably need to build in time for a few explicit skills-based lessons to complement the inquiry process.
For students who are new to inquiry, ensure that your lessons are highly structured and focused, and take extra care in selecting resources to use. Encourage students to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and difficulties often during the process. Students who are more familiar with inquiry still need some guidance, but can be taught more complex skills and strategies. For example, how to read more complex informational texts, using library catalogues, and how to use technology creatively and persuasively.
Tip #4: Practise ongoing reflection and self-assessment
Perhaps one of the hardest habits to develop in the classroom is the ability for students to self-reflect. To be successful at this, students need to understand that inquiry is a personal learning process that helps them:
- Understand how they learn most effectively
- Develop metacognitive skills and the ability to think critically
- Explore their own successes, challenges, and strategies for persevering
- Build strategies for monitoring and enhancing their thought process
- Review their processes of learning
- Understand that the inquiry process teaches them transferable skills
Sometimes it’s hard for students to be reflective because they don’t see changes in their skills right away. They might think the process is pointless or become disengaged. If this happens, pair students up and talk to each other about new things they’re learning (both about their topic and about themselves). Encourage them to share their situations and strategies with others. Furthermore, consider using reflection journals with prompts like “What was a high point and what was a frustration of the day?”, “What did I learn today?”, “How was I feeling during the inquiry process today?”. Other questions include:
- What have I learned about coping with my feelings during this process?
- What growth have I felt today (in my work, in my reactions, etc.)?
- How can I deal with my feelings in a positive way?
- What have I learned that I can use elsewhere?
- How might I be feeling during the next stage tomorrow, and how can I prepare for that?
It is helpful to model and discuss the cognitive and affective phases that students go through during the inquiry process. The photo below is from the Alberta Inquiry document (p. 38) and shows the different thoughts and feelings students might encounter during the course of their investigations:
Key Takeaways for Teaching Inquiry:
(1) Building an inquiry-friendly classroom means encouraging student’s curiosity and honouring their questions. It also means sprucing up your classroom to reflect and encourage a culture of inquiry.
(2) Spend the time to recalibrate what defines “success”. Get students into the habit of asking questions and exploring their curiosities. Help them understand that problem-solving, collaboration, resourcefulness, and patience are important skills to have in any classroom, let alone an inquiry-driven one.
(3) Utilize cross-curricular planning and finding areas of overlap between what students are curious about and what they need to learn in a particular grade.
(4) Help students understand that inquiry helps them to think critically, analyze, organize, and get to know how they learn.
Featured image by pressfoto – www.freepik.com