Inquiry-based learning can be defined as learning that “starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios – rather than simply presenting established facts or portraying a smooth path to knowledge.” In short, students uncover material, as opposed to content coverage and the memorization and regurgitation of facts and knowledge.
As a teacher, everything I taught was infused, in one way or another, with inquiry, creativity, and/or literacy. And, inquiry was often integrated with the other two.
As an administrator, whenever I walk into a teacher’s classroom, one of the first things I almost always subconsciously look for is whether or not the students are engaged in inquiry. However, telling a teacher, “Your students need to engage in more inquiry,” is comparable to letting a comedian know she needs to be funnier or asking a pizzaiolo to make a better dough. And, vague directives in the absence of explicit instruction typically generate anxiety.
To avoid these anxieties, and for progress to actually take place, we need to drill down to the nitty gritty and be as explicit as possible. In other words, we need to be explicit about being explicit and leverage specific strategies to comfortably move forward for the benefit of our students.
With these thoughts in mind, I’ve been obsessing over inquiry’s common denominators – the strategies or drivers we should always consider when implementing an inquiry-based lesson.
That being said, here are the six drivers of inquiry-based learning. And, while I don’t think every lesson or activity must have all six, I do believe that once we (and our students) become comfortable with an inquiry approach, all drivers will naturally find a way into learning experiences on a regular, if not daily, basis.
1. The End in Mind
During the learning process, students should know what success criteria look like, which is typically communicated in the form of learning targets for a lesson (and enduring understandings for an entire unit).
Here are two ways to encourage inquiry when working with learning targets.
- Let students dictate how they arrive at the target: I’ve heard a lot of education talk that goes something like, “The process is more important than the product,” and, “Students should define the process.” At times, I think these words are said, but not necessarily heard or understood. To clarify such quotes, think of learning as a GPS. In the end, we want all students to arrive at the same destination (learning target), but each student’s route (process) will be distinct based on different starting points, wants and needs, etc. In short, there is no one right way for students to arrive at and demonstrate their understandings.
- Let students hit more than just the target: You’re a five-year-old student and you’re learning how to add. However, instead of manipulatives, your teacher has asked you to group bananas. As you work, questions start to swirl around in your curious little head: Where do bananas come from? Why are some yellow and others green? How does food grow on trees? When you start to actually ask these questions, one of two things can happen: Your curiosity can be stifled when the teacher replies with something like, “Worry about your addition!” or your inquiring mind can be nurtured when the teacher allows for you to investigate these questions. While an understanding of addition may be the destination, everyone loves a detour!
When dealing with student collaboration, the first step must be the realization that this is a skill that has to be taught. Many students (let alone adults) don’t know what true collaboration involves, yet it’s so easy to get into the habit of putting students into groups, telling them to work together, and then getting upset with them when there’s trouble. In fact, this used to be my “strategy.” Looking back on my first few years of teaching, I can honestly say I feel bad for my students with whom I was heated when they had problems coexisting with their partners.
So, how do we teach collaboration?
One approach is to simply tell students the features of effective collaboration, and then make sure these characteristics are followed. A better approach is to have students uncoverthese features by thinking about their experiences, observing classmates and/or other classrooms (in person or via video), role playing, reading articles on the topic, etc. As a class, students can then define what collaboration should look like, sound like, and feel like.
Once collaboration has been defined, it can be more easily integrated into lessons. Based on my experiences, one of the more practical ways to make this happen is for the teacher to hand over all of his questions at once. Let me explain: I’ve seen far too many lessons during which the majority of time is eaten up by the teacher displaying questions to the entire class, one at a time: A question is presented, students work through it on their own, the teacher gives an explanation, and the class moves on to the next question. (This procedure could easily be branded as the round robin reading of questioning or problem solving.) Here, a simple alternative would be for the teacher to hand over all the questions at once (even if they’re on a worksheet), and allow for students to learn from each other by working through them in pairs or small groups. Meanwhile, the teacher is free to walk around the room, meet students where they are by constantly offering feedback, and everyone can move at their own pace.
When looking to promote more inquiry (and student engagement), improving upon our questioning techniques is easily one of the first places to start. Two quick tips that have guided my work in this area:
- Formulate questions based on how you think students will respond to them. A question is only as good as the reactions it elicits.
