George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Inquiry is powerful. It can create student ownership in the classroom. It can validate the passions and interests of our students. However, creating a culture of inquiry takes constant work. Teachers need to establish it from the first day in the classroom, and work to keep it vital throughout the year. Here are some important things to know about creating that culture, and some ideas that you might consider.

Culture vs. Climate

We need to be honest at the forefront. A culture of inquiry will not happen overnight, but the right climate for it is much easier to establish. When we make a change or set an expectation for how a classroom will operate, we begin to affect the climate. It takes time for something to become a part of the culture. All the work that teachers put into creating a classroom of inquiry must be revisited over and over again. Teachers must commit to this change and continue to reinforce the practices and strategies that create a culture of inquiry. In addition, while climate can ultimately reflect an established culture, in its early stages, climate is simply a possible indicator of the culture that we hope to create. Therefore, students will need ongoing evidence and action to prove that a culture of inquiry truly exists.

Welcome

If students don’t feel welcome in your classroom, they won't ask questions or engage in the learning. Teachers need to make sure that students feel valued in their classroom. We can create activities for students to share their passions and interests. We should welcome students at the door every time they walk into the classroom. We're ideally positioned to co-create norms and procedures to help our students feel safe and supported. There are many strategies to make students feel welcome, but don’t forget that this must be ongoing and year round to ensure that it truly becomes a reflection of the classroom climate.

Scaffold and Value Questioning

I know that with some younger students, when you ask them if they have a question, you get story instead. Many students need support in asking questions and creating different kinds of questions for different situations. Teachers should use a variety of strategies, such as structured protocols and question starters and stems, to support students in asking effective questions. In addition, we should find ways to value all questions that come into the classroom. If a student brings up a great question, try using it as the basis for a class discussion or creating an inquiry team to investigate. Another strategy might be to create a "parking lot" or ongoing list of questions that could be investigated at a later time. Thank students for their questions, because these inquiries come from their hearts and minds.

Essential Questions

One great tool for building a culture of inquiry is essential questions that drive learning. Wiggins and McTighe articulate this effect in their book Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. My favorite phrase here is "opening doors." Too often, the questions that we design might actually close doors for students, so we need to know who our students are in order to create questions that will open doors inviting them into learning. These types of questions are provocative, open-ended, and aligned to the content, but also allowing space for exploration. Ideally, there should be no single right answer, but instead many. In addition, the answer that students give will require them to justify their thinking. They may not find the best answer immediately, as they continue revisiting the question throughout the unit -- or even the year. Rather than focusing on the answer, they should focus on the process of inquiry that begins when the question is asked. These questions can be teacher-created tools, as well as co-constructed with students.

Effective Assignments and Assessments

Related to one of the tenets of creating essential questions, we have to make sure that our assignments also mirror and honor inquiry.

  • Do our assignments focus on complexity and justification?
  • Do we honor student voice and choice in these assignments? Are students allowed choice in what they produce and voice in what the assignment will look like?
  • Do we create assignments and assessments that allow students to investigate their own questions aligned to the content that we want them to learn?

If we do all of this, we can create a culture where students are constantly working on and assessed on assignments that value inquiry. Inquiry is and should be a normal part of instruction and assessment for all students in the classroom.

A culture of inquiry can only become the classroom norm if there is commitment from all stakeholders -- parents, students, teachers, administration, and more. Simply saying that we are an inquiry-based classroom and doing an occasional inquiry-based activity is not indicative of a culture of inquiry. Although this is a great first step, we need to reinforce this culture throughout the year by creating both instruction and assessment that value inquiry. The strategies articulated here are just a start.

How do you work to create a culture of inquiry in the classroom? Share your ideas below!

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

These are great suggestions, Andrew! As an English teacher, I love being able to honor my students' voices in their responses to and analyses of literature. I tell them I love grading their homework because every one is different -- they choose what to write about in the chapters we read that week, and they choose how to analyze it. The hard part, of course, is that they are learning how to defend their analyses, but that is what makes our discussions so much more interesting.

Douglas F. Haller, Ed. M.'s picture
Douglas F. Haller, Ed. M.
Curriculum Specialist at Creative Learning Systems

Thanks Andrew. I think you made a good point - it takes a lot of effort and intention to create this type of climate. New educators should not expect to see results overnight. Even veteran educators must find time to reflect on their practice.

CathieC's picture

Thanks for your ideas.
I teach a Design Technology with 11-13 year olds and we work within a very tight time frame. I have always facilitated an Inquiry based approach to this class but have found the time required to scaffold the students into their own 'great' questions and finding real needs/problems takes away from the time needed to complete a viable outcome. Your comment; "Rather than focusing on the answer, they should focus on the process of inquiry that begins when the question is asked. These questions can be teacher-created tools, as well as co-constructed with students" has given me cause to think. I have been focusing on the process of inquiry, the learning journey rather than the answer/outcome but this has been to the detriment of the students finding legitimacy in their inquiry. For some students the journey is enough, for others they have a need to see the inquiry through to a viable answer/outcome.
If I used teacher-created questions or co-constructed these with students, that may release some of the time pressure on the students' inquiry, defining and designing time, allowing them a greater possibility of producing legitimate, justifiable outcomes.
Thanks for your thoughts, they have helped with my own reflections.

Logan Whitley's picture

Andrew, Thank you for including welcome as an important component of an inquiry based culture. In my middle school science classroom, I make a concerted effort to show interest and kindness toward each student (not always nice!) in order to affirm them as individuals. All too often we forget that students need to feel welcome as themselves in order to emotionally engage with the material. Any tips/thoughts about building this school-wide?
Much like atmospheric conditions, weather is what happens day-to-day; climate is what happens over long trends. I'm moving to a new school this year where my colleagues and I will help set this climate.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Logan, what about introducing morning meetings to your school? Others have had great success in using them to change classroom and school culture. Check out these two pieces for more info:

The Power of the Morning Meeting: 5 Steps Toward Changing Your Classroom and School Culture
https://www.edutopia.org/blog/morning-meeting-changing-classroom-culture...

Morning Meetings: Creating a Safe Space for Learning
https://www.edutopia.org/practice/morning-meetings-creating-safe-space-l...

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