Welcome to part two of a six-part series focusing on the world of inquiry in teaching and learning.

Inquiry is "a process that involves asking questions and searching for evidence that can be used to design arguments, make decisions, and draw conclusions" (Lamb & Callison, 2010). It's an active process that addresses meaningful questions.

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

Students and teachers ask questions throughout the day both inside and outside school.

  • Why is King Lear is being so secretive?
  • What's the least common denominator?
  • How much is 25% off?

Young people need skills to be able to pose clear, concise questions that address personal interests and meet informational needs. Why did this caterpillar choose this particular tree? However they also need experiences posing deeper questions. What's the relationship between a creature and its environment?An inquiry begins with recognizing the need for information.

Questions may come from watching the world through television shows, online news, or a parent's conversation.

Natural curiosity and observations may stimulate a child's wonder about a topic or issue.

Sometimes students are faced with problems posed by their teachers or real-world dilemmas of everyday life.

This stage can be both exciting and frustrating. Some students are overwhelmed by the prospect of selecting a topic and developing research questions.

Others are excited about the prospect of connecting a general problem to their personal interests and point of view.

Carol Kuhlthau stresses that at the dawn of inquiry thoughts may be vague centering on areas of uncertainty. However once a topic is identified, students feel a sense of optimism.

Let’s explore four elements of the early stages of inquiry beginning with topic selection: topic selection, background information, catalysts of inquiry, and questions.

Topic Selection

It's useful for students to do some brainstorming before they begin an inquiry. Ask students to write about the types of books, websites, and video they like. What activities and hobbies interest them? What are their favorite animals, inventions, people, or careers?

Topic Starters

When given a free inquiry assignment or the chance to select a topic in a general area, it's difficult for some students to know where to begin. A list of option is a useful way to get thoughts flowing.

pic 1Rather than selecting a topic because they already know about it or have a friend who has chosen the topic, ask students to critically think about their reasoning for topic selection.

It's useful to keep an inquiry journal throughout their investigation. This can become a useful tool in process assessment. Ask students to select three possible topics and/or questions to explore. Why did they choose these topics? Why are they personally meaningful?

For a free inquiry, explore Leslie Preddy's Pre-Search Activity 1 (PDF) sheet for ideas and Pre-Search Activity 2 (PDF) sheet for categorizing ideas and thinking about the topic. Ask students to create a graphic organizer of their thoughts about possible topics. Use Leslie Preddy's Pre-Search Activity 3 (PDF) for ideas.

Background Information

Students find it useful to begin an inquiry by searching for background information on possible topics. Reference resources such as encyclopedia and dictionaries are useful for these types of activities.

News Articles

A great way to begin inquiry is by exploring current events websites, newspapers, and other news programming. For a list of online new sources, go to Teacher Tap.

Ask students to read three articles or watch three short programs. Then, write about how one of these articles impacts their life directly or indirectly.


Students may only have a vague idea of the key words associated with their area of interest. A traditional print dictionary or online dictionary can be useful in exploring the possibilities.

If your class is studying medieval occupations, a student may be faced with a list containing unfamiliar words such as furrier, minstrel, or scribe. Using both Google and Bing you can define a word by writing define then the word such as define minstrel.

Ask students to define three words related to a topic being considered. How do these words help them better understand their options?


Like dictionaries, almanacs are useful for quick access to information. They are particularly useful for categories of information such as country statistics, world flags, natural disasters, or weather information.

Ask students to use the almanac to locate interesting tidbits of information about possible topics. These exploration may stimulate questions that require more in-depth study.


Use an encyclopedia for additional background information. Britannica is online. WorldBook is an online subscription. Wikipedia, Information Please, and Ask Reference are collections of resources. Encyclopedia.com searches online encyclopedia. You also have access to World Book Online Encyclopedia through the Public Library.

Encourage students to use these resources to help them identify issues related to their topic or subcategories they may not have considered. Students should write about how this new information impacts their thinking about a topic.

