Inquiry in Teaching, Learning, and Life

Welcome to Fluid Environments for Inquiry. This is part one of a six-part series will help you learn more about the world of inquiry in teaching and learning.

You can find a narrated slide show version of this web page at Vimeo (on the right)

My name is Annette Lamb and I'm a life-long learner. Whether I'm hiking, photographing nature, or sharing ideas at a conference, I'm constantly learning.

Think of me as a digital detective. Like many of you, I love to read, write, and share ideas. I use a wide range of tools and technologies to answer deep questions and solve problems. I want to pass along this passion for life and learning to my students regardless of their age.

Digital Detectives and Deep Thinking

cameraWhen the standards movement began a decade ago, I worked on a project in New York to determine where students were deficient in each content area. I wasn't surprised to find that most of the problems were associated with general literacy skills that crossed subject areas.

We found that students had a tough time identifying the main idea in a body of text regardless of whether it was a science textbook, article at a website, or a math story problem. They also had trouble sequencing information, following instructions, and making predictions.

We found that students were effective at answering simple questions and summarizing facts. For instance, they could write a report about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Today the same kind of activity might be enhanced with a multimedia poster-making tools like Glogster: example 1, example 2, example 3.The ability to embed text, photos, maps, audio, and video is wonderful, however it still doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Students are simply summarizing. They aren’t getting to the higher levels of thinking.

What about an activity that asks students to make a comparison? Compare a disaster than happened in the past with one that occurred recently. How do disasters impact society differently depending on when and where they occur? You could start with an infographic showing the recent earthquake in Japan.

Or, start with a video or images from the historical eruptions of Mount Vesuvious in Italy?

Whether identifying the parts of a worm, comparing characters in a novel, or conducting an in-depth investigation of a social issue, students need skills in observing, questioning, applying prior knowledge, evaluating information, making calculations, organizing ideas, drawing inferences, and reflecting on the process of thinking.

These generic inquiry skills provide the foundation for historical investigations and scientific thinking yet are often overlooked when it comes to direct instruction. We just assume that students know how to ask relevant questions, describe relationships, and find meaning in texts. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.

Inquiry is the process of formulating questions, organizing ideas, exploring and evaluating information, analyzing and synthesizing data, and communicating findings and conclusions. It's the type of activity that children and adults do every day when they read a map while on vacation or calculate costs when shopping.

Unfortunately, not everyone is well-prepared to deal with the demands of a fast-paced, technology-rich world containing endless opportunities, choices, perspectives, and conflicts.

Information Inquiry

girlInformation inquiry involves the processes of searching for information and applying information to answer questions we raise personally and questions that are addressed to us.

Techniques for gaining meaningful information may involve reading, listening, viewing, observing, interviewing, surveying, testing and more.

Students may start with a learning experience, then jump into their own inquiry. For instance, students might learn about advertising with Admongo. Then select some aspect of advertising to explore on their own.

Meaningful information application comes from analysis of information need, analysis of information gained, and synthesis of information to address the need in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Questions in information inquiry may range from the most basic, factual reference questions to the most complex puzzles of life for which there are no answers. 

Some teachers might look at the definition of information inquiry and say, "I assign a term paper, isn't this information inquiry"?

Inquiry-based assignments aren't just essays, term papers, or research papers. Instead, they ask students to become authentic investigators, researchers, and student information scientists.

In inquiry-based learning environments, students are engaged in activities that help them actively pose questions, investigate, solve problems, and draw conclusions about the world around them. Is this plant native or invasive? Why does this matter?

As independent thinkers, children become researchers, writers, videographers, and activists rather than passive receivers of a textbook's content or Wikipedia's articles.

They do meaningful work that addresses essential questions and important standards. Learners take ownership of the inquiry process and hopefully develop knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions that transfer across the curriculum.

For instance, students might use the infographic How Laws Work to review the process of making a law. Then work through the process with their own idea for a law.

Content Area Inquiry

How does this work in today's curriculum with different teachers focusing on particular disciplines?

Explore the websites associated with the many content area educational organizations for ideas. Search for inquiry, research projects, or related terms to find lots of ideas. You can find many of these at Thinkfinity.

The Common Core State Standards adopted by most states provides an easy way to think about the integration of literacy, research, and media skills across the curriculum. According to these standards,

"To be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new. The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today's curriculum. In like fashion, research and media skills and understandings are embedded throughout the Standards rather than treated in a separate section" (ELA, p. 4)

For instance in history, it's called "Historical Thinking". Students use historical thinking to analyze, interpret, and draw conclusions from historical events. Students are asked to conduct historical research, evaluate primary and secondary sources, compare points of view, and construct timelines.

