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Planning for Inquiry Based Learning



If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare for something that is student led. Although using an inquiry approach removes you, the teacher, from the absolute power position you,  still have plenty to do to prepare yourself to get ready for inquiry.  I wanted to share a few of the steps that I take to plan my inquiry units.

Planning for inquiry is different.  There is more to do ahead of time.  You have to be purposeful and knowledgable.  However, once this is planned the day to day planning is so much less as you work with students day to day to direct the learning together.

Here are a few of my steps for planning inquiry.


Look at Your Standards / Curriculum

What are you expected to teach?  Get familiar with the contents of the learning expectations.  Where does the expected learning start and stop?  

Pull it apart

Start to take the expectations apart.  Put them in your own language.  In the Ontario curriculum, it is often structured in a similar fashion.  Big idea expectations are first, skills are second and basic knowledge is third. Knowing this will help you to decode the and order the curriculum in an easier way.  It is also important to differentiate between knowing the difference between the expectation and the examples.  The examples are just that, examples they are not the learning outcomes.  This will help you to know that following different lines and topics within the larger theme will be okay to do so.  I will often re-word the expectations at this point into meaningful language so that it is easier to understand. 

Put it in order

Once I have pulled the curriculum expectations apart I then begin to put them into order.  In a split grade classroom, this is especially important because you will need to order the learning in a way that makes sense. But remember that you are going to approach this with an inquiry perspective so you are looking at the knowledge that students will need to have first, second and third, in order to meet the expectations of the big ideas for inquiry.  Doing this will help you to guide students where they need to go. 

For example, in the matter and materials unit, students will need to know what matter is and the vocabulary.  The best part is that students will naturally ask these questions when presented with the answers. Show them a vocab card with the word sublimation and they will naturally ask what does that mean and try to guess by using their background knowledge. 

If you know where they need to go you can plant the clues to get them there.  But by doing it this way you spark curiosity and interest as people naturally try to solve problems and look for answers.  This is why putting the learning in order is important.  You are not necessarily planning the lessons but planning the trajectory and logical progression of the learning. 

Find common ground

If you are like me you might be teaching a combined class.  At the very least you will have students in your classroom that require accommodations and modifications beyond the grade level you have been assigned.  So this is where you need to find common ground and activities where there is common ground.  


Sometimes the content is so different that you can't and you need to look for similar tasks with different subjects like experiments or research opportunities to align together so that the instructions are the same but the learning is different.  
To differentiate the learning for different abilities you need to plan some tasks that have multiple entry points so that the output of students can be adjusted to meet individualized learning needs. 


Begin to Research

I cannot stress this enough, if the teacher doesn't understand the content then the students

won't either.  If you are conducting inquiry you need to know your stuff.  You can't always rely on textbooks.


Hop on google, ask your own questions and know the content.  I often have to do this when creating my units.  Learning the content at a more in depth level than your students is important.  


Do you understand how a catalyst is used to speed up the polymerization process to make plastic? This was one of the many topics I explored when creating my unit on matter.  



Planting the Evidence

Starting your learning off with a provocation and beginning to build your WonderWall is animportant step to begin your inquiry.  This is where your selection of materials will help you to set the stage for your inquiry and to help you to guide the students to focus on the questions that relate to what they MUST learn.  If you put at word card with the word Sublimation then usually at least one student will ask the question "What is sublimation?" By setting up your WonderWall discussion with activities and questions such as


  • Look at the artifacts and cards, one at a time share what you notice about something you see
  • How could you sort these artifacts
  • What questions do you have or what do you wonder about what you see?
In my human body unit choosing a picture of a microscopic image of the air sacs in the lungs inevitably leads to the questions "why do we have grapes in our body?" or "What are the grapes used for?" This opens the door to a lesson or activity about the parts of the lungs.  

You Don't Need All of the Answers

Yes you need to be prepared and yes you need the knowledge of you subject content but there will come a time where you simply just don't know the answers to your student's questions.  Sooo... it's okay, you don't have to know and you can admit it.  Simply say "wow that is such an amazing question we really should look into that further.  Let's look it up!" In inquiry, you are the guide not the giver and constructor of knowledge.  Allow your students to see and watch what you do when you don't know the answer.  Being a model will show them what to do when they encounter a question or problem.  

But this is inquiry, sometimes the learning happens in finding the answer themselves and their ability to retain this information is dependent on their ability to find their own answers. 

In fact, one of the most amazing lessons I learned through my inquiry journey was to stop answering their questions (even when I did know the answers).  

I had one moment of 'out of body' (not really...but for some reason I was super reflective that day) where I realized that the students were simply just looking to me to answer everything for them.  Learning and struggling to stop myself from answering their questions was hard, but watching them learn to solve their own problems and find answers to their own questions was very rewarding.  