- The end game is students asking their own questions. But, this doesn’t happen by accident.
And, here are two ways to support questioning and inquiry.
- Less is more: I can still vividly recall a professional development session I helped to facilitate when I was a fourth grade teacher, which was driven by the essential question, “How can fewer questions lead to a deeper understanding?” From our basal reading program, Storytown, teachers analyzed half of a story along with the ten publisher created questions that came with it. In diving into these questions, teachers were led to uncover that pretty much no higher-order thinking had to take place for them to be answered. So, to replace the ten questions, teachers came up with (1) 2-3 questions that prompted higher-order thinking and encompassed the majority of the content from the ten questions, and (2) a thinking routine that would allow for students to explore these new questions. A routine was necessary because, if we ask “thick” questions the same way we ask “thin” questions (usually in rapid succession) we’ll most likely continue to get shallow answers. In other words, we must create the conditions for higher-order thinking to occur.
- Students, not teachers, should be asking the majority of questions: But, this is easier said than done. Here are two of my favorite ways to incite student questioning:
- The Question Formulation Technique – In their book, Make Just One Change, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana establish this protocol. Using this technique, students are presented with a prompt, which they respond to with their own questions. Students then refine their questions, prioritize those that are most pertinent, and evaluate their work. Their final questions serve as a springboard into course content.
- Why? What if? How? – Warren Berger presents this questioning model in his book, A More Beautiful Question. Using this sequence, students challenge a current reality by asking “Why?” questions. Then they pose “What if?” questions as a way to propose solutions or alternatives. Finally, students dig into the work of bringing their ideas into action by generating “How?” questions. From here, classwork centers on research, solving problems, and hopefully asking more questions.
In their book, Launch, John Spencer and A.J. Juliani proclaim, “The most creative and innovative work comes from circumstances that force a new type of thinking for solutions inside the box.” And, for any given situation, the box’s characteristics are determined by the constraints – limitations or restrictions – with which we must deal.
Let’s take a look at how constraints can be leveraged to promote inquiry. We’ll do this by examining two different ways to facilitate an egg drop project – yes that egg drop project in which students are charged with designing a protective packaging for an egg in hopes of it surviving a drop from up high.
Experience #1: Space Camp Egg Drop
As an eight-year-old at space camp, I absolutely loved partaking in the egg drop (which is one of the reasons why I still remember it)! More or less the process looked like this: Campers were given a whole bunch of materials from which they could choose in order to build protective egg packaging however they wanted. My product ended up including an empty Triscuit box, loads of packing peanuts, packaging tape, and a bit more. And, my egg survived the drop from the top of the camp’s building!
Experience #2: Fourth Grade Egg Drop
I facilitated this experience as a fourth grade teacher. We took an approach that blended design thinking with the scientific method. More or less, here are the steps my students and I followed:
- The entire class worked together to uncover the attributes of ideal egg packaging, from the consumer’s point of view: protective, small size, insulated, attractive, etc.
- In groups, students researched, planned, and recorded how their packaging would “satisfy” each one of the attributes. Then, they sketched their packaging, conferenced with the teacher, and got approval before moving on.
- Groups engineered their packaging using materials from the classroom and/or their homes, iterating as necessary as they went along.
- Products were dropped from the school’s roof, and then students reflected upon the entire process.
While there’s nothing technically “wrong” with a fun activity like the space camp egg drop, slightly tweaking the project’s directions could get campers (and students) to think on a much more critical level. As an eight-year-old I had the simple task of building packaging to protect an egg, and really not much thought and effort had to go into it (other than piecing together materials and inserting an egg into the middle of it all). But, if we add on a constraint or two, like we did in Experience #2, we are now engineering. Constraints can include: the packaging must be no wider than 1 foot, no heavier than 2 pounds, all materials must be biodegradable, etc. We want these constraints to promote inquiry, but at the same time we also want to them to represent what an authentic product includes.
