Now that we’ve determined which learning conditions are ripe for starting an inquiry, it’s time to sit down and design your own topic of investigation. It needs to be something that cuts across subjects, and creates an opening for multiple perspectives. This is where the essential questions come in; they should help kick start your inquiry. Once you have found a topic, ask yourself the following questions; these will help you refine the inquiry as you move to planning tasks and activities:
In one or two words, what is the topic?
A good inquiry has clear boundaries from the start. In a study of complex issues, it’s easy to get sidetracked with a huge range of possible resources, ideas or tasks. If you draw clear edges from the start, you are less likely to get lost later on.
Consider your students:
Will they find the problem or issue intriguing? Is there a wide enough scope that they will be able to find many ways into the question, and bring their own ideas and experiences to the table? Is the question basic enough that every student can become engaged? Is it challenging enough that even the brightest minds in the world still struggle to understand? It’s also important to note your own reflections on the topic. What do you find interesting? Collect newspaper, magazine and other postings that relate to your topic. Search online for what experts in your chosen topic are doing currently.
What subject disciplines will this topic cover?
Think about how much time you want to devote to the study. If you have a month, you will make different choices than if you want to take the whole term. Think about your priorities. Which subject(s) do you want to emphasize? What is your own level of knowledge in these areas? Which curriculum concepts do you need to address? Will you be teaching by yourself or will you be teaming with someone? Don’t worry whether your topic is a ‘Grade 3 question’ or a ‘Grade 12 project’. Young children, for example, are intrigued by bears – as are outdoor enthusiasts and some of the world’s best scientists and artists.
Why is this topic worth studying?
By the time you have decided whether the topic you chose is engaging for students and has strong curriculum ties, you are well on your way to being able to articulate the reasons for your inquiry. You should have a strong sense of how this topic connects to the world outside your classroom walls. A good topic is intriguing to people today–and throughout the ages, too.
If you can tell students what is intriguing, puzzling or genuinely unresolved in the area you are opening up, chances are they will also become interested in the adventure you are charting for them. As you lay out the story behind the question, they will probably have questions and puzzles of their own to add to the mix.
What do you want your students to really understand when they have finished this study?
Consider these three questions:
- What should they care about or fall in love with? If you can identify some of the most compelling problems, puzzles or dilemmas, chances are good students will follow you into the inquiry. If you have no real idea why the topic is interesting or engaging, your students will feel the same.
- If they forgot all but one thing you taught them about this topic, what would you want that one thing to be? A good study takes on questions of enduring value; questions that lie at the heart of a discipline, or that have endured throughout history as worthy of human thought and exploration. Those questions remain compelling today.
- If students don’t understand this about the topic, they don’t really understand anything. Identify what this is: Sometimes, big ideas and essential questions are very broad. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact they’re also very deep. A question that goes to the heart of a key concept will help students develop understandings that will make all subsequent learning meaningful.
Consider this example from a Grade 6 standardized exam in Social Studies. In a multiple choice question, students were asked to identify the main responsibilities of citizens of a democracy. The correct response was to obey the laws and pay taxes. Now, any dictator would be pleased with this answer–but if students think this is what democracy means, they clearly understand nothing worth knowing about this most important form of government. What should they know instead? That is really important to establish right from the outset.
What role can I see for technology?
Technology can do far more than letting you do old things in new ways. Consider instead the powerful tools you have at your disposal. How do spreadsheets encourage students to speculate about numbers in powerful ways? How do databases help students discern patterns and relationships that might otherwise remain hidden? How do simulations and micro worlds encourage complex, meaningful games of ‘what if?’ There already exists a big digital divide between the ways in which youth learn and play with technology outside school and the ways in which they are permitted to learn in schools. By using technology effectively in the classroom, you are bridging this gap.
Students must be brought into the inquiry right from the beginning. Let them know what’s up. What weird, interesting, puzzling and intriguing things are you finding as you look for resources? Why should they be excited? Talk to them. Share some of your own background work in collecting resources and find out what excites or appeals to them the most. Start shaping your planning according to their reactions. Then you will be sure you’re building an inquiry they will love. Why is this important? Because people learn best when trying to do things that are challenging and of deep interest to them – activities that reflect a close interplay of emotion and cognition in the development of capacity. This is also called intellectual engagement (Willms, Friesen & Milton, 2009). It’s an absorbing, creatively energized focus resulting in deep personal commitment to exploration, investigation, problem-solving and inquiry over a sustained period of time (Jacobsen, Lock & Friesen, 2013).
