Inquiry-Based Learning

Creating a Culture of Inquiry

A culture of inquiry begins with a welcoming climate of trust and validation where students understand the value of questions and the adventure of seeking answers.
Teacher helping a boy read pointing to words in a book
Photo credit: US Department of Education via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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!