Defining inquiry

Earlier this year the staff in our school created a chart that described what we could all expect to see more of, and what we could expect to see less of for this school year.  In the more of column, several groups listed inquiry-based learning.  For some of us, that term can bring on some anxiety.  If you Google “Inquiry-Based Learning”, you often find links to amazing long term projects that students have done.  For some, the immediate response to this concept is “I don’t have the time for that.”

So what is inquiry?  Merriam-Webster defines inquiry as the act of asking questions in order to gather or collect information.  So really, that means that simply asking a question is a form of inquiry.  For those of you who immediately say there isn’t time for that, I hope that you can take some solace that anytime you ask a question in your class, or anytime a student asks a question, you are engaging in the base level of inquiry.

Depth of KnowledgeIf you’re looking for a starting point for integrating inquiry-based learning, it can begin with intentional thought about the kinds of questions you are asking, and some time teaching students how they might be able to ask higher quality questions.  The depth of knowledge chart to the right can be an excellent tool to help us think about inquiry driven study in our classrooms.  If you pay attention to the questions that you and your students ask in your classroom, you can start to gauge the level of inquiry for your classroom.  If you want a quick assessment of where you and your students fall, create a simple chart on an index card – have 4 sections and keep a tally of the level of every question for a portion of a class, or a whole class, or maybe even a whole day.  What do you notice when you reflect on that data you collected?  If most of your marks are appearing in the Recall or Skill/Concept area, you need to up your game a bit (or help your students up their game).  If you want to make this basic assessment even more meaningful, separate the questions you ask from the questions the students ask.  Who is asking the better questions?

Now, while I said that asking questions was the starting point, that by itself doesn’t get you to true inquiry.  This summer I read the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.  I loved the definition that he shares for Inquiry-Based Learning:

Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions.  Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where learners formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learning to others.  In classrooms where teachers emphasize inquiry-based learning, students are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage students deeply. (pg. 192)

Now, I’m sure that some of you read that definition and immediately go back to thinking that inquiry leads to some massive project that eats up tons of time and resources, and while that is what inquiry may sometimes lead to, it doesn’t always have to be that way.  The most important piece of inquiry is to start with the Inquiryquestions of the learners.  Inquiry happens when a baby picks up one object and hits it against another object – the noise makes them curious, so they test it out.  Inquiry starts when a child notices one single giant tree in the middle of an empty field and they wonder how it got there.  Inquiry starts when a student sees a picture of an unusual animal or a unique environment and it makes them wonder.

Giving students the opportunity to wonder from time to time, and then allowing them to share the things they wonder about, is a next step in the Inquiry-Based Learning process.  In recent posts to this blog, I’ve shared a lot about nonfiction reading skills.  One of the posts focused on the 3 big questions that Kylene Beers and Bob Probst share in Reading Nonfiction.  If you’d like to review those questions, check out this post: How do we take them further?  Using the nonfiction reading strategies and these 3 questions are a great form of inquiry.  I would also say that we could probably add one more question to the list of the 3 that Beers and Probst shared, and that question would be “What does this make me wonder about?”  Then, asking students to turn and talk to their neighbors about the things they noticed in the text is an opportunity for the students to communicate their learning. 

If you don’t want a long term project, but you’d like to give your students the opportunity to try out some Inquiry-Based Learning, you could start with a series of pictures, or bring some interesting or unique objects to your classroom, or maybe some things from nature (if you’re looking for a digital resource to start with, you can check out the website  Give students a few minutes to look at these things and encourage them to jot some notes on the things they wonder about.  Next, allow them some time to investigate their wonders.  With their iPad they should be able to do some quick research – no more than 10 minutes.  Let them know that as they wrap up, they need to think about how they would like to share TheCycleofInquirybasedlearningwith others what they wondered about, as well as what they learned.  Allow them another 10 minutes to create some way to share their learning – a simple Prezi, a PowerPoint, a short video, etc. (the key is to let them choose their method for sharing).  Then have them get into pairs or triads to share their wonder and what they created.  Finally, have the groups split up, and have the students do an exit ticket to reflect on their initial question, what they learned, and maybe new things that they wonder about based on their learning.  All of this can take place in one class period, and you have gone through the complete cycle of inquiry.  If you try this, force yourself to take a step back and just watch what happens for a short time.  What you will notice is that the vast majority of students will be completely engaged in an activity like this.

My hope is that after reading this post, you are inspired to try something new in your classroom.  Hopefully there are a few little nuggets here that you can bring back into your class to create new and different learning experiences for your students.  I’m curious though, what have been your experiences with Inquiry-Based Learning?  What went well?  What struggles did you face?  Do you have resources you’d like to share?  Keep the conversation going in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “Defining inquiry

  1. Responding to an image with I See, I Think, I Wonder can be worked into any workshop model. What a great stop at a station!


  2. It may seem like certain subjects are more suited to inquiry-based learning, and a subject like math doesn’t fit well with this approach. But there’s actually a great deal to wonder about math, which is really a creative field dealing with the study of patterns and relationships. Inviting kids to investigate a mathematical pattern and think about why the pattern works, whether it always works or whether there are exceptions, can lead to some fascinating conversations!


  3. Miss Pinkston’s homerooom and I made some really cool discoveries this week that came to be as a result of inquiry. We were researching Morocco and a student wondered if they had lions in Morocco so I encouraged them to dig deeper and research animals from the country. This led us to discovering the fascinating info about Morocco having “Tree Goats”. I was at home that night and found MYSELF wondering why in the world they have goats in trees so then I was researching. Through my research, I discovered that the very popular beauty ingredient “argon oil” is from Morocco and it is very much related to tree goat poop. (See article if fascinated to learn why Anyways! It was kind of fun to see how a simple inquiry about a lion could end up taking us to a totally different place. Miss Pinkston’s girls and I have made recent changes to our future beauty regimen. 🙂


  4. I have learned that starting with an essential question is key to any lesson. It keeps the students engaged throughout the lesson and often leaves them wondering more. Turning simple things into a real life application leads to curiosity as well. I constantly challenge my kids to understand the “why” behind what we are learning and I have notice they enjoy it. They love discovering things for themselves and bringing it make to the classroom. When they share what they have learned, it boosts their confidence and helps with communication. It gets other kids interested in finding new ideas to share with the class. I have learned to do away with any remote memorization of anything. It’s all about application. I often think, as I plan, what is the purpose of this lesson? If I can’t find a direct purpose, it’s just busy work and that isn’t helping anyone to learn and grow. Giving them an objective and asking what they want to learn about has created better lessons and more learning from the students.
    I post a fun fact everyday in my room and I never thought it would turn into such a big thing. The kids have taken over this and are researching the facts and finding their own to share. Inquiry learning doesn’t always have to be a genius hour or project. You can find simple ways to fit it into your lessons everyday. Thank you for sharing this, it’s all about the kids and their discoveries that make learning more meaningful.


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