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  • Writer's pictureLidia

Inquiry: What is it? How do I plan for it?

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

As we approach the end of the school year it is only natural for teachers to be thinking about next year. Whether you are teaching a new grade level, staying in the same grade or maybe you're a new teacher, it is important to think about who you are as a teacher and who you want your students to be as learners. The beginning of the school year is a fresh start. What better time to try something new? So you are sitting there thinking to yourself...

What are my goals for the new year? How am I going to engage my students? What am I going to do differently? How are you going to plan for a new year and how are you going to REVAMP what you are already teaching?

Inquiry-based learning is the answer to all of these questions! As a teacher that participates in an Inquiry-based learning environment, this planning might look a bit different than the "Long Range Plans" of a traditional classroom. Before we get into the planning process, it is important to start with the basics. So let's start with a brief overview... What is Inquiry?

What does that mean exactly? Inquiry-based learning is a practice that allows students to be involved in their knowledge building. Through various stages of inquiry, students identify and create essential questions, explore and investigate various topics and reflect on learning. If you are new to inquiry-based learning you might be thinking, how is that any different than what we are already doing?

Inquiry has a scaffolded approach to learning whereby, the teacher is part of the learning community and acts as the facilitator. Through the acquisition of various skills, students take control of their learning and move through different stages of knowledge building in the classroom. With the support of the teacher, students can put their needs and interests first and move from Structured Inquiry to Free Inquiry throughout the school year.

STUDENT AGENCY is at the core of inquiry-based learning. The goal as teachers is to create a learning environment that allows students to learn through activities that are meaningful and relevant to them. The learning that takes place in an inquiry classroom is STUDENT DRIVEN and has their interests at the centre of all learning.

Basically, student agency promotes a classroom where students' voices and students' choices are present in all learning!

For an outsider, who may not know what inquiry-based learning is, looking into my classroom you might think it is super loud and a HOT MESS EXPRESS. It can be intimidating, but I always tell teachers who are asking about inquiry-based learning to just jump in and do it. With that being said, you need to do your research before you jump in! Read books, blogs, and search for other teachers in your school and online who are doing inquiry! Inquiry-based learning is NOT a one size fits all type of learning. Although the ideas and principles behind inquiry can be the same, it looks different in all classrooms, with all learners and with all teachers. I have shared many of my favourite books on inquiry-based learning on Instagram if you are interested in digging a little deeper!

Now that we have gone over some of the basics of inquiry you might be thinking, how do you plan for it? If you walk into my classroom, it may seem like learning and planning is happening on the fly, and to some extent, it is. I know that sounds crazy but hear me out before you click away!

As an inquiry teacher, you need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That means you need to be okay with letting the learning take its course without having every activity, every lesson, and every project planned.

When we were in teacher's college we were told to look at the curriculum, know the expectations and then teach the expectations to our students. We were told to plan units, plan lessons, plan assessments and plan a culminating project for our students. Once we graduate and start teaching, your principals may ask you for "Long-Range Plans" at the beginning of each year. They may want a breakdown of each subject area, month by month, and a list of the expectations you will be teaching each month. As an inquiry teacher, this is not something I do. I do not create Long-Range Plans. As an inquiry teacher, you need to know your curriculum inside and out but there needs to be a focus on THE BIG IDEAS and THE SKILLS you want to teach your students.

Start with the BIG IDEAS, make connections,

ask the right questions!

I believe that for inquiry to work, you need to keep the curriculum as open as possible. When I begin my planning, rather than focusing on Specific Expectations within the curriculum, I start by looking for the Overall Expectations. The overall expectations are the general knowledge and skills that students are expected to demonstrate by the end of each grade. Once you have identified your Overall Expectations you can focus on the Big Ideas. The Big Ideas provide context for the overall expectations. They reflect the understandings that students will retain from their learning and allow for more seamless cross-curricular connections.

One of the biggest "mistakes" I see teachers doing is using the Specific Expectations as a check-list. Moving through each expectation one at a time in a very explicit, linear way. If you do this as a teacher it is not wrong, (You do you boo!) but this is not what we want to do as Inquiry teachers.

So you made it this far into the post and you're thinking, "Okay great, but you didn't tell me how to plan for inquiry" and you're right, I haven't, but I'm getting there. It doesn't matter whether you are doing Structured Inquiry, Guided, Controlled or Free Inquiry, when you plan your lessons, activities etc, students always have a say. Students need to be part of the planning process, which means you need to wait until you can have them in front of you and you can have those conversations before you fully plan. IT SOUNDS CRAZY, I KNOW, BUT STAY WITH ME ON THIS ONE!

Rather than planning lessons, you need to plan the knowledge building. The inquiry teachers learning plans focus on QUESTIONS, CONNECTIONS and CRITICAL THINKING OPPORTUNITIES!

My Planning Process:

Before I even open my curriculum documents, I ask myself this question:

What skills do my students need to be successful inquirers?