Like any encyclopedia, you’ll find errors in Wikipedia. Use the body of the article for background information. However ask students to explore the external links at the bottom of the page to verify information.

One of the most useful aspects of encyclopedia are the external links or articles that are cited at the end of the entry. It's useful to explore areas of interest through well-known, authoritative websites associated categories of topics. This exploration can often lead to interesting questions for further exploration.

Model the use of reference materials to think about researchable questions. Use Leslie Preddy's (PDF 1) (PDF 2) sheet for ideas.


Pathfinders are subject guides that include both print materials and online resources related to a particular topic. They help streamline the research process for students by providing quality starting points. An easy way to locate pathfinders is to do a Google Search for a topic and add the term "pathfinder" such as "tornado pathfinder".

A company called Springshare has an online service for making pathfinders. Explore East Baton Rouge Parish Library. You can search for pathfinders people have created at the LibGuides Community page. Do a search for libguides in your interest area. Open Google and enter site:libguides.com cell biology

A daily reflection is a good way for students to think about their process with a research project. Examine Leslie Preddy's Daily Reflection (PDF) sheet, then create your own.

Catalysts for Inquiry

The inquiry process begins with an open mind that observes the world and ponders the possibilities. Young people need a catalyst for inquiry. Rather than being given a problem or choosing a topic from a list, consider an experience that will cause them to wonder about the world or discover a problem that needs to be solved. Although you may guide them in the identification of a problem or development of questions, it's important that they learn how the process of inquiry begins. A variety of media can be used as inquiry starters.

Context and Catalysts

Let's say your students are exploring the life of a person, place or thing within a specific context and also the greater context of a time period or event.

Anne FrankFor instance, you might connect Anne Frank to the larger context of World War II You might begin by exploring her life through a graphic novel or video production.

Once students have a context for their inquiry, they're ready to begin asking questions about the time period. Explore Common Questions About the Holocaust.

Use Investigating the Holocaust: A Collaborative Inquiry Project to help students investigate resources and share experiences related to the Holocaust.

This approach can be taken for any time period. Learn about individuals who made a difference for example use The Power of Children from Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

Catalysts Across the Curriculum

Consider the many different media that could be used to stimulate ideas related to a problem or topic. Think about the use of text, photos, maps, infographics, video, interactive websites, and games.

Images as Catalyst. You might use a photo collection to generate ideas. Kitzu is a digital image resources. Select a content area and a topic. Then, download a kit containing images.

Wikimedia Commons is another good starting place for images.

Create a list of web addresses containing images that will stimulation discussion. Locate pairs of graphics that can be used to make comparisons.

MollyUse historical drawings and painting to stimulate questions about the American Revolution or other time periods.

Visual stories such as Sugaring Time by Kathryn Lasky are also an effective way to jumpstart an inquiry. Consider the Scientists in the Field series.

Scientists in the Field

Infographic as Catalyst. An infographic is another wonderful way to jumpstart an inquiry. An infographic is a visual representation of information that uses text, images, and graphs to quickly provide an overview of a complex idea. Many blogs highlight new infographics available online.

Infographics are particular useful when studying world languages, because online translators can't translate graphics. As such, students must do the translations themselves. When searching for infographics in other languages use the correct term. For instance, in Spanish it's "infografia" such as the vegetacion infografia.

Maps as Catalyst. Showing students the Charles Dickens Google Map may make students wonder about literary topography of other authors.

Audio as Catalyst. Use podcasts, music or other type of audio to generate questions. For instance the Science NetLinks podcast page contains dozens of high-quality articles to jumpstart student questions.

Interactives and Games as Catalyst. Use online interactives to stimulate thinking about a content area. Playing the EcoDefenders game could stimulate ideas for an inquiry.

Artifact as Catalyst. An inquiry could begin with an artifact such as a favorite toy or museum item.


English (Literature, Reading, and Language Arts)


Science, Technology, and Health

Social Studies (Economics, Geography, History, and Social Studies)

World Languages

Involve students in a brainstorming activity. Ask them to write words that relate to their topic. Use Leslie Preddy's Pre-Search 1: Brainstorming (PDF) worksheet for ideas.