Final Thoughts

Inquiry is different from traditional teaching.  This is not traditional unit planning or the backwards design model.  You do not plan the activity that students will complete at the end.  If you are looking for an activity that everyone will do you are in the wrong place.  

Inquiry means the students help to guide their learning.  There are still teacher directed lessons, there are still key concepts they NEED to learn and be assessed on.  

However, you can guide and lead the student there in authentic ways.

Save a few steps...

Need a break and want to skip a few steps?  Since I have done this already why reinvent the wheel.  I may not be able to help you teach it day to day, but you might as well benefit from the time I have already put into planning for inquiry lessons.  Check out some of the grade 4 and 5 inquiry science and social study lessons in my TPT store





Top 5 Tips That Will Transform Your INQUIRY Projects

Whenever I check the teacher message boards that I am a part of, I always see many requests for ideas for culminating tasks for the various units that a teacher teaches throughout the year.  This stems, I believe, from the backward design process where teachers begin to plan their new unit of study by first planning the culminating activity.  However, if you follow this blog, you may have realized that I am moving away from the teacher-directed model of instruction and moving towards an inquiry approach where the students and teachers authentically develop the culminating task within some standard parameters.

The problem, as I see it, is not in having a culminating task but in planning an event or task that limits a student's creativity or expression in order to do what the teacher tells them.  Placing restrictions on what students do to show you what they learned is where you are restricting student creativity.  I know that there is a lot of anxiety as teachers when we don't have complete and total control.  I get it, I myself am a recovering control freak (ok maybe not so much recovering), but I have changed the aspects that I control within the classroom.  At the end of the unit, if every student's product looks the same then how creative and differentiated is that really.

1. Plan the criteria, not the product

It is possible for students to design a variety ways to show their learning that respects their interests and individuality while all still meeting the same expectations.  These little projects are called "show what you know" projects.  With these we make a list of concepts that student need to know about these are generally derived from our learning throughout the unit.  It is then the student's responsibility to design a project that meets these criteria.  How they present it is not as important as what they present.

2. Fun means differentiated

Many times as teachers are requesting help to find project ideas, they are also requesting fun and engaging activities for their students.  Generally, as teachers, we are not interested in boring our students and making learning disengaging.  However, we teach individuals, not robots and their interests are their own.  If you want them engaged, let them choose the format.  At first, many students will probably pick traditional presentation strategies.  However, throughout the year as one or two students begin to push the traditional boundaries other students will start to take more risks in their style to pursue their own interests that reflect their skills.  We have to remember that in our classrooms there are many students who have strengths in different areas and those that do not fit well in a traditional classroom will struggle with traditional tasks but can and will amaze you with their ability to show you what they know in alternate ways such as using Minecraft, designing a song or dance, or creating a website.


3. Student-led inquiry

Inquiry means that students are helping to lead and own learning.  They are not leading their learning if where they are going and what they are doing is already mapped out.  This does not mean that we don't have to plan because we do.  There will be certain concepts that are essential to building their knowledge and understanding that they can learn what it is that they are supposed to learn.  However, these are general.  If you have ever seen my units on TPT you will know that they generally follow the same format.  Provocation/Wonderwall-> Big Idea / Questions -> Building Background Knowledge and Understanding Lessons-> Knowledge Building Circles -> Reflecting Activities -> General Research Project -> Open Ended Sharing of Knowledge.  You will also notice that the pages are general enough that there are very few question and answer rote learning pages.  Students are generating their own knowledge and reflecting on this.  However, the focus and scope of these lessons allow a variety of different avenues and flexibility for the teacher so that each year your focus could be a little different.  The shift relies on the teacher understanding that they are guiding the learning not giving the learning.

4. Share the workload

there is a quote that is often used with inquiry that talks about the work load.  The teacher should not be working harder than the students.  In reality, this is true.  If you are working so hard to plan every little detail then simply just giving the students work.  This is not inquiry.  Inquiry involves students and teachers working together.  If you want an engaging activity for your students ask them to tell you what they should do.  Plan it together.  Instead of taking hours and hours at home planning a lesson for students.  Stop planning at home and plan with them during knowledge builiding circles.  Even if that means that you pull out the curriculum document and list the things that they need to know about and asking questions about these things and then going from there.  Let them help you plan it.  Do it with them, and save yourself some time.

5. Learn the content, deeply

This has to be the biggest advantage for me in planning detailed units for TPT.  It has forced me to really learn the content.  Stop spending your time planning the unit and the lessons and learn the content and not at an elementary level but at a high school level.  Read the Wikipedia page on tension and compression and challenge yourself to be able to understand it.  This will help you when you go off script in class.  If all you know is what is on the lesson plan then it will be that much harder to teach this using an inquiry perspective.  You need to know your content at a much more complex level.  This is why it takes me so much longer to create a complete unit and why I include teacher background notes for you so that you can understand the concepts that you teach.


