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 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 planning for inquiry directed learning to happen, 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 an important 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.
Inquiry is different from traditional teaching. This is not traditional unit planning or the backward 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.