Along with the Common Core, two other groups have focused on standards associated with inquiry.

First, the Standards for the 21st Century Learner from the American Association of School Librarians provide a more detailed look at each aspect of the inquiry process.

  1. Inquiry, think critically, and game knowledge.
  2. Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge.
  3. Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society.
  4. Pursue personal and aesthetic growth.

Students are asked to "follow an inquiry-based process in seeking knowledge in curricular subjects, and make the real-world connection for using this process in own life".

The National Educational Technology Standards for Students from the International Society for Technology in Education focus on higher-order thinking skills and digital citizenship and include five areas:

Inquiry in the Classroom

What do all these new guidelines mean for individual classroom instruction?

The standards provide the perfect opportunity to connect our wonderful technology tools such as laptops and Internet access with meaningful learning experiences. Don't be overwhelmed by the thought of teaching all these skills. Instead, think of this as an opportunity to rethink the teaching and learning process.

Let's explore these two approaches. First, rethink classroom instruction, and second, rethink student assignments.

Rethink Classroom Instruction

boyFirst, focus on how you can infused mini-lessons into your classroom that provide focused opportunities to learn skills associated with a particular curriculum-based activities such as how to use particular types of reference books.

Or, provide scaffolding for students who traditionally have difficulty completing activities such as math calculations, locating information in the library, or writing a letter. For instance, Dewey Decimal posters are helpful to get to know parts of the library. Check out the Dewey Posters.

Students are often overwhelmed by the idea of conducting a science experiment or writing an essay. Much of their anxiety comes of an inability to envision the process and their lack of specific information skills. You might hear students say…

I love/hate science, so I can't decide what topic to choose.
When I googled my topic, I got over 2 million hits! Where do I begin?
The websites I found have conflicting information. How do I decide what's right?
I love the concept map I made, but now I have to start over an write a paper.
I'm not good at writing, can't I just draw a picture?

Use mini-lessons and scaffolding to help students develop their own questions and make decisions about the resources they will use. The key is planning and providing guidance at the teachable moment.

Inquiry-based learning doesn't need to involve a semester-long investigation. Look for every day questions that will intrigue students and build a passion for inquiry. Find or invent teachable moments and model inquiry in your classroom.

Go to Wonderopolis for some interesting questions to jumpstart wondering and quick classroom inquiries. You can explore hundreds of interesting questions and answers.

Use subject specific resources. For instance, the EnviroTacklebox stimulates student interest in science topics.

Sometimes, it's simply a matter of wondering about the world. Go to What Do You Love? from Google and explore a topic of personal interest such as gardening, cooking, travel, yoga, or reading. If it's blocked a school, try it at home. Get into the habit of exploring beyond the textbook and traditional classroom materials.

Rethink Student Assignments

In addition to rethinking classroom instruction, rethink student assignments.

Begin with an existing unit. Would it be possible to turn teacher directed activities into student centered inquiries? Over the course of the year, you might provide increase opportunities for students to develop personally relevant questions or choose their own information sources. For instance, you might jumpstart a unit with interactive like Life in the Iron Age. Ask students what questions they have about this time period.

There are many ways to incorporate the inquiry process into student assignments. Let’s explore six approaches to learning including inquiry-based, project-based, problem-based, challenge-based, place-based, and object-based learning.

aInquiry-based learning is anything involving questioning, exploring, assimilating, inferring, reflecting... to solve a problem, address and issue, meet a need, ... It's a recursive cycle focusing on ever deepening questions and insights. There may or may not be an "end product"... it's more about the metacognitive aspects of the process of collecting evidence, designing arguments, and deep thinking rather than product-making. However the design of a product can be an important aspect depending on the purpose of the inquiry. For instance a genealogy inquiry may end in a scrapbook comic biography of a family member.

The elements of inquiry-based learning can be woven into many types of learning experiences. Every content area has their own way of thinking about the inquiry process. The key is helping young people realize that the process is basically the same regardless of whether you're solving a mathematical problem, writing a letter to the editor, or conducting a scientific experiment.

Explore the following resources associated with Inquiry-based Learning:

bProject-based Learning is a popular approach. When it's strictly a "product" focused rather than "process" focused approach, it loses much of its power as a mean of promoting inquiry. Students often skip from their topic directly to "writing a paper" which is often no more than "copy from Wikipedia".

The key in making this approach useful is a focus on inquiry through promoting deep questions, requiring information evaluation, asking students to draw conclusions based on evidence, or building a product to meet the needs of a particular audience. For instance, students do real-world math as they follow a bike ride across America.