- Are built on authentic topics. The topic is based on a real-world question, issue, problem or idea – and it’s personally meaningful to students. A good gauge of authenticity is whether adults in the world outside school are also working on the topic. The topic should be one that allows students to contribute to a body of knowledge and make a difference in the real world.
- Are academically challenging. Great projects require complex thinking. Instead of breaking thinking down into small steps, students explore how ideas and phenomena are related. Students are encouraged to use the same tools, techniques and processes as those who do the work in the real world.
- Use real world skills. Great projects deliberately challenge students with questions, issues and ideas that are semi-structured or ambiguous – just the way they appear in real life. Students learn to discern what’s important, decide on an effective way to follow up with their questions and have confidence in their problem-solving abilities. They use critical thinking and teamwork skills, and learn to make decisions, communicate and manage their work.
- Use technology at every phase. Great projects seamlessly integrate technology into every stage of the work. It can be involved in every aspect of the process – from research and design to active construction and to the communication of meaning. Students don’t need to know how to use technology in advance. Instead, they learn to use specific technologies when they need them, in the context of their work.
- Let students actively explore their world. Students can be active designers and creators of experiences through which they learn vital skills and develop strong understandings. They collaborate with each other and with adults who have strong expertise in the areas the students are coming to master. They communicate their findings to audiences outside the classroom. The classroom resembles a studio or lab, where students are on the move, designing experiments, conducting field studies, interviewing elders, or debating contrasting points of view.
- Provide rich assessment opportunities. Assessment is about designing activities that build understanding. It’s also about figuring out what students actually know, what they don’t, and how to determine the next steps in learning. Assessment occurs both on a day to day basis, when students set goals, reflect on their own progress and make plans for improvement. There’s also assessment as the project comes to an end, when the final product is ready for exhibition, promotion or display. Teachers, peers and even outside experts can provide detailed feedback on the strength and weaknesses of the work.
Creating the Invitation:
An essential part of good teaching is to cultivate an attitude of wonder – both for your own professional practice and for your students. When you focus your topic and identify key understandings, you can open up your own sense of excitement and commitment to the inquiry. The invitation to your topic can be:
- A written statement that appears on your class website. Introducing the topic online makes the entire study available for everyone to see – the importance of the topic in the world, its mysteries and its questions. Working at school or at home, students and their parents can read what you have prepared for them and discover in the links and other elements you’ve created places of personal interest and opportunities to explore.
- Through direct instruction. Offer the invitation by bringing in a speaker, reading a story, or ask questions you know will spark students’ interest. Lay out the territory for them and listen to their responses. They will tell you what they find most interesting. Encourage them to bring resources from home and to ask questions based on their own experience. They will issue challenges, speculate and demand some more time to explore one thing over another. And so, while you have drawn clear and interesting boundaries that shape the whole inquiry, students will begin to find their own paths and voices right from the start. Take note that your level of interest, excitement and knowledge opens up the world for your students. What you offer and how you do it will shape your students’ engagement throughout the whole inquiry.
Is it fair? A topic that engages:
Instead of getting her students to do a traditional report on bears, Katie Jordan ignited a classroom debate by presenting a news story about a hunter who was attacked and killed by a bear. The bear was subsequently hunted down and killed by local officials. Katie posed the question, “Is that fair?”
Students debated and explored the effects of urban sprawl on wildlife, and who has more rights, humans or bears? How can bears and humans co-exist? In the end, Katie’s students took away more than just a few facts about bears; they took away opinions that will last a lifetime.
When thinking of an inquiry topic, ask yourself:
- Is there more here than meets the eye? Issues might seem very simple on the surface, but once you start digging in, all sorts of possibilities begin to emerge. A challenging project can hook you and your students deeper and deeper into the topic. Remember, even if a topic seems simple, it can also prompt differences of opinion – and an opportunity to grapple with even more solutions.
- What is secret, hidden or puzzling? Too often, school subjects are presented as cut and dried matters of facts and figures to be memorized. It’s exciting, then to learn there are many things in the world experts are still uncovering. New answers are emerging every day, and students can be on the leading edge of knowledge, even as it is being created.