Part Three: Inquiry in the Classroom


Calvin and Hobbes is one of my favourite comic strips and the one above demonstrates how the education system focuses too much on facts and less on the development of skills. Inquiry not only helps students to acquire skills such as critical thinking, analyzing, and evaluating but it also helps with growth mindset. By asking essential questions, which are open ended such as the ones I have done in my class, students begin to realize that there isn’t one answer to a question and that the answer isn’t clear. This is where inquiry starts with students asking even more questions. Now, I want to take a minute to point out the difference between wondering and inquiring. Wondering leads to one right answer. For example, we might wonder why dogs can’t eat chocolate but there is one correct answer to this question (it’s because of the compound theobromine found in cocoa), so it can’t be considered real inquiry. Inquiry leads students in different directions, with each student answering the question based on what they learned, their experiences and perspectives. For example, when my grade 8 students were studying cells, the big idea was “ethics” and the essential/driving question was “What role should ethics play in science, technology, and medicine?”. It was amazing to see the process unfold as my students flip flopped while we were discussing stem cell research. As they attained more knowledge and discussed these issues with their classmates, their perspectives changed, which led to thinking differently and ultimately asking more questions. I remember one of my students who ended up researching stem cell guidelines in different countries and how it impacted their communities, which led to a great discussion during one of our community circles. Because the inquiry process might be new to many students, they will ask you what you think. I always refrained from giving them my opinions and views because mine didn’t matter. The purpose is for them to go on their own path of learning and not be influenced by your views because traditionally students have always looked to the teacher for the “right answer”.

I think one of the best things about this unit was our literature circles. I found several novels that pertained to biotechnology, stem cell research, and cloning. I remember how surprised my students were when I introduced the novels; “You mean we’re reading fiction in science class?” <cue confused looks>! This was not only a great way to integrate language into my science class but also gave them a great introduction on how to ask questions (close and open ended) by using the Q-chart. I did not have them rely on this chart for questioning as it can be limiting but it was a good way to introduce them to the art of questioning and assessing their questioning skills.

I always get questions about how to assess inquiry units. My answer usually takes the form of how inquiry is a great way to assess through triangulation of data (i.e., observations, conversations, and product). When I have conversations with my students, I always ask prompting questions, which are open ended such as:

  • Why do you think that?,
  • what else have you discovered?
  • What questions do you still have?
  • Tell me more.
  • So what if…
  • Why do you say that?
  • Can you explain that?
  • Can you give me an example?

Giving students time to think (i.e. wait time) and not judging their responses are two other key factors when engaging in conversations with students. By asking open ended prompts and not judging by saying things like “That’s right.” or “That’s great. Good job” will allow the learning to continue and students to carry on by digging deeper and asking more questions.

My observations are done by completing a form for each student, which involves certain indicators (e.g., doesn’t give up easily, attempts several approaches, and brainstorms other solutions, etc) with space to write down my comments. I complete these observational forms for both their research process as well as how they interact with their peers during group discussions (e.g., asks appropriate prompts to ask questions, speaks in a respectful tone, accepts other alternatives even though might not agree with them, etc).

In terms of products, we generate success criteria as a class for the many ways in which we can demonstrate our learning (e.g., essay, movie trailer, podcast, website, speech, newspaper article, etc). This does take time but once it is done, it is accessible for the rest of the year. In terms of products, my students choose three tasks from a tic-tac-toe board I create such as this one:

podcast PSA brochure
speech movie trailer commercial
persuasive essay comic book story website

Sometimes I let students choose any three to make a tic-tac-toe pattern or I tell them they have to do the centre square and then choose any two others to complete the pattern.

Finally, I have students complete regular self-reflections once a week, which also helps with the learning skills portion of report cards. This takes the form of journal responses where I ask students:

  • How are you progressing? How do you know?
  • Has your opinion changed? Why or why not?
  • Anything I can do to help you with your learning?

In addition to triangulation of data, I also ensured that each of my assessments was based on at least one of the four levels on the achievement chart (i.e., knowledge/understanding, application, thinking, and communication) as well as the seven processes in math because those can be applied across the curriculum (i.e., representing, reflecting, connecting, reasoning, proving, selecting tools, and computational strategies). It does take a lot of planning and preparation and with time and experience it will become seamless; I have done this for almost 7 years and I am still learning, adapting, and changing things!

These inquiry units are a great introduction to personalized learning, which I will be talking about in a future post.

Again, as always, feel free to leave comments and questions!


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