Inquiry Based Learning

Are you looking for a different way to approach teaching/learning? Inquiry based learning is a great way to keep students engaged and thinking critically. In my classroom we all take ownership for our learning.  I try to use the student's interests, sense of wonder, or real life connections to guide our learning. I find it creates active learners who become problem solvers and critical thinkers.


In order to teach using an inquiry stance you need to be very familiar with your curriculum because you need to be on the look out for curriculum connections as they arise.

For example, my school will be getting a new creative playground soon because the one we have is too small for our growing population.  We also have a developmental education classroom at our school with students in wheel chairs and other physical needs.  Our current playground isn't accessible to them.  I presented this real life situation to my class and asked them, "Can we design a playground that meets the needs of all students at our school?".  Of course, this connects to our structures curriculum nicely. Students conducted an interview of the developmental education teacher, they researched playground designs and they created their own designs that included things like bucket swings for students in wheelchairs, elevators, ramps etc.

We learned about simple machines as we went along and I did some direct teaching as well (because inquiry based learning does not mean that direct teaching cannot occur...in fact it should occur, but only when necessary).


Generally, at the start of a new inquiry I conduct a knowledge building circle with my students to find out what they know, what they are interested in learning about and what misconceptions they might have.  This sounds like a KWL chart on the surface but it is much more! The conversations that arise tend to be deep and meaningful.

In a knowledge building circle, students sit in a circle (which eliminates hierarchy) and have a discussion about something that the teacher has presented, often it is a question that is posed.  The role of the teacher is to sit back and listen, record observations or record student thoughts.  In the pictures above I have recorded students thoughts, wonderings and questions while they discussed the questions with their classmates.  You would be surprised at the thoughtful ideas and theories that come from first and second graders when they are given the uninterrupted time to share. Sitting in the circle helps to keep everyone's attention.

In a knowledge building circle, it's not about getting the right answer. It's about sharing thoughts, having a discussion, sharing theories, questions, things they wonder etc.

Once we have our knowledge building circle I can generally see several directions I can take our learning based on the ideas and thoughts that were shared. I can plan lessons, projects and explorations based on the needs and interests of my students.


I try to use my student's interests to guide our learning. One way to do this is to create a spot on the wall that is just for their interests. In my class we have a "Wonder Wall". Students can post questions about anything that they are interested in and I try to find a way to incorporate them into our learning.  Several students were very interested in Big Foot so I decided this would be a perfect way for us to learn about animals. We began with a knowledge building circle where I asked, "Is Big Foot an Animal?".  It led to a very interesting discussion.  I also used the idea of Big Foot as a lead in to talking about animal adaptations.

You can also just listen to students talk to find out what they're interested in. Mine are obsessed with Lego! I could use that to tie in with structures.  There are so many possibilities and connections that can be made by just listening to our students.


Once I conduct the knowledge building circle I provide time for my students to explore whatever it is we are learning about.  In the pictures above we we were learning about animal adaptions so we can figure out why Big Foot has never been caught.  I created some mock animal adaptations for my students to explore with.  I also try to provide as many books, websites, etc. to enhance their learning.  The book "Animals Show Off" has been in my classroom library all year and not one student picked it up to read it. Now that we are learning about adaptations and Big Foot, they are fighting over who gets to read it next!


When you teach using an inquiry approach there may not always be a final product and generally there aren't any tests.  Assessment occurs through out the inquiry and is often a mix of anecdotal notes, videos, voice notes, photographs and sometimes a final product or project. Much of my assessment comes from conversations with my students and recording of anecdotal notes.  My students also have notebooks that they record their observations, questions, diagrams etc. in and I often use those as part of their assessment.

Two fabulous tools I use are Evernote and iDoceo. They are both apps that are great for note taking and you can attach photos, videos etc. right to your anecdotal notes. I have my ipad on me at all times during our learning so I can record the great things that my students are saying and doing.  It also allows me to give them immediate feedback.

I find I know my students so much better now and when it comes to writing the dreaded report cards, my comments are easily personalized and reflect my students true knowledge and understanding much more than if I had just given them a test and based their marks and comments on that.

If you're looking for more information on inquiry based learning this is a great website to checkout and they even have a FREE ebook! Natural Curiosity

I refer to their book all the time!

Have you tried an inquiry approach to teaching in your classroom? I would love to hear from you! Leave me a comment.


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