Questioning is at the core of information inquiry and drives the teaching and learning process. In an era of "one answer" standardized tests, this idea of opening a student's mind to questioning and exploring many answers is essential.

According to Danny Callison (1997, 30), "the ability to question is the ability to see beyond the facts and opinions placed before you. The ability to see that most answers are only partial solutions and there are many more questions to explore, is a sign of a life-long learner."

After completing a worksheet calculating simple interest rates, we want students to wonder about interest rates. Why would someone pay hundreds of dollars each month on credit card interest? What could I buy with the interest I'd save by paying with cash? These are the questions make learning meaningful to young people.

Practice simple interest including price of item, interest rate, and length. Pick your own item. What questions do I have about the problem?

Deep Questions

Ask yourself, "how do I encourage students to ask deep questions rather than surface level questions?" 

Essential questions probe life's deep issues. To set the context for inquiry, consider posing essential questions to jump start individual questions.

In the lesson It's Debatable, eighth graders are learning to articulate connections between historical and current issues. The essential questions include: Is history relevant to modern issues? Do issues have clear wrongs and rights? Students would then develop their own questions focusing on a particular topic such as child labor.

child labor

Explore resources related to questioning in inquiry:

Types of Questions

Some questions help students define the purpose of an inquiry.

Use the questions above to help form deep questions on a topic such as ancient civilizations.

Explore two pages from Graphic Inquiry by Annette Lamb and Daniel Callison (2012). It provides example questions based on Jamie McKenzie's Types of Questions using the topic of ATV use on public lands.

Questions 1Questions 1

Some types of questioning have been developed for particular areas of study such as reading.

Jim Burke identified three types of questions:

Factual Questions. Answers to these questions can be verified with information found on particular page. These questions answer who, what, when, where, and how questions. They take readers "into the text".

Inductive Questions. Answers to these questions are found in the text based on details and examples. They answer why, how, and so what questions. They take the reader through the text requiring them to evaluate and interpret evidence.

Analytical Questions. Answers to these questions connect information in the text to information found through analyzing other works. These queries answer questions ask for comparisons. They take the reader "beyond the text" allowing students to analyze relationships between the text and other resources.

He suggests students practice by creating questions and answers in all three categories using a single text. For instance, students might read a short story or online science article.

A similar approach is taken by Taffy Raphael in Question-Answer Relationships (QARs). According to Raphael, when students understanding how to craft their own questions, they do better asking and answering questions.

Right There (Answer in the text). These are questions that ask who, what, when, where, names, dates, and lists directly from the text or from life. Example: Where does the creature live? Where do you live?

Think & Search (Put it together). These are questions that require thinkers to connect ideas that might be found in more than one place in the text. Example: Compare two perspectives in the reading. Give three reasons why found in the reading.

Author & You (Answer NOT in the reading). These questions ask thinkers to connect the reading with other information. What is the author's perspective? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Give examples.

On My Own Relationships (Beyond the reading). These questions ask thinkers to connect the topic with their personal interests and perspectives. Would you be worried if you lived in an earthquake zone? Why or why not? Why do you think it's important to meet people from other culture? Why or why not?

 Students can learn to create these types of questions for book explorations.

Scaffolding for Questions

Some students need more scaffolding for questions than others. Provide question starters to jumpstart thinking.

Low to High Level Questions. The following question starters help students move from low level to high level questions.

Sea of TrollsCategories of Questions. It's sometimes difficult to create high-quality questions. It may be useful to identify a focal point or category of questions such as historical documents.

Let’s say your class is reading the book The Sea of Trolls. In addition to questions related directly to the book’s storyline, encourage students to explore Norse Mythology and Viking history. While some students might have questions about the ships, others may wish to explore weapons. The language may be of interest to others. These questions may lead to a wide variety of answers, projects, and performances.

