George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Group of eight elementary school children sitting in circle at desks, some with tablets

After reading an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, students form a circle to engage in conversation about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The inquiry circle begins with two questions posed by the teacher:

  • What is more important, liberty or the pursuit of happiness?
  • Are liberty and the pursuit of happiness inalienable rights?

To begin, some students argue that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are only open to the people who follow rules within a society. Others argue that while they agree to the rule of law, the argument might have exceptions. One student asks, "Is it morally right to take away freedoms for all crimes committed?" Another student responds, "Yes, what if a crime is committed to save someone's life?"

This leads to a conversation about the nature of happiness. Students argue that happiness lacks a universal definition. One student shares, "Collecting baseball cards makes me happy, but not everyone likes this hobby." They also question that laws might limit the pursuit of happiness for some. A girl explains, "My family and I like to go to the beach on the weekends, but we would be happier if we could bring our dog."

While the conversation was rich and rooted in deeper learning and understanding, the inquiry-based discussion did not end within the classroom. At the request of the students and with the facilitation of the teacher, the discussion extended into a Twitter chat that spanned several days.

Deeper student learning can evolve over time facilitated by an educator who is skilled in the art of thinking within a carefully crafted environment. I believe this can occur in all classrooms. To achieve deeper student learning, I suggest beginning with five cultural transitions.

1. Engage in Inquiry-Based Professional Development

The development of formal thinking and logical reasoning skills is necessary to achieving deeper learning. Educators should first immerse themselves in professional development focused on building inquiry skills, possibly within the field of philosophy. Learning to think deeply is a prerequisite to planning lessons with flexibility and creativity, both of which are critical aspects to achieving deeper student learning.

Prior to students becoming skilled at inquiry-based discussions, teachers must verbally model thinking skills for students by thinking aloud and making unlikely connections. Deeper learning necessitates deeper teaching.

Venn Diagram with Community of Inquiry, 21st Century Modes of Commmunication, and Philosophical Dispositions as the three main circles with Social, Cognitive, and Language overlapping; and Culture of Deep Learning in the center

2. Formulate a Classroom Community of Inquiry

Establishing a community of inquiry involves students learning to respect the ideas of others and share their thoughts freely. They should not be afraid of making mistakes. Begin by creating a "community ball," or inside-out yarn ball, as a tool to facilitate respectful conversation. Students should form a circle and share information about themselves while wrapping yarn around a cardboard rectangle. After the last student shares information about him- or herself while wrapping the cardboard form, tie one side of the yarn loop and cut the opposite side. Each strand is representative of the group’s stories, serving as a representation of each individual’s importance to the group. Educators must teach students to listen to the ideas of others, giving adequate time to hear their thoughts and internalize the information. The community ball helps to facilitate time for inquiry, reflection, and respect for the speaker during classroom discussions.

3. Start Simply and Exercise the Brain Daily

Learning how to think is similar to an artist perfecting his or her craft -- it evolves over time with adequate practice. Deep learning cannot be seen as a special classroom activity, but rather as a replacement to surface-level instruction. As an introduction to thinking and inquiry skills, I recommend the use of children's picture books or reproductions of visual art. The simple lessons and morals within children's stories and interpretations of art allow for discussions that are focused on building thinking skills. Beginning with a complex text would be counterintuitive to the learning goal, which should be primarily aimed at developing a thinking community. Over time, students will build the necessary skills to analyze more complex documents, text, and academic vocabulary, raising performance with the Common Core ELA standards.

4. Make Learning Relevant

Have students retell or reimagine learning content with a modern-day twist. Make learning relevant, meaningful, and tied to the generational characteristics of your students. When reviewing a historical document, have students rewrite the document with current jargon, allowing for a deeper understanding of its meaning. This also develops creative ways of thinking about the information, so that they can make connections and think outside of the box.

5. Integrate Technological Resources

While human beings have communicated through stories, symbols, writing, and discussions throughout history, these modes of communication are far from the only options available to the modern-day educator. Teachers have access to exciting technological options that can be used to promote deeper learning. Twitter chats, blogs, or group text messaging can extend deep and enriching discussions by allowing for a period of reflection. The newly-learned concepts can be more deeply understood by analyzing, comparing, and contrasting the information over time. Technological tools provide an opportunity for extended thinking.

Establishing a culture of inquiry is a necessary prerequisite to achieving deeper student learning. The art of thinking flourishes within an emotionally, intellectually and physically safe learning environment that is carefully constructed by the classroom teacher. The development of philosophical dispositions must be fostered within both students and educators, because deep thinking is supported by deep teaching.

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Roz Robertson's picture
Roz Robertson
English as a Second Language and Spanish Teacher

Can you show me what the yarn ball looks like? What size is the rectangle? I have heard of a more simple activity where students keep the yarn and ask a question to another student. If extra stress is put on one are then several other people have to move. Good illustration.
So are you saying that you turn the yarn into a talking stick -style ball? Many thanks for the clarification! Best,Roz I can be reached at 3kayaks@gmail.com or Facebook Roz Robertson Santa Barbara

Gillian Judson's picture
Gillian Judson
Professor of Education, Co-Director, Imaginative Education Research Group

Totally agree about the importance of inquiry and learning things in depth. Far too much of the curriculum is only an inch thick and students don't have the time/opportunity for self-directed exploration and/or deep questions! Thanks!

Beth Crawford's picture

The students in the photo look to be 1st graders? I'll be teaching Kindergarten this coming school year. Any advice on how to implement inquiry-based learning for this age group? Is it entirely appropriate? Thanks in advance for your responses. Beth

nora's picture

For younger children, perhaps discussing their thoughts with another student - share/pair - would work. But I do agree with you that sometimes students need to jot down their thoughts first before discussing.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Beth, YES, you can certainly do inquiry-based learning in K. I teach 1-2, but I do school wide activity periods which includes K students using inquiry based methods. Science topics are an ideal place to begin. On the primary level, you will certainly have those K students who can begin to help lead simpler discussions. In every K classroom you will also have your butterfly, tadpole, or tree "experts" for the science topics you will be studying. So those students will be your leaders and help you begin to teach everyone how to use questions, discussions, and activities to expand student learning. In my classroom I am able to get my first and second grade students to use words like "connecting to Luke's idea, I think...." and "I see it differently than Jenny, I think it has to do with..." All it takes is some intentional teaching, modeling, patience, and a really engaging topic to begin using inquiry-based learning with young students. And remember, by laying the foundation (on a K level) for inquiry based learning you are helping students recognize the power of their own roll as learners as opposed to passive receptionist of information. Therefore they are partners in the construction of their own learning. Good Luck and let us know how we can help you to more of a facilitative teaching and learning model.

nora's picture

To get some ideas on inquiry-based learning in kindergarten, look at some of the books on emergent curriculum by Susan Stacey and Starting with Science from Stenhouse publishers. Another good source is The Hundred Languages of Children, a book with essays covering a lot of topics.

Beth Crawford's picture

John & Nora- I thank you both kindly.

OK, so model accountable talk, check and provide super-engaging topic/activity. Get ideas for structure via the books listed above, check.

Sunita's picture

Great article. I'm going to a course on NPDL, 'New Pedagogy for Deeper Learning' in a month and looking forward to learning more to strengthen my own inquiry teaching.

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