Think of inquiry as a topographical map. It’s a living, interrelated place full of its own diversity, history and character (Jardine & Kraemer, n.d.). And then there are students, who bring their own understandings and experiences to the table. It begs the questions: How do you take a class full of differences to a place that can invite them all? How do you teach this?
A good topic for inquiry is open-ended enough to accept different approaches and points of view. It does not need to be broken into developmentally appropriate bits and pieces. In an inquiry, the questions asked and the work accomplished are seen as openings and enrichments towards understanding more about the topic itself. And it’s understanding that is relevant in the real world.
Setting the stage: Driving questions and the learning environment
Well-designed inquiries are organized around powerful driving questions that make clear connections between activities and the underlying conceptual knowledge that one might hope to foster (Barron et al., 1998). Questions such as ‘what is fair?’, ‘why don’t things fall down, and why don’t they fall apart,’ are starting points in developing foundational understandings of a topic are interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary. However, there are equally powerful questions that reside within each of the disciplines. A strong inquiry can be designed in one discipline or multiple disciplines.
But in order for this work to flourish, the classroom environment has to be one that supports inquiry:
- Teaching and learning environments should replicate the conditions in which real-life researchers and other experts work. The work at hand dictates what needs to be done, and the standards to which it must be completed. Projects are authentic, worth doing, and fit within the overall direction of learning. Teachers and students work together to lay out project time lines, identify resources, and determine how success will be measured. Age segregation is less important than the interest in, and the ability to contribute to the success.
- Learning environments are mobile and flexible. Students and teachers work together face-to-face and online, and with other students and experts from outside the classroom. Digital resources can be easily accessed, and teachers and students can bring their personal digital devices to school and access everything they need.
- What is learned and how it is learned changes. Students must have access to robust and academically rigorous content to create new knowledge. They do this by analyzing and synthesizing information, posing problems in ambiguous situations, interpreting content, defending solutions and points of view, and designing, constructing and evaluating their way through a project.
We know the importance of building, as opposed to only replicating existing knowledge. When thinking of a classroom project, tasks or activities, ensure they’re connected to a problem that is authentic, and can elicit real ideas. The work must also be tied to knowledge building. If it doesn’t, classroom tasks become mere exercises and are perceived as such. Remember, at the deepest level, knowledge building can only succeed if you, the teacher, believe students are capable of it.
Exemplar: Don’t Close the Beach!
Ms. McIntyre’s students are studying infectious diseases. To get them interested, she showed a video depicting a beautiful beach. It ended with a shot of a sign reading, “Area Closed: Contaminated.” It sparked a discussion amongst the students. They shared their own experiences with suspicious water quality, and talked about how pollution bothered them. Ms. McIntyre led the class in brainstorming possible solutions. Some of the suggestions revolved around raising public awareness and reducing contaminants. A driving question emerged, and it focused on a specific area: How can we reduce the number of days the local beach is closed because of poor water quality?
A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language. It’s an open-ended question, but also gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. As the inquiry progressed, students encountered more questions about diseases, bacteria, and sources of water contamination. In an inquiry, students follow a trail that begins with their own questions, leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often, results in even more questions. Ideas are tested and conclusions are drawn. With real inquiry, comes innovation – the teacher does not ask students to reproduce existing knowledge. They are actively creating it.
Once the students’ interests were piqued, Ms. McIntyre explained the project’s requirements. It included an individually written paper, an oral presentation of students’ work accompanied by media technology, and a product of the students’ choice, which would be created in teams. It could be a media kit, a public service announcement, web page, brochure, letters to the government and other officials, among other products.
This element of inquiry-based learning is key. The project is more meaningful to students when they have a choice over what they do.
Once Ms. McIntyre’s students decided on how they were going to address their driving question, they realized collaboration was central to the project. Students formed teams of three or four and began planning what tasks they would do and how they would work together. Now and then, members in each team would review how well they were doing, using rubrics they had developed earlier with their teacher’s guidance. To boost collaboration skills, Ms. McIntyre used role-playing and team-building activities. She showed students how to use time and task organizers. They practiced oral presentation skills and learned to produce videos and podcasts. As they wrote in their journals, students reflected on their thinking and problem-solving, which they knew they needed to explain in their oral presentation.
The inquiry should present opportunities to build 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking and the use of technology. Formalizing a process for feedback and revision during a project makes learning meaningful because it emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is part of the endeavor. Students need to learn most people’s first attempts don’t result in perfection and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.
An exhibition night at the local community center was planned. The student teams presented their analyses of water contamination issues and proposals for addressing the problem. Those invited included parents, peers, and representatives from the community and local government. As a result of the students’ work, several government agencies came through with funding for water monitoring at the local beaches.
**This project is based on a real-life inquiry carried out by students at High Tech High in San Diego, California. (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010)