Inquiry Based Learning: Wrapping My Brain Around It

Inquiry Based LearningDimension 1 of the C3 Framework for Social Studies is “Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries” or to put it simply, inquiry based learning.  The goal of every Social Studies teacher used to be for all the students to answer our questions.  The new objective is to get students asking their own questions and exploring the possible answers.

What’s that I smell?  Ah, yes.  It’s the elephant in the room.  I’ll just go ahead and say it – this seems hard. What if I invest a lot of time into an activity and the students don’t embrace it?  What if I spend a lot of time planning and implementing this type of lesson and they don’t learn anything?   My heart starts racing a little bit just thinking about it.

The solution – baby steps.  We aren’t going to become masters of inquiry based instruction overnight, friends!  I’ve been thinking this over for some time, and I’ve come up with some basic steps that can help you (and me) become a more inquiry based educator:

  • Focus on classroom management and procedures.  Inquiry based learning activities will not work in the midst of chaos.  Not only do students need to feel safe to share and discuss in your classroom, your classroom has to be a place that’s focused on learning.  Please note:  inquiry based learning can sometimes LOOK LIKE CHAOS to the casual observer.  You and your students know when there is real learning taking place – that’s the important thing.
  • Stop answering questions and solving problems for your students.  I have a colleague who did this in her 6th grade classroom recently, and the changes in her classroom dynamics have been drastic.  Tell the students from the onset that you want them to become problem solvers and to think for themselves.  I.e. – a student asks for a pencil.  Your response should be, “that is a real problem.  What are some ways you could solve that?”  Another example, a student asks, “why did some slaves fight for the Confederacy.”  DO NOT ANSWER THAT.  Instead, send that kid to the board to make a list of possible answers from his peers.  Then, allow that student plus a friend to try to find answers on the internet or a print source.  Or, post that question to your classroom webpage and ask students to submit answers for homework.
  • Stop asking easy questions.  Of course, there are a lot of topics where scaffolding is necessary, but an entire lesson should not be made up of easy questions.  Make the students predict, infer, analyze, access prior knowledge, etc. There is such a thing as bad questions, and teachers ask them all the time.
  • Make your classroom real-world relevant.  And I’m not just talking about analogies.  I’m the bad analogy queen.  I’ll go into this whole spill about how European exploration is like a slumber party and realize at the end that all my students are more confused then when I started! My new goal, have students create their own analogies that connect content to something they have experience with.  If they can relate to the topic, they are more likely to ask questions and show interest in the topic.
  • Challenge your students to ask the questions.  One of my new favorite things to do is to show the students  a picture, chart or quote and have them write their own questions about it.  This is great for differentiation because it allows students to think on their own level.  Sharing questions and discussing possible answers with peers will help them broaden their thinking about the topic.
  • Plan an Inquiry Based Learning Activity.  I’ve decided that I never really drive home the cause of the American Revolution with my students.  Every year, we drill, “NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION” over and over and over again, but by the time state testing comes most of them still don’t know what the slogan means.  They will shout it at the top of their lungs with their mean face on at the drop of a hat, but they have no idea what it means.  This year, I’ve got to try something different.  I’m leaning toward a debate, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.  I’m going to create a learning experience that allows students to explore and partake in history in a way that will make them feel and think like an American colonists.  Whether they like it or not.  Regardless of how much planning it takes.  Even if that’s the only cool thing I do all nine weeks.

So, here’s the gist of what I’ve learned.  Inquiry based learning is not something you plan when you know you’re being observed by an administrator.  It’s more like a part of the learning climate in your classroom.  Students need to feel some ownership over their learning and the best way to do that is to let them ask the questions.  It’s not going to happen overnight, but now I’ve got some simple steps to focus on and a goal in mind.  The writers of the C3 Framework for Social Studies really threw down the gauntlet, but we’re ready to face the challenge head on and inquiry based instruction is just the place to start!


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  2. Totally agree that enquiry isn’t a one-off – it’s definitely a culture that takes time to develop. These are useful points to remember and share when discussing what enquiry is or isn’t. I feel the biggest challenge is having teachers let go and embrace the ‘chaos’ that results.

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