Ignite Student's Passion for Writing!!

Writing is a challenge to teach.  It is more than simply just teaching students how to write.  There is an underlying challenge that can predict a student's success and this is often dependent on the messaging that students tell themselves about their ability to write.  A student's attitude towards their skills as a writer are very important to ensure their success in their ability to write.  Writing was the last subject that I taught as a teacher where I felt like I was doing a great job at getting students to write.  Many times I felt that my writing program was sucking the fun out of writing and making the task feel so foreign and unrelatable to the real world of writing.  This change coincided with my also beginning this blog.  Through blogging, I felt that I reconnected to my enjoyment of writing that perhaps had been sucked out of me.  Understanding that sometimes just the act of getting your ideas out of your head and on 'paper' is a great feeling.  I needed a way to translate that into my own teaching.  Writing needed to be connected, the act of writing needed to be just as important as the conventions and style elements of writing.  Student engagement needed to increase and a fire and passion for writing needed to be ignited within my students.  Even with the most reluctant writers.  

This need for a change also aligned with using inquiry in science and social studies.  The power of student conferences, guided instruction and increasing a student's voice and choice in the classroom were powerful tools to get students hooked.  

I changed my approach to how I teach writing and now use a cyclical/spiraling method of teaching writing instruction which is tied very closely to reading instruction as well.  Allowing students the ability to choose what they want to write about, how they want to write it and when has changed by teaching of writing and completely transformed the level of engagement and excitement in writing within my classroom.  The progress I see with students in their ability to write is amazing.  

However it is more than just giving them less structure and rules to follow in their writing.  This would lead to chaos and triple your work load as you had each student doing whatever they want. There are systems and guides and a great deal of structure that goes into preparing your students to write in this manner.  

To get this started there are three things that I use to help me get started to establish writing in my classroom.  


Students will still need a place to put their writing.  These writing folders will help you to support students as they work through the writing process.  Within the pockets of these folders students are given anchors that will help them brainstorm ideas, plan, draft, edit and revise their work.  Each anchor can be taught separately and added to the folder in a purposeful way. 



Writing Anchor Board
This is displayed on a bulletin board for your students.  This support will be a reference for students to remind them of the different writing forms they identified as being interested in as well as provide them with success criteria charts and exemplars as students write them, and any anchor charts that you create with students throughout your responsive lessons. 


Story Wheels
These story wheels will help students to generate ideas.  If you have students that struggle with generating ideas for writing different types of stories then these wheels will help you to support these students.  Students will either create personal wheels or you can support them to create class wheels in small groups or as a whole group depending on need.  

Want more information about how I implement my writing program in my classroom sign up now to join the waiting list for my upcoming ebook - Ignited Writing: a Differentiated Cyclical Approach to Writing. 






No More Worksheets?


So what is the deal with all this hatred to the worksheet?  It was recently asked on a facebook forum if using worksheets in your classroom makes you the dreaded 'old school teacher'.  This sparked an interesting discussion amongst the teachers in the group as to what the big deal is on worksheets.  With schools pushing a paperless classroom in favor of digital tech and parents demanding an education for their children that reflects the familiar comforts of their own schooling. Teachers are put in the middle of a murky pond wondering how much is too much when it comes to our own worksheet usage.

Glows, Grows and Where to Goes

As August is winding down my mind is now shifting to getting ready for back to school.  Thinking about how I will set up my classroom this year.  Every year I change a few things based on what I learned the previous year.  Asking what worked and what didn't and why is a very important task.  How can we grow as teachers if we are not willing to work on improving and this, in my opinion, starts with some personal reflection.  Here are my glows, grows and where to goes for the upcoming year.

Glows...

  • Inquiry: in science and social studies but especially in language.  I just couldn't believe how much my students learned and developed as writers by using this approach.  Organizing them into inquiry writing centers really helped too.  
  • Math: still a big fan of this always happening in the morning. Continue to use my morning math pages to frame our three part lessons and give differentiated ways to support students in developing math skills.  
  • Mentor Paragraphs/Sentences: these were great during our literacy centers as a way for student to practice editing and proof reading skills.  I noticed a drastic improvement in many students in this area which transferred to their own writing skills. 
  • Technology: Using technology as an accessible tool with a BYOD philosophy was important.  This allowed for google classroom, explain everything and other apps to be seamlessly integrated into our day.  The students capacity for innovative thoughts and actions surrounding technology was important. 
  • Independence: with such a large class I didn't have time to see all of my students as frequently as I would have liked. This had some negative consequences for students who needed more hand holding or anxiety however for many this allowed them to learn to rely on themselves and increased their autonomy and independence in learning which will ultimately benefit them later.  
Grows...
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