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Inquiry-Based Learning: The Power of Asking the Right Questions

Wildwood IB World Magnet School

Grades K-8 | Chicago, IL

Georgia K. Mathis

4th Grade Teacher and PYP Curriculum Chair at Wildwood IB World Magnet School in Chicago, Illinois.
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Mathis in active dialogue with students sitting in circle on the floor with hands raised

As a fourth-grade teacher at an inquiry-based learning school, I've come to understand the importance of planning. Planning is critical and also best practice. I still plan at the beginning of each week and each day. A teacher without a plan has no purpose or learning objectives for her students.

With student-directed learning, there's a major difference between planning and flexibility. I plan according to what my students need and how I'm going to assess their skills or knowledge, just like every other teacher. The difference lies in the delivery of instruction. A teacher must always be flexible and adaptable.

The Power of the Right Questions

You might wonder how lesson planning works if you're always reconstructing on the fly. I've found that if the students take the lesson in a different direction than what I've planned for, it's my job to light their way to where my intention and their intention meet. Most often, if their curiosity takes us in a completely different direction, I let them run with it. However, I also let them find the connection between what I need them to learn and what they want to learn.

Everything connects. Having students discover that takes ownership to a new level. For example, I taught a money unit with the purpose of teaching responsible financial management. My students were more interested in what makes a billionaire a billionaire. I didn't want to stop their excitement and curiosity, so we ran with that. We ended up focusing on billionaires with the agreement that the students would let two questions guide them throughout the unit:

  • What qualities/character traits do billionaires possess that make them so successful?
  • What evidence proves that billionaires possess responsible financial management?

But kids are kids, so there's always someone who diverges from what I want to teach them. There was one student who kept focusing on what kind of cool cars a particular billionaire had. During class discussions, he brought up the fact that his billionaire had all of these cars, boats, and planes, which really had nothing to do with the financial aspect of the unit. In this moment, I had to refocus the lesson by asking the right questions. For instance:

  • What financial decisions enabled that billionaire to purchase such luxuries?
  • Why do billionaires have so many of these luxuries?

This returned my students to thinking about budgeting, spending and saving wisely, and the decisions or traits of proven financial managers. So the right questions foster powerful learning.

Connecting Ideas and Seizing Opportunities

Ultimately, a teacher's job is to light the way for her students, to guide them to their own path of discovery. In this day and age, if students want to know something, they can and will look it up. The true art of teaching is to ask the right questions, become a thought partner (interaction during instruction), and then assist in students' discoveries. The idea behind true inquiry-based learning is to ignite your students' curiosity, the spark that motivates them and makes them want to learn more. If I can bring out my students' curiosity and love of learning, then I've covered what I needed to cover. Google can do the rest!

Good teachers are masters of connecting ideas and finding creative ways to squeeze in the necessary content. I hardly wait to see what my students respond to because I know them and can sometimes predict what will grab their interest. For example, last year I took the opportunity of connecting a grammar lesson to something the students wanted to learn about -- the latest celebrity news. I printed out several celebrity Twitter feeds, gave them to my students, and told them to find all of the celebrities' grammatical errors. My students had fun and learned more about grammar than I could have taught them.

When to Stop and When to Go On

Our units consist of three lines of inquiry that we explore simultaneously. We spend about five weeks doing this, which breaks down to about a week and a half per line. If students are really excited about one line of inquiry, we'll spend two weeks on that one and less on the others.

As a teacher you can always get a feel for when it's time to stop doing something. Once the kids have already inquired about the topic, explored it, researched it, and produced something to demonstrate that they understand it, you can read that they're done. I believe in student voice and choice and giving them time to produce something that demonstrates acquisition of knowledge and understanding. I have them choose how they're going to prove to me that they learned something. When they've done that, we move on.

When students hit roadblocks and want to "ditch" that line of inquiry, I encourage them to take a different approach instead of giving up. All they need is a one-on-one meeting with me for feedback and planning their next steps. They almost always feel refreshed after that and finish what they've started.

First Steps Toward Student-Led Inquiry

If I were a teacher unfamiliar with student-led inquiry, I'd start with inquiry-based activities to get the students used to that kind of learning. That's actually how I start the inquiry process with my new batch of students in the fall. They seem confused at first, so I always ease them in with inquiry-based activities, such as:

  • Having the students ask questions about primary resources
  • An activity called "What I See, What I Think, What I Wonder"
  • Finding time during the day for students to share or record their wondering and questions about any topic

A teacher should also start teaching how to ask questions, because good questions lead the inquiry. Students in inquiry mode can start developing their own questions about the unit being taught.