5. Productive Struggle
In my classroom, to help to create a culture of productive struggle and to emphasize the fact that iteration is all around us, one of the stories I used to tell my students involved the original iPhone prior to it being released. In this instance, an angry Steve Jobs noticed that the plastic screen of a “ready to ship” iPhone became noticeably scratched when placed in his pocket along with other items, such as keys. As a result, with six weeks to go until the product was announced, the screens had to change from plastic to glass. The phone underwent countless trials and errors before it reached its present state. Especially when working with younger students, we need to bring these processes to light to remind them that productive struggle isn’t just the norm, it’s necessary.
Here are two practical tips to keep in mind when allowing for productive struggle.
- Let students (and maybe, parents) know it’s supposed to happen: Unless you’re teaching in a school with an explicit focus on inquiry and/or project based learning, there’s a strong chance your students will interpret productive struggle as “struggle.” In other words, they’ll think there’s something wrong because they’re not getting it. So, beforehand, let students know that struggle and iteration are a part of the learning process. (The Steve Jobs story helped me to communicate this message.) Then, support students along the way while they’re learning by mostly offering prompts, not answers. Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc., tells us, “When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work – even when it is confounding them.”
- You can always give, but you can’t take away: Once you give your students overly detailed (possibly, step-by-step) directions or instructions, you’ve let the cat out of the bag. Your student will probably know exactly what to do and inquiry will be non-existent. Instead, err on the side of caution by asking yourself, “What directives do I absolutely need to give my students to maximize inquiry and creativity while ensuring an unreasonable level of frustration will not be reached?” Here the goal is to give students Goldilocks Directions – directions that aren’t too easy, aren’t too hard, but are just right. We want the majority of students to experience productive struggle. And, for those who are struggling (unproductively), additional directions can be filtered in, varying from student to student (or group to group) as needed.
Grant Wiggins defined feedback as, “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.” A few specific examples he included were:
- A friend tells me, “You know, when you put it that way and speak in that softer tone of voice, it makes me feel better.”
- A baseball coach tells me, “Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn't really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball.”
For both examples, the recipient receives specific guidance in regards to what to do next. When we provide feedback during any type of learning (preferably without a grade so the feedback is not ignored), we should have this same goal in mind. Students should walk away with an idea of what their next steps will be. Otherwise, what we’re giving probably doesn’t meet the definition of “feedback.”
Now, let’s take a look at how all six drivers (including feedback) come together within the context of an authentic activity.
- Students, in small groups, are tasked with building a solar powered car. (Collaboration)
- With their directions in hand, groups are given ten minutes to brainstorm as many questions as possible that relate to the upcoming challenge. Then, each group circles their top three most pertinent questions. A whole class discussion ensues, based on these select questions. (Questioning)
- Rather than handing out step-by-step car kits, the teacher provides each group with just enough materials to get going, so they’ll be forced to exercise their creativity (and their own materials) to fill in the gaps. (Productive Struggle)
- Because it’s cold outside, students must find a way to continuously test their cars without the help of the sun. (Constraints)
- As students engineer their cars, they “bump into” certain concepts: solar energy, friction, wheels and axles (simple machines), engineering principles, etc. The teacher take the time to teach mini-lessons on these topics, while letting students know that this is the science behind how their cars will (hopefully) function, and they’re expected to know it. Learning targets are presented. (The End in Mind)
- As student work, the teacher walks around and gives feedback to individuals and groups. Generally, each piece of feedback relates to at least one of the concepts or learning targets mentioned (which connect to academic standards). Groups are also given time to support one another. (Feedback)
In the End
Some may look at the six drivers and be ready to implement them all tomorrow (if they’re not all already being used). At the same time, by default, with six drivers comes six entry points to inquiry. In other words, nobody is saying, “You must start here!” But, start somewhere – based on where you and/or your students are most comfortable. Then, before you know it, it’ll be second nature to integrate all six drivers into your teaching and learning on a regular basis.
At the end of the day, when it comes to student learning, inquiry is king, because…
The end in mind should always be a deeper student understanding of content. And, the means to this end, undoubtedly, is inquiry. After all, per Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design, “An understanding can never be ‘covered’ if it is to be understood.”
Facts are ubiquitous. Facts are free. And, if facts are all we are teaching, we should ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing. While making the shift to inquiry-based learning is not easy, it is necessary.
What are your thoughts on the 6 drivers?
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