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.
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.
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 workload. 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.
Are you ready for inquiry? Use this quick checklist to help you get started and plan ahead for inquiry. It’s in my free resource library along with many other tools that you can access free. Just sign up below.
If you want to connect with me about inquiry why not join me on facebook inside my teaching with inquiry facebook group. Join the conversation every Monday at 9 pm as we talk about all things inquiry and teaching.
So I just completed my very first live video in my Let’s Talk About Inquiry Series on Facebook Live.
My first video was about how I used Knowledge Building Circles with Wonder Walls in my classroom to help facilitate inquiry. I wanted to share my notes with you so that you would have an additional copy of the ideas that I shared in my video.
WonderWalls and Knowledge Building Circles
These two components of my inquiry unit help to start off my unit.
Knowledge Building Circles – Start off you inquiry
Collect your artifacts – pictures, items, key terms. These will generate the ideas that you need to begin your inquiry. Try to find familiar artifacts that students would recognize and pick a few that they may not know what they are. Ones where they will be forced to make connections between two concepts or think deeper about various topics. For example, I use a branch with my human body unit to connect to the branches of the lungs or a pump to show the connection to the heart. For the forces unit, I show an explosion of Japan and Chernobyl. For small pox, I show a picture of two native women sick on a bed. A cross, to show the impact of the Jesuits on first nations or a picture of a gustoweh.
Establishing a space – set a whole group meeting area where the center of the area and focus of the students is on the artifacts. Students are used to the teacher being the focus you need to shift away from the teacher as the focal point to the artifacts and the teacher as a participant. While beginning an inquiry and transitioning students from traditional teaching to inquiry I found that it was important to set yourself up higher than students. This will help them to understand your gradual release of control over the conversation. Eventually, as this knowledge building circle evolves and develops you can move your position to one that show equality to being removed and fully led by the students.
Setting Conversation norms – before beginning your first knowledge builidng circle establish rules for communication.
One person speaks
Actively listen to your peers
No idea is bad – How to disagree respectfully
It is about sharing ideas not answers
Know the difference between what you think you know and what you know based on evidence. Fact, opinion, hypothesis, theory and conclusion.
These ideas can be students generated and teacher led. My students this year even established a talking object that they needed to have before speaking. Good ole Fluffy Sparkle (I didn’t choose it or name it that credit goes to my students.)
Getting Started: Focus on the Wonder and Questions – to get started lay out your artifacts on the ground in the center of your circle. Provide students with a paper or sticky notes to write on and have them look at the artifacts and ask questions. Provide students with sentence starters to ask deeper questions.
What is …
How does _____ relate to / connect to ________
Sharing – Have students share their questions with the group. Remind students that this is the time for questions, not answers that it is okay that questions asked by our peers do not get answered right away. (this is really hard for some students)
I think – Students talk what they have been thinking about during the wonder phase and they begin to share their thoughts. Remember to help students to classify their thinking as a fact, opinion, theory/hypothesis, true knowledge based on evidence. Ask students if they can group the artifacts into categories to help us focus on what it is that we want to learn. Although this is led by the students ideally, it is most often heavily manipulated by the teacher in order to cover curriculum expectations. The key is to know when to let them go and when to refocus them. This takes time and skill and can be very messy at first. Just know that when it gets messy you can always regroup and refocus another day.
Wonder Again – After the students have grouped and organized your artifacts have them wonder again to add any further questions that they may have.
Record and Model – record student thinking along the way throughout the knowledge building circle this can be done in multiple ways. Have a student record their personal thoughts as they have them on a sticky note or appoint a secretary a student that will write down questions on a chart paper. As you begin your inquiry journey you will have to often model and paraphrase student responses in a way that will help to deepen their understanding. Asking why, why, why, why, or how, how, how is a good way to do this. As students give you surface level and simple questions ask them why and to justify their question.
Sort And Classify – as the students sort and classify your artifacts this becomes the basis of your wonder wall. This is the working document that helps us to remind ourselves where we are going and why. Remember that it is okay if there are some minor misconceptions on the wall as theses will be great learning opportunities. However, it is very important that you highlight these as you debunk them so that students to not begin to form long lasting misconceptions about the topic you are studying.
Conclusions – looking at your sorted and classified artifacts and all of your questions it is time to focus on the big ideas and what it is that they want to learn. For example, in the human body unit, the artifacts are specifically from the lungs, heart, and digestion. They easily come up with these three main systems then from there can see common questions that can be asked about all three. The same happens in the First nations unit where they can see that some pictures are of first nations communities and others are from early European communities. Once these big ideas are developed they will form the basis of your co-created success criteria that will frame the rest of your learning in your units.