Explore the following resources associated with Project-based Learning:

cProblem-based Learning is a type of inquiry-based learning specifically aimed at solving a problem. It may or may not be child-centered. In other words, the problem may be given to the child rather than the student generating the problem. The goal is for young people to learn the process of problem-solving and come up with a solution. Students are faced with messy, complex problems encountered in the real world. When combined with inquiry-based approaches it becomes more powerful. To make a model of our school, we’ll need to measure everything!

Context. Old photographs of the school are presented to the class. Students discover there is no written history of the school and decide to make one.
Problem. Creating a school history .
Essential Questions. How does going to school 50 years ago compare with going to school today? Would I prefer being a student 50 years ago or being a student today? Why?
Product. A school history wiki.
Adapted from Empowered Learning by Violet Harada in Curriculum Connections through the Library edited by Stripling and Hughes-Hassell.

Context. Show photos of how Louisiana's shorelines disappearing. What are the causes and the solutions?
Problem. Confronting shoreline and wetland loss.
Essential Questions. What are the factors, natural and made-made, that cause shoreline loss? What is the past and current status? What are the environmental, social, and economic consequences of shoreline loss? What can we do?
Product. Online presentation to share at local and state level.
Adapted from Empowered Learning by Violet Harada in Curriculum Connections through the Library edited by Stripling and Hughes-Hassell.

Context. Show photos of recent immigrants to your state. You work at the Office for Immigrant Education. How will you teach new immigrants about our government?
Problem. Helping immigrants learn about our government.
Essential Questions. What is the structure and function of municipal government and state government? What are sources of revenue? What are the rights and responsibilities of immigrants?
Product. A lesson that teachers others about government.
Adapted from Office of Immigrant Education by Barb Jansen.

Explore the folllowing resources associated with Problem-based Learning:

dChallenge-based Learning begins with a challenge like the ones you see on the Food Network challenge reality shows... so it may be problem-based or project-based. The key is that it should be an authentic problem with real-world consequences. You're actually going to plan a school history festival, not just write a plan for it. Television shows like Mythbusters have made this approach popular with young people. It contains many of the same elements as the other approaches but puts emphasis on using technology as a way to meet a 21st century challenge. You can read about Challenge-based Learning at the Apple website. It’s part of their latest education program. Read more about the process of challenge-based learning.

Explore the folllowing resources associated with Challenge-based Learning:

ePlace-based Learning is any activity focused on the characteristics of a specific location; generally it's an authentic task with real-world actions and consequences. It's NOT "write a report about deserts that are somewhere else in the world that I've never visited." It's "let's create a action plan to shows why it's important to save the desert tortoise in OUR LOCAL park and the steps needed to do it."

What will grow in our area? How can we produce food locally?

Explore the folllowing resources associated with Place-based Learning:

fObject-based Learning involves the use of artifacts and objects as a source for inspiration and learning. Other connected with museum learning experiences, this approach asks students to learn about an object and its relationship to other people, places, things, events, or ideas. You can find museum artifacts at the Smithsonian's History Explorer. Is this really gold? Or is it "fool's gold" Why is it call fool's gold?

Explore the folllowing resources associated with Object-based Learning:

Many inquiry-based activities don't fit nicely into a particular category.

Explore a few of the following lesson examples that could be associated with inquiry:

Check out examples of how Nancy Bosch and her students takes an inquiry-based approach to learning. Her fourth through sixth grade students are in a gifted program, however it's what all classrooms could look like if we took an inquiry-based approach.

Since 1996, students from all over the world participate in the ThinkQuest competition each year. The program encourages young people to solve a problem using their technology, critical thinking, and communication skills.

Putting It All Together

volcanoAs you explore and think about creating these types of learning environments, consider the following questions:

IndianLet’s take the example of a Native American Tribes and Regions Inquiry. Consider how you will put students at the center of the learning by asking:

All of these approaches to learning share some basic elements. Let's explore student experiences that engender exploration, engagement, wonder, and curiosity. I’ve provided a link to a 10-page Almanac Inquiry comic that tells the story of a class creating a school almanac.

  1. Butterfly Migration (Grades 3-6)
  2. Colonial Life - Then and Now (Grades 2-6)
  3. Spanish/Portuguese Study (Grades 8-12)
  4. Civil Rights Movement Inquiry (Grades 4-6)
  5. Utopian Societies (Grades 8-12)
  6. Almanac Inquiry (Grades 5-6)
  7. The Freedom to Choose (Grade 7)
  8. Native American Tribes and Regions (Grade 8)


How can I design an engaging, inquiry-rich environment, yet still address the standards? Explore the The Freedom to Choose project. Students selected topics and created displays. Rather than rehash or reorganize traditional lessons and assignments, think of new ways to plan for learning experiences by designing an environment rich in resources, tools, and opportunities for critical and creative thinking. The goal in transforming assignments is to turn teacher-directed assignment into engaging, learner-centered inquiry.

