George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Ralston Elementary School

Grades K-6 | Golden, CO

Inquiry-Based Learning: From Teacher-Guided to Student-Driven

Ralston Elementary School is creating a culture of inquiry to nourish 21st-century learners.
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Inquiry-Based Learning: From Teacher-Guided to Student-Driven (Transcript)

Student: I opened it up, and there was a root inside.

Anne: What's exciting about the inquiry models that we go far and above what the curriculum expectations are. Kids are invested in their learning, and they're able to transfer and apply what they're learning in school to the real world.

Lindsay: Inquiry based learning allows the students to be the thinkers. Teachers begin their lesson with an idea of where they want to end in mind, but really give the students the opportunity to drive it to that point.

Lindsay: So your job, keep working through your procedure, when you all agree, I'll come back and check in with you.

Dawn: We have guided inquiry, where teachers are guiding students through the curriculum.

D.J.: Okay, find that five milliliters.

Dawn: And then making a shift into student driven inquiry, where students use that as prior knowledge and build their own inquiries around that. We want them to be building the foundation for higher level inquiry, starting right when we have them in kindergarten.

Lindsay: And once someone finds something, make sure that you tell the rest of the paleontologists.

Student: We found the skull!

Lindsay: [gasps] Oh, you found the skull?

Student: Yes.

Anne: The teacher's developing the guided inquiry model based on the curriculum, but then the students are shaping where do they want to go with it.

Lindsay: We're going to go through our lab sheet quickly, and then we're going to get into our experimental groups.

Lindsay: They were told that two scientists had a mix-up in their lab. They had some seeds, they had some eggs, and now they don't know which are which. The students had the opportunity to decide what they thought would be helpful experiments for us to get to our answer. Instead of opening with a bunch of information and facts and details, the students are given a problem, and then they're the ones who get to drive the experiments.

Katie: I'm trying to see which one is eggs, and which one's seeds. But we don't know. So we're trying to figure out strategies that we can do.

Logan: We make our steps and then we test and see what happens.

Hadley: And we think planting them, and we think the seeds will grow, and eggs won't.

Student: I think they'll get bigger.

Student: Yeah, so once they get bigger, it would like crack open.

Dawn: Teachers are guiding with questions and to really get students thinking, and learning how to question themselves.

Lindsay: How might that help us figure out which are the eggs and which are the seeds? Floating or sinking?

Student: It might be that the eggs are heavier than the seeds.

Student: I like doing it this way, because you get to touch what you're actually doing, instead of just looking at it.

Dawn: Well, we started with the inquiry model in science, and as we started to see students getting excited about finding answers to deeper level questions, we saw the power and how that could be implemented throughout the school day.

D.J.: If you grab a tube of paint, there's no real connection to the science behind making that paint. I want them to see that art is everywhere. Science is everywhere, math is everywhere.

D.J.: Hey, we are making paint out of household items today.

Student: We started in the art room, following every step of the recipe.

Anne: Kids need background knowledge, and some conceptual understanding of things.

D.J.: How much salt do we need?

Student: A quarter cup.

D.J.: A quarter cup. So how many tablespoons is that?

Students: Eight-- four!

D.J.: Four!

Anne: The next step is, "What do I want to wonder about now? How do I want to adjust this?"

D.J.: You have to form your questions so that you're not taking over their creative process, but helping that creative process. "How can you make this paint fit your needs as an artist?" "As a scientist, how am going to change or modify this paint so that it works?"

D.J.: So I want you to test that. And remember to document what you did.

Student: Okay!

Kendall: We wanted to change the texture, because ours was a bit too lumpy for our liking. And we added a lot of ingredients.

Dawn: For the inquiry to be successful, the question has to be appropriate. And so we really had to teach students what questions would work, how to model them.

Paval: My question that I had is how could I get this to be a thinner paint so I can have like one straight line, so it doesn't splatter everywhere.

Anne: The exciting piece of learning this way is that we don't always know what the outcome will be. It's a lot of risk involved in allowing your students to kind of just do some discovery learning on their own.

Paval: I learned that if you're making paint, you use a liquid substance to make it thinner, but if you mix too many of the wrong things, it might just blow up.

Katie: I think this is pretty good!

Anne: We want kids to be critical thinkers, to be problem solvers. Kids are getting to dig deep into the cause and effect relationships that occur in every field when we open that up, it just empowers them to love learning.

Kendall: We really don't have a limit. We get to learn how to do this stuff with our own ideas. It took a lot of time, but we did it.

Students: Yay!

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Creating 21st-Century Learners

At Ralston Elementary School, teachers build toward student-driven inquiry throughout the course of the unit. Starting with teacher-guided inquiry, teachers model how to develop questions over a series of lessons, showing students that there are multiple ways to solve problems. This prepares students to lead their own inquiry by the end of the unit.