Coming Back – Over the course of your unit you will come back to this sharing circle to reflect on your learning goals and your wonder wall. You will add new knowledge and build on ideas and information that you put up there.
Want to learn more about inquiry based learning in the classroom. If you missed lesson #1 click the photo below to learn more about wonder walls. Ready to learn about inquiry? Click over to lesson #3 to lean how important learning goals and success criteria are to establishing student led inquiry.
This summer I am getting ready to get back into the swing of things and have dedicated more time to sharing my products and tips and tricks with other teachers that like me want to use an inquiry approach in their classroom in both social studies, science and even language. I have had a great response to my WonderWall video that I posted last summer on how I get started with inquiry and am looking to put out more videos this summer on my inquiry journey and how you to can teach with better inquiry approach to teaching and learning in your classrooms.
It is my hope to get a new video out to you each week which will be cross-posted to both facebook, here on my blog and on my youtube channel for people to watch and learn from.
But before I got started I needed to move my office space out of my spare room upstairs and into my basement to make room for my son who will be born in November. So I couldn’t just use my old tired stuff. No I decided that I needed a whole new work space so using some of what I had already and a quick trip to the local IKEA I was able to put together my new office space. Check it out I am so excited to get to work here each day this summer as I share with all of you.
For a sneak peak on what is happening at Madly Learning over the summer check out my sneak peak video below.
Stay tuned and I hope to see you later this summer for my free inquiry in the classroom series.
Creating a wonder wall is a great tool to use in inquiry to build a space where students can
get students thinking
share their learning throughout their inquiry
keep ideas concepts and questions visible
interact with others
share standards, learning goals, and assessment criteria
share evidence of learning
This post is part 1 in my inquiry series. To learn more about inquiry click through to see my many other posts about inquiry.
Also why not connect and stay up to date on all things inquiry by joining my teaching with inquiry facebook group.
What’s a Wonder Wall?
Wonder wall boards are built at the beginning of a unit and are kept alive throughout student learning. These are living examples of student learning throughout the unit.
Wonder wall boards are built at the beginning of a unit and are kept alive throughout student learning. These are living examples of student learning throughout the unit.
Building this board starts when you begin to provoke students thinking about the topic you are beginning to study. Students will look at artifacts and ask questions about what they are seeing. They activate prior knowledge and share this with others in a knowledge building circle.
Type of Display Board
This is an example of the board that I use for my wonder wall. It is a trifold board. One side is for my fourth graders and the other side for my fifth graders.
Sometimes I use these trifold boards and other times I just use my bulletin boards but this is great if you are lacking wall space and it also works to move around the classroom for students to use when you are working with them.
Here are some of the wonder wall boards from my classroom
I use artifacts to help provoke conversations and interests in a topic at the beginning of a unit. Artifacts can be many things
Most of the time I use pictures that I print out in colour. Especially if I don’t have access to real life objects.
If I have easily accessible artifacts like my rock collection or some small appliances from home I might use those as well.
The Role of Questions
To use a wonder wall at the beginning of an inquiry means that you provoke students thinking about a topic. Providing them with artifacts that gets them thinking.
Having them ask questions is the next step.
Students will take sticky notes and ask questions about what they see. Use these doodle notes in my resource library to help your students keep track of what they are thinking.
As students share thier background knowledge and their questions the board is built. These questions are the driving force behind your learning.
Group their questions into themes, use them to develp learning goals and success criteria and to find gaps in their knowledge that may require a teacher directed lesson to fill.
Put student questions beside the artifact or picture on the wonder wall and throughout the learning strive to answer these questions and keep track of unanswered questions.
It is through student questions that learning is constructed.
Another thing I learned while implementing my wonder wall is that when students ask questions I really really want to answer them. I want to share my knowledge and have them soak it all in and teach them something. I am a teacher!! this is what I do!! I know stuff and teach about it!! STOP STOP STOP. I had to get myself to stop!
This was not what inquiry was about. Sure, I am a teacher, but I am not as powerful or as knowledgable as Google. I mentally needed to stop myself and concentrate on not answering their questions but to ask them to add their questions to the Wonder Wall and allow them to figure out the answers for themselves.
I knew that I was going to lead them through my lessons to these answers but I needed to stop just giving them the information. They would now have to start working for this information because I was not going to give them an easy way out.