Inquiry doesn't happen overnight. There is a lot of explicit teaching of skills that need to take place before you take off into your first class inquiry.

You can't just throw it at your students and say "Have at it!". It won't work. You need to teach your students how to question, how to collect information, how to observe and how to communicate ideas. There is a lot of explicit instruction that needs to be front-loaded at the beginning of the school year before Inquiry can take flight in your classroom. I usually do this teaching through Language and Math, so I make sure I incorporate that in my plans. This is why research and reading about inquiry are key! You need to understand the process, identify the skills your students will need and determine what the role of the students and role of the teacher will be. Once I have that under wraps I can officially begin the "content" portion of my planning.

In my experience, Science allows you to build the most authentic curiosities with your students. This is why when I begin planning for the school year I always begin with Science. I look at my Overall Expectations and identify the Big Ideas. I write them down. Then I go to Social Studies. I look at my Overall Expectation and identify the Big Ideas. I write those down too. This next part makes my teacher heart happy...


Now that I have all my Expectations and Big Ideas, I need to make connections. I use my highlighters and I colour code and match expectations based on ideas or concepts that can be combined. Ones that connect or have a similar context. Some overlap, some don't. Now that I have made my connections, I identify the focus. I think about what might be meaningful to my students. At the beginning of the school year, you are most likely going to be beginning with Structured Inquiry, so you need to know your essential questions. At this stage, you are going to guide students through the beginning of your inquiry. This question is crucial to setting up knowledge building for your students. What is our BIG QUESTION?

In Ontario, in grade 4, there is a focus on environmental impacts in Science and Social Studies so this is where my BIG QUESTION stems from. Based on all the expectations my BIG QUESTION is:

How have Canadian regions and communities, contributed to important events and/or environmental impacts? And how does this differ from the important events and/or environmental impacts of past civilizations?

This question incorporates general concepts but allows for learning to go in any direction. Stewardship? Environmental Leaders? The direction you take is up to you. So, what comes next? At this stage, it is normal to be unsure. You have your Big Question but you are left wondering, how do my students know what to do?

I know that I want my focus to be "Environmental Impacts" but before I present that to my students I begin thinking about the following:

  1. How can I present this idea to my students? (Provocations)

  2. What are the ideas and concepts that I need to pre-teach or explicitly teach? (NEW expectations students need to learn or even accessing prior knowledge)

  3. What questions do my students have? What questions MIGHT my students have?

  4. What is the goal of the inquiry? What is the outcome?

  5. How are my students going to collect and organize information?

  6. How can I continue to extend and expand on learning?

  7. How can I pull in Language?

  8. How can I pull in Math?

This is the planning I would do upfront. Notice how I haven't talked about "this lesson", "that experiment" or "Student Culminating Task"? I don't plan that because that will be decided during knowledge building. Being an active participant in knowledge building is crucial. Get on your student's level! Get down on the floor with them, listen to your students, listen to their questions, ask them more questions to continue the conversation.

Through these conversations, you can determine what your lessons will be on. Lessons are created to build on student WONDERS and CURIOSITIES.

When I think about lessons I picture them as a car. Lessons occur when students need more information. I am the driver that takes them to the learning they are missing or need more assistance on. Lessons push the learning forward so students can get over a speed bump that might be blocking them from the finish line.

Once I have made the connections between Science and Social Studies I can easily pull in Language and Math. If students are interested in how the climate of a Physical Region of Canada has changed over time due to pollution, I can incorporate graphing into the knowledge building. If a student is interested in how the Earth creates various rocks and minerals, I can pull in descriptive writing so students can communicate their observations of various points in the Rock Cycle. Learning doesn't need to be predictable and prescribed. Teach the skills as they naturally come up. This is why I said you need to know your curriculum! You need to be able to make connections on the fly to create these opportunities and to guide the learning!

It is VERY IMPORTANT to note that inquiry is different! It is not simply a research project. It is learning that you can AUTHENTICALLY build on. In a future post, I will walk you through an Inquiry that my students participated in so you can see exactly how Knowledge building occurred, which expectations were hit and also showcase the extreme creativity our students have!

Inquiry-based learning can be scary and both students and teachers have a hard time with it. This is why it is important to do your research and know your role as an educator in an inquiry classroom. The planning process is tricky to explain in words, but I hope that this blog post was a helpful start! I am aware that sometimes you need to see the planning for yourself to see the connections and better understand the process. This is why I have created a Freebie of the Skeleton of my plans for people who have subscribed to my mailing list. Even if you are not a teacher in Ontario, Canada, it can be very helpful for you to see the beginning stages of the planning process. So make sure you have subscribed, to get my plans for free.

Inquiry-based learning can be overwhelming, but I promise you it is not as terrifying as it may seem! I hope that through my blog you can gain some insight into what inquiry might look like for you and your students!


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