Ralston educators are building a culture of inquiry, empowering students to ask questions like:

  • How do I problem solve through this?
  • How do I persevere?
  • How do I understand the cause-and-effect relationships that occur in every field?

"We want kids to leave Ralston afforded every opportunity in the world, equipped to do whatever they want to do in their life," says Anne DiCola, Ralston’s instructional coach. “When we open that opportunity at this early stage in their education, it empowers them to love learning, and to continue on in their K-20 education."

How It's Done

Begin With Guided Inquiry

Teacher-guided inquiry can build background knowledge of the topic before letting students take the reins in developing their own inquiry. With guided inquiry:

  • Teachers start with an overall guiding question.
  • Teachers know what they want their students to understand beforehand.
  • Students know what the outcome of the inquiry will be.

"Guided inquiry is like a typical science lesson," explains Anne DiCola, Ralston Elementary's instructional coach. "The teacher knows that they want kids to understand what happens when water boils. So they take them through an inquiry process; they make a hypothesis, what they think will happen. They talk about all of the materials they're using. They're going to have one or more guided questions. But the teacher knows in the end how the lab's going to end. They know what they want the students to know or do by the end of the lab."

Ralston teachers build toward student-driven inquiry throughout the course of the unit. Through teacher-guided inquiry over a series of lessons, teachers model how to develop questions, show their students that there are multiple ways to problem solve, and prepare them to lead their own inquiry by the end of the unit.

Teach Students How to Question

Explore and Model Different Types of Deeper-Level Questions

An important aspect of inquiry-based learning is teaching students how to ask deeper questions. When the teachers at Ralston had students begin creating their own inquiries, the questions were the type that could be answered with a Google search. Because they weren't coming up with deeper-level questions, the teachers had to pause and reflect on how they were modeling questioning to their students. They asked themselves, "What's an appropriate question? What kinds of questions work?"

According to Principal Dawn Odean, the following two tips helped Ralston teachers:

  • Across grade levels, reflect on how you model questioning from kindergarten and up.
  • Pose big questions that don't necessarily have a single answer -- or any answer.

"We’re really looking at students being creative problem solvers," explains Odean. "For example, if students are reading a common text together, or posing questions about how they’re relating to the text, or how they think it might impact the world, there may not be one answer for that. As we start to pose those questions, we’re hoping that students start to pose those questions for themselves in a way that they can create an inquiry. Teachers are guiding with higher-level questions to really get students thinking and learning how to question themselves."

Example Questions

D.J. Osmack, Ralston's art teacher, integrated science and art together by having his students create their own paint. In his first art class, they followed a specific paint-making recipe. In the second class, they created a paint that fit their needs as artists. This is where the student-driven inquiry came in. What kind of paint did they want to create?

To guide his students in creating their own questions, Osmack asked:

  • How can you make this paint fit your needs as an artist?
  • As a scientist, how are you going to change or modify this paint so that it works?
  • What is your reaction to your paint?
  • Did your paint turn out the way you wanted it to?

Encouraged by these questions, his students began asking questions like:

  • What kind of artwork do I want to create?
  • Does my paint need to be thick, thin, consistent, or chunky to create the artistic effect that I'm looking for?
  • What ingredients would I need to add to create the type of paint that I want?

"You have to form your questions the right way so you're not really taking over their creative process, but helping that creative process," clarifies Osmack, who noted how these student-generated questions encouraged them to explore and experiment on their own.

Let Your Students Drive Their Own Inquiry

Student-Driven Inquiry Led by a Question

In the guided inquiry example of boiling water, the teacher knows that she wants students to understand what happens when water boils. She creates a question that will guide students to an outcome already known to them.

The student-driven inquiry is what happens after the guided inquiry. Now that students know what happens when water boils, what questions come up for them? Their inquiry questions might be:

  • How much time would it take to melt a few ice cubes in boiling water?
  • How much time would it take to boil twice the amount of water?

"Whatever it is that they're wondering about, that's the student-driven piece," elaborates DiCola. "That may or may not be something that the teacher envisioned happening afterwards. So they're having the opportunity to say, 'This is what I'm wondering about now. Now I'm going to go through that same process. I'm going to create a guiding question. I'm going to make a hypothesis. I'm going to gather the materials that I need.' It really flips the classroom in the sense that the student is then in the driver seat. And what's really exciting is when they can pose a question that maybe the teacher doesn't know the answer to, and they're really saying, 'Yeah, let's learn this together.'"

Guide Your Students' Inquiry With a Problem

Inquiry isn't driven only by questioning, but also by introducing a problem.