Sure later on in the unit, we would have a discussion on certain topics and I would explain different concepts to them. BUT we did this together. I was not teaching them I was facilitating their learning.
Giving them the tools to let them find the answers to their questions on their own.
And you know what…a funny thing happened.
They started learning faster than I had expected.
They took those questions home and found out the answers to them. They would read books during independent time and find the answers to our questions. They were discussing these things with their parents at home.
It was amazing to see how excited they were about learning these concepts which in turn also allowed our discussion at school to become more vibrant and engaging.
Sure there were times when a teacher directed lesson was necessary especially in the technical aspects of the units. But overall it was great to see them apply their learning in new and interesting ways.
If you would like to see how I made my Wonder Wall for these units check out my Video below
I now include wonder wall cards in most of my units to help teachers get started with artifacts for students and teachers to use to use as a provocation to get started with the units that they are teaching. If you are interested in the cards that were used for the wonder wall on the video you can get them in the two units below.
Learn more about inquiry. Next up in my inquiry series
Being able to ask good questions is an important part of the inquiry process. However it is often difficult task for students to ask the type of questions that lead to authentic inquiry. When given a topic then asked to post questions students will often ask lower level thinking questions or questions that are unrelated to the theme they are studying. Asking question this is a theme that my colleagues and I are exploring in more detail at my school. Through this focused exploration, and my experiences with my students struggling through generating inquiry questions I have come up with a tips that I wanted to share with you.
All Questions are Important
Much of the focus on inquiry is on the higher order thinking questions from the Q chart. However what I have learned is that all of the questions that the student can ask are important. At the beginning of an inquiry project students may ask lower-level fact-finding questions these questions are important for students to ask and will form the basis of a student developing their understanding. Eventually they will be able to ask higher order thinking questions. What I found is it students have a difficult time asking higher order thinking questions when they don’t have the necessary background knowledge needed to investigate deeper into their topic.
Students may be able to ask the question but the may not be ready to find the answer.
Some students who were given the formula to create a higher order thinking questions were able to do this successfully. However what I have found is that just because they’re able to ask the question doesn’t mean they’re ready to find the answer. Being able to ask a good inquiry question does not mean the student is ready to find the answer to that same Big idea question. First the student must understand the facts. Getting them to ask WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN questions will help them to build the necessary background knowledge that they need to eventually be able to answer the inquiry question.
Conference by asking questions of their questions.
Some of the most viable conversations I had with my students were of me asking questions about their questions. Through this process we were able to refine and evaluate the types of questions that they were asking in order to encourage them to dig a little deeper into their topics. Sometimes I found that through my questioning students discovered that they already knew the answers to the questions they needed to ask but through this conferencing process they themselves were able to discover this. I believe this was much more valuable than if I had just given them the answer, or in this case the question.
Questioning should be more than just one lesson
In social studies and science having the students ask questions should happen all throughout the unit not just the one lesson right before they begin their inquiry projects. Students should ask questions before the unit begins (provocation) this will help assist teachers to understand what they already know and where the students want to go. Refining these questions throughout the teaching and learning process and asking new ones as we go along will help students to understand the topic of study in more depth.
Asking students to ask a question is a very general and open ended task. I can’t count how many times I have given students and overall topic and asked them to generate questions and then have been disappointed with the types of questions that I get. Many of them are so off-topic, basic or lack variety that I struggle to move them towards higher order thinking questions with what they give me. This time, before we asked questions, we generated a list of keywords. I asked them “what have we been learning about?” The words they gave me made up the list of our keywords. From there I asked students to make questions to put on an anchor sized Q chart that used our keywords. I was surprised at the difference of the type of question students were able to ask when given these parameters.
Direct teaching still happens
Just because our focus is on student inquiry does not mean that direct teaching no longer happens in my classroom. It does and it is important. Skills such as summarizing need to be explicitly taught, developing an understanding of new vocabulary is necessary in order for students to understand the information that they will read. Directly teaching my students about economic sectors was an important task that needed to be completed before students were able to complete an inquiry project looking at the environmental impacts of a primary sectors in Canada. The economic sectors seem like such a complicated concept for grade 4 students to understand but in reality when it was taught to them directly they easily got the concept. They were the better prepared to choose an appropriate topic on the environment for inquiry that also met curriculum expectations.
As I learn through implementing inquiry based learning into my own classroom I will continue to refine my understanding of how this process works. Please join me on my continued journey at implementing inquiry into my classroom!
Do you have any great revelations about questioning in your classroom please share in the comments below