Part Two: Inquiry in the Classroom


If I needed more proof that inquiry based learning is important in our schools, I need to look no further than my four and a half year old nephew. He has got to be one of the most inquisitive kids I have ever met. I am constantly amazed at his curiosity, his questions and his creativity. I know that many kids his age display these awesome traits and it saddens me that these qualities might be killed as he progresses through school. I imagine it’s pretty much gone by grade 3 when students are getting ready for the dreaded EQAO. I try and nurture these traits in him as much as I can when I ask him to come up with games we can play outside or ask him prompting questions to all his questions. I want him to constantly question, wonder, evaluate, and critique what he hears and reads. I want him to hold his own in any discussions and debates he may engage in with friends, parents, adults, and his peers. And the same goes for my niece but she’s only 17 months at the moment. 🙂

The education system seems to value memory over thinking. It’s more about recall of facts over defending, examining, critiquing, and evaluating. It’s more about knowledge than testing out hypotheses by building and constructing, assessing, and rebuilding to test out the new hypotheses. In the 21st century information can be googled so why are we still focusing on facts and not skills? We talk about 21st century skills such as communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking but these are not 21st century skills. These skills have been around forever but they just look different! When I was in school I was taught how to communicate effectively in oral and written formats, how to collaborate with my classmates on projects, assignments, and discussions, and how to think critically about the information I was reading in magazines, newspapers, and textbooks. The only thing that is different is how we approach these skills because of all the new resources and technology now available to us. We can now communicate with classes around the world because we have Skype and Twitter and blogs, we can create products using multimedia resources and share them globally on YouTube, we can think more critically about world issues because we have access to more information than ever before, and we can collaborate with teachers and students from around the world and engage in meaningful discourse about science, history, geography, and important world issues related to social justice and equity. If we combine these skills with all the resources and technology at our disposal, the sky’s the limit in terms of teaching and learning with our students!

This is where inquiry based learning can support the importance of skills over knowledge and facts. If we start with a “life big idea” such as survival or power and ask students a related essential (driving) question that does not have one right answer, we are promoting the very skills we want students to acquire – evaluating, critiquing, thinking, judging, defending, and examining, just to name a few. Sure, students will still be using Google to look up information but it looks very different. They are using the information they find on Google (or in magazines, newspapers, and books) to answer the question but skills such as evaluating and critiquing come into play because students have to defend their response. It’s no longer about having the right answer because “google said so”. It’s more about expressing their thoughts and opinions based on the information they acquired and their own experiences at the same time honing a variety of skills. We are inundated with so much information in this day and age, we need to do right by our students and help them to practice these skills in order that they can transfer them to other areas of their life. We want students to be able to navigate their adult life successfully and if we centre teaching and learning around skills rather than content, facts, and knowledge, we might just be successful!

As I mentioned in Part One, this doesn’t mean that explicit teaching of concepts doesn’t happen. It does, it is just not the focus of the unit. For example, when I taught grade 8 one of my big ideas was, “Ethics” and the essential question was, “What role should ethics play in science, technology, and medicine?” This was related to our Cells unit but I still taught my students parts of a cell, the difference between a plant cell and an animal cell, and the basics of genetics using a variety of instructional strategies (including the flipped model but that’s another blog post). The important part is the placement of these lessons as well as teaching students how to evaluate and critique websites and news reports on TV. One activity I have my students complete: I place students in groups of 3 or 4 and assign each student a different news channel (CTV, Global, CityTV, etc). They then watch the 6:00 news and answer a few basic question such as: (a) what is the lead story? (b) how did they report it? (c) whose voice was heard?, (d) whose voice was not heard and why do you think so?, and (e) what were the next two stories? I repeat this activity with a variety of newspapers too. This activity helps students to start thinking critically about what they are reading and watching on TV. Combining explicit teaching of skills and content can ensure that students are getting the best of both worlds and will be confident when it comes to presenting their findings and the answer to the essential question. When students recognize that their voice is valued, they become more engaged in the learning process and are motivated to dig deeper and ask more questions. I remember one year when I was teaching grade 7, the big ideas was “Survival” and the essential questions was, “Does earth have a greater impact on us or do we have a greater impact on earth?” one of my students decided to investigate when California would have its next earthquake. He was looking at statistics, numbers, and patterns to answer this question and it was exciting for me as his teacher to see him excited about his learning. This is a great way for learning to become more personalized for students as well.

Equally important is to ensure that the big ideas and essential questions have a social justice/equity lens. In the above example with “survival”, we talked a lot of about how people in different countries survive. For example, we looked at minimum wage, living conditions, working conditions, and how they prepare and plan for natural disasters. We also looked at how developed countries assist these countries in terms of disaster relief and whether it was enough; should we be doing more? Using technology to have these discussions is so powerful; why not use tools such as Skype, Twitter, and Instagram to discuss these issues with students from these countries? The discussion is rich with possibilities and leads to increased understanding of who we are, where we come from, and what we can do to help others. Many of you have heard the term “digital natives and yes by all means kids these days are very good at using technology and social media for personal reasons but they don’t necessarily know how to use technology for learning purposes. As educators, it would be so beneficial if we used these tools with our students to reach out to others, understand, appreciate, and respect different cultures, and help to talk about the many issues facing us in this century such as climate change, terrorism, stereotyping/racism, and crime.

In math we have shifted our focus on open ended questions over procedures, facts, and algorithms. We want our students to see the beauty in math and how math is all around us. So why not take this a step further into all areas of learning? By taking the idea of open ended question in math and using it in other subject areas, students will really come to value process over product, skills over content, and learning over performance.

Here are a few more Big Ideas and Essential Questions I have used in my classroom.

Big Idea: Identity

Essential Question: How does culture shape our identity?

Big Idea: Environment

Essential Question: What natural resource do we need to preserve the most?

Big Idea: Change

Essential Question: Is Canada’s history, a history of progress?

Again, please feel free to leave a comment and ask any questions you may have. I am more than happy to engage in discussions about inquiry and learning in general.


One thought on “Part Two: Inquiry in the Classroom

  1. Thanks for another such comprehensive blog post on inquiry. I love how you share so many practical ideas. I must say that I started really delving deeply into inquiry when I taught Grade 5, and it was a challenge. Students weren’t used to this type of thinking/learning. We really needed to persevere together. It was a year of much reflecting, many changes, and ultimately, really good learning for myself and my students.

    I was then super excited when I was moving to a primary grade (at a new school) the following year. These students all came from Full-Day Kindergarten. This sense of wonder that you described in your nephew should be true for them too. It was going to be an awesome year. Here’s the problem though: the students didn’t really seem to think/wonder anything. Why? I think that a huge part of it was that the students lacked schema. I teach in an inner-city school, with a very high ESL population, and an incredibly high poverty rate. Many of these students, for many reasons, are lacking background knowledge. They haven’t all explored their local environment, talked a lot, listened a lot, been exposed to various texts, seen and interacted with writing, and had diverse experiences. I quickly learned the value in “building schema” through various experiences, and really giving the children a chance to “delve deeply” and learn about a topic, before even looking at questions/wonders. Maybe this isn’t a necessary step at every school and in every environment, but even in Kindergarten this year, I see this same need.

    I wonder sometimes if we expect students to be so naturally curious and wonder/question about everything, and then if they don’t, we turn our backs on inquiry. We say it’s not possible. We insist that our students are different, and inquiry doesn’t work for them, but maybe it’s this need for prior knowledge that has to be there first. What do you think? I wonder what others have experienced too. Since you said that you’re happy to engage in conversations on inquiry and learning, I thought that I’d share something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do so!


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