"Being the second-grade math teacher," explains Lindsay Ball, "I found that giving students an opportunity to really inquire and then solve their own problems in math has been a great opportunity. I can pose a problem for them and then let them find a different way to solve that information and to share what they’re thinking. We do a lot of collaborative conversations. The students are able to share what their thinking was, but then at the same time, listen to another child’s thinking, and recognize there can be different ways to get to the same conclusion or the same outcome -- and [realize] that everybody thinks in a different way, and everybody’s thoughts are valuable."

An Example Problem

Ball, who also teaches science, created a lesson that introduced eggs and seeds to her students and had them discover which material was which through this problem:

Two scientists have mixed up two materials. They know one is seeds and one is eggs, but they have no idea which is which. How can we help them solve that problem?

Explore Student-Driven, Problem-Led Inquiry

Ball's seeds vs. eggs problem inspired student inquiry that led their process of discovery. They came up with six stations, and their experiments came from their own inquiry. "I like doing it this way because you get to touch what you're actually doing instead of just looking at it," explains Logan, a second-grade student.

1. The Planting Station

Some kids planted the seed and the egg, pulling from their prior knowledge that a seed would likely grow and nothing would happen to the egg.

2. The Dissecting Station

Other students broke the egg and seed open, thinking that they might find a yolk or animal inside of the egg.

3. The Heating Station

Others put their egg and seed under a heating lamp, knowing that a mother chicken will sit on her eggs to make them hatch.

4. The Water Station

Some students put their eggs in water, knowing that fish eggs hatch when in water. Other students thought about density. If one of the materials were to sink or float, it might help them determine which was an egg and which was a seed.

5. The Weighing Station

Others thought that eggs would be heavier than seeds and weighed both materials.

6. The Size Station

Some kids thought that the egg would be bigger than the seed, and they looked at both under a microscope to compare sizes. They also measured them with a measuring tape.

"We found that the students really are able to take a bigger and a deeper passion in what they’re learning because it’s really what they care about versus what they think their teacher cares about," emphasizes Ball.

"We really don't have a limit," adds Kendall, a fourth-grade student. "We get to learn how to do this stuff with our own ideas."

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judyd123's picture

Inquiry- based learning has merit. Students need to have some control over what they are learning. How does a school as a whole get started?

CSJDuke's picture

Everything I read makes me really excited to try Inquiry learning but to be honest I don't know how to start. So many questions like how long do I allow my students to spend on each stage of the inquiry and how long do I allow for the entire unit of work. I would really like to implement a unit of work on government and democracy. So do I spend a few lessons presenting information and guiding students to ask questions? Or do we just start with a KWL chart and let students take off on questions that interest them? What do I hand in as my program? Do I teach each stage of the inquiry as we go or introduce it at the beginning? I would love to know what others are doing, having seen several great results I just want to know 'how' to get started. Thanks in advance

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Hi all, I'm not an inquiry expert but a couple of starting places I thought of: one is which has a ton of stuff around project-based learning, which may be relevant here. Also this book is fantastic and is written by two educators who are based out of an inquiry-focused model:

And definitely check out other inquiry-based learning posts on Edutopia - to do that, go to the top of this post, and you'll see where it says "tags," and you can click on the one about inquiry and it will bring you right to other posts about it! Nifty!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Can I drop in a shameless plug? I think our Critical Skills Classroom is a great way to approach inquiry! One of the things we talk about in our classes is that the messiness of the question (as well as the path to its solution) is determined by the experience of the teachers and students. Start small, build on success, and recognize that this isn't a binary proposition, it's a process. The most common mistake we see teachers make is going too far, too fast (or not fast enough), so be ready to modify based on what you see. Good luck!

Charlie's picture

Super - will check it out! Do you mind me mentioning Spiral? ( - a super app in there called Team Up which is helpful for students with team work! Let me know what you think...

CathieC's picture

I loved inspiring! I have been making attempts at Inquiry based Learning with mixed results. Reading and watching this has given me some insights into where I may have gone wrong and some ideas on how to change this. I think I have to spend longer on the 'Guided Inquiry' aspect, with more time focused on scaffolding the students into 'Student Driven Inquiry'. I also need to really, intentionally, teach the students how to pose great questions.
Thanks also to Laura Thomas, your link to Critical Skills Classroom is really very helpful.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

You're so welcome CathieC!

Techie Teacher's picture
Techie Teacher
4th Grade Teacher

Starting the full NGSS integration this year and appreciate all of the modeling I can get. I see how inquiry can be used across the board. The information is wonderful.

Amanda Weaver's picture

Great point made about teaching our students to become problem solvers. This is a life-long skill that they will surely need. Inquiry-based learning is excellent practice for enhancing this essential skill!

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