Civil RightsContext. Inquiry projects begin with a meaningful context, powerful idea, or authentic problem. Rather than the teacher dictating the direction and assignment, young people are given resources and tools to discover areas of interest and concern.

How will you develop an engaging, authentic environment that hooks students and provides the resources and tools that stimulate inquiry?

Questioning. Young people can generate powerful questions. The key is helping young people learn to ask "how" and "why" questions that lead to investigations requiring high level thinking skills. Educators can model these types of questions and provide guidance as students learn to become effective questioners. Remind students that the most interesting questions are often difficult to answer and generate multiple solutions and opportunities for new investigations.

How will you involve students creating powerful questions?

Critical and Creative Thinking. Rather than focusing on specific activities that students will complete, consider about the type of thinking that is required to address questions and solve problems. By encouraging students to think both critically and creatively, it's easy to design environments to meet diverse learning needs. Students naturally apply multiple intelligences as they read, visualize, listen, organize, watch, and create. Rather than simply examining and reporting the facts, can we ask students to forecast the future, debate an issue, or write from a particular perspective? Unfortunately, many projects end at this point with a simple reporting of facts.

How can you design learning environments that promote critical and creative thinking?

comic templateTransformation. Synergy comes when students create something that becomes more than the individual parts. Students synthesize information and formulate new possibilities. Collaboration is a wonderful example of synergy in action. Students are involved with comparing their data with others and create something new and original to share. They might interact with children of different ages, teachers, or members of the community. A "deep thinking" project encourages young people to transform their new knowledge into something they can connect, compare, and share.

How can you build a transformational aspect into the inquiry?

Insight/Extension/Transfer. Young people are encouraged to reflect on their experience, think about the insights they've gained, extend their understandings, and transfer their learning to new situations and inquiries.

What can you do to ensure that this learning experience becomes the foundation for independent thought and future inquiry?

Consider using a planning sheet (PDF) to think about your plan.



logoLet's return to our original question. What skills do students need in the 21st century? Since our students will live in a constantly changing society, they'll need a passion for reading, writing, thinking, and learning. They need to be able to distinguish fact from opinion in political campaigns, calculate the costs of building a new patio, and write a letter to the editor sharing their informed opinion. How will we prepare students for this dynamic future?

Explore the Butterfly Migration (Grades 3-6). Students need skills in how to make sense of the world.

Many information search and inquiry models help young people discover the joys of investigation. Models such as The Big 6 by Mike Eisenberg and Bob Berkowitz were created as a way of guiding students through the process of information searching. I even created a model called the 8Ws of Information Inquiry back in the 1990s.

1984The next five sessions will explore five interactive components of information inquiry identified by Daniel Callison. Don't think of this as a model. Instead, think of how these elements become part of a dynamic, recursive process of student investigation.

Explore Utopian Societies (Grades 8-12) and Spanish/Portuguese Study (Grades 8-12). Our goal is to create fluid environments for learning where students master the process of inquiry and apply these skills across the curriculum and in the world outside the classroom. Fluid environments seamlessly integrate a wide variety of materials, resources, tools, and technologies.

Digital Detectives are always on the lookout for problems to solve and questions to answer.

Professional Development Activity

Now that you have a sense for the possibilities, explore the website I’ve provided and think about how these ideas fit with what you’re already doing in your classroom.

Then, consider whether you’re most interested in developing mini-lessons and scaffolding to support existing instruction. Or, rethinking students assignments and projects with inquiry-based learning in mind.

sharePick ONE of the following three activities. Then, share your ideas on the group Graphic Inquiry Ning. You can also go directly to this assignment forum if you already have an account.

  1. Think about a research project or writing assignment that you have planned or have taught in the past. Create and share a mini-lesson idea or student scaffold related to an information skill where students have difficulty such as using the dictionary, taking notes, or building an argument.
  2. Think about a unit you teach that could be updated with a more learner-centered approach. Select one of the six approaches (i.e., inquiry, project, problem, challenge, place, or object-based) and write about how you will go about converting this unit. You don't need to create the unit, just talk about the approach. Or, share how you might adapt one of the lessons or units describe in the links above.
  3. Use the Planning Sheet to create your own comic that visually describes the context, questioning, critical and creative thinking, transformation, and insight/extension/transfer of a project you currently do or would like to do with your students.

Add your posting as a REPLY at the bottom of the forum page. It's fine to attach a document or link to a Google Doc if you wish.

After sharing you ideas, be sure to come back and provide feedback for at least one of your peers. I'll be sharing my ideas, suggestions, and comments too!

Directions for Using the Graphic Inquiry Ning.

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