At the beginning of each unit, my students always brainstorm a list of questions about the unit's title. They do this by recording them in their Inquiry Journals, or by creating mind maps online. After my students create their inquiries, we have conferences to discuss which inquiry path they'll investigate. When that is chosen (based on the question), the students plan how they'll investigate, design, and create a product or project to then share with an audience.

We have an Inquiry Fair at the end of each unit, open to parents, other students, and teachers, because my students really take ownership of their learning and invest so much time in their projects that they want to share them with the world!

Each student should be experiencing the unit in a different way because, as individuals, we are all unique. Inquiry-based learning helps them personalize the content in ways that make it truly meaningful to them.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Wildwood IB World Magnet School.
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Deb Schiano's picture
Deb Schiano
Teacher-Librarian who loves learning with her students and passionate educa

Hi Georgia. Tks for this. I have a couple questions. Do students work collaboratively on their Inquiries? What content areas do you use Inquiry model for teaching? Do they work to actually answer their questions or do the questions more act like a springboard for learning?
#waytooinquisitive!

Georgia K. Mathis's picture
Georgia K. Mathis
4th Grade Teacher and PYP Curriculum Chair at Wildwood IB World Magnet School in Chicago, Illinois.

Hello Deb! It depends. Sometimes inquiry is a very personal thing and you want students to get used to asking questions alone, so that they can get to know themselves and how they learn. On the flip side, collaboration is key! That is where most of the world's good ideas come from. So to answer your question, most of the time I have my students work collaboratively on their inquiries. It is fun for them, less threatening, and they connect and bounce ideas off one another.

As far as content goes, I use the inquiry model for every subject, even math. For example, last year I posted chart paper on my board with two to the fourth power on it. Then I told them to write down all their wondering. The students have never been exposed to exponents before, but they had a million questions about what I was showing them. Then, we discussed their questions as a whole group on the rug and I still didn't answer anything. After a rich discussion of students sharing and me questioning them, they headed back to their tables and started finding answers to those questions using technology.

Their questions drive the learning. Sometimes they work on answering their questions, but sometimes it is nice to just read a poem or observe a primary resource or picture and wonder about it. It is never a waste of instructional time to wonder about the world around us. I hope you found this helpful. If not, I enjoy collaborating with other educators and would love to talk again.

(2)
bam5953's picture

Although I am no longer in the classroom or responsible for daily instructional planning, I work with teachers who are and even when I was, as a Special Educator, I struggled with the administrative requirement for long-term (even a week's worth) of lesson planning, which included methods of delivery of instruction. Without guidance from the students in the form of their responses to the planned lessons, the planned delivery of instruction would roll right over them. Daily, changes were needed to ensure students were experiencing the curriculum at a level which would keep then engaged. Unlike your current experience however, it was more a factor of student need vs. student curiosity.

Today, as a student in a graduate program for Curriculum and Instruction, I am focused on my own learning about approaches to curriculum and just completed a reflection in which I shared my thoughts about the need for personalization and flexibility. Your descriptions of Inquiry-Based Learning in practice and the student-teacher relationship have touched on all of the things that are at this time important to me in curriculum development. Ultimately, each learner needs to make meaning for himself and that is exactly what it sounds like your lessons encourage.

Thanks for all that you do.....I can see from the number of shares (932 at this time) that others are appreciative as well.

Barbara M

(1)
Tima Nisbet's picture

This is great, however, I would add that See-Think-Wonder is NOT an activity but a routine.

angelique130's picture

This was a great blog and it was helpful in learning more about inquiry based learning. As a future teacher there are a so many ways to teach students with inquiry being just one. I enjoyed your blog and your insight on inquiry based learning. I also like your activity at the end.

dmerker1's picture

"When that is chosen (based on the question)..." How is the question chosen? Are the students creating a list of their own question and then choosing one from the list? How do you think this would translate to Grade 1 doing a whole class inquiry? I struggle with meshing the knowledge required by the standard and questions the kids have. I was a wonderful article. Thank you.

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