Think about questions in each of the following areas (Shell Education & Greathouse):

Q TasksIn Q Tasks Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan provide questions to get students and teachers thinking about their questions and information to deepen the investigation. Read the book's Introduction (PDF).

Planning for Questioning

When planning for questioning, design activities that nurture high-quality questions.

Topics to Questions. Help students transition from identification of a topic to developing questions. Use Leslie Preddy's Questioning (PDF 1) (PDF 2) (PDF 3) worksheet for ideas.

Stress Burning Questions. Discuss the idea of a "burning question". Use Leslie Preddy's Burning Questions (PDF) (PDF 2) (PDF 3) (PDF 4) (PDF 5) for ideas. Leslie Preddy's middle school students completed an inquiry on Native American Tribes. Explore their questions (PDF).

Model Questions. Work through the development of questions as a class. Model questions through the creation of questions in small groups or as a class. Combine reading materials with visuals, maps, and other catalysts. For instance, while reading a Single Shard, encourage students to learn about the history of Korea.

Evaluate Questions. Show examples of deep questions and discuss why some questions are more  useful than others in addressing serious topics. Talk about the difference between surface level and deep questions What is colony collapse disorder? Why are bees important and what would happen if they disappeared? Use the white board or bulletin board to display and categorize questions.

honey bee

Formulating Research Questions. Use the following questions and sheet to help form research questions:

Explore Leslie Preddy's Research Question Help (PDF) sheet for ideas.

Use graphic organizes such as I-Search Chart (worksheet) and Inquiry Charts (I-Charts) to guide inquiry.

Use ThinkTank from 4Teachers to brainstorm ideas for inquiry. It is a great online planning tool that guides students through developing topics and subtopics.

Facilitate Inquiry

As students explore topics and develop questions, ask them to begin formulating a plan for their inquiry. Provide students with questions to guide this planning.

Use guiding questions to facilitate the exploration stage:

horseModel the process of narrowing a topic. As a class, narrow a topic.

One approach is to focus on narrow questions related to a larger study. If we’re studying anatomy, I might ask questions about the anatomy of a horse. If we’re studying history, I might explore the role of horses in that time period. These activities allow students to explore a topic of interest while connecting it to class content. They also require high level thinking when students compare the bones of a horse with the bones in a human. Or, they think about the role horses played in transportation, war, or farming.

Ask students to share the problems that occur with a topic that is too broad. Provide an example and ask students to narrow the topic. For instance, start with the topic of American Civil War. Could you focus on one place, one person, one battle, the causes, the consequences, individual stories, or some other aspect? Talk about combining ideas such as comparing two battles or comparing someone from the north and south.

Use the Five Steps to Better Research tutorial on a white board to provide a nice overview of selecting and narrowing a topic.

Use Keywords: Learning to Focus Internet Research (lesson plan) to help students focus on key words.

Ask students to answer the following questions in their journal:

Use Leslie Preddy's Narrowing the Topic (PDF) sheet for ideas.

As students leave the questioning stage, they can begin preparing for the exploration phase of inquiry. Use Leslie Preddy's Exploration (PDF 1) (PDF 2) sheet for ideas.

In Info Tasks for Successful Learning, Koechlin and Zwann (2001) suggest evaluating the quality of student research questions by asking:
Focus - Does your question help to focus your research?
Interest - Are you excited about your question?
Knowledge - Will your question help you learn?
Processing - Will your question help you understand your topic better?

Although it would be wonderful for every inquiry to be based on personal interests, it’s not always possible. While the curriculum is fixed, there are always real-world connections. Inquiries provide students with the chance to explore these authentic questions.

The key is helping students develop questions to connect their life and interests with the subject area content.

Learn More



As you develop assignments related to inquiry, consider the information standards that can be addressed.

(Common Core Standards for Literacy Across the Curriculum Grades 6-8)

Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

(Standards for the 21st Century Learner)

Use prior and background knowledge as context for new learning.

Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding.

Display initiative and engagement by posing questions and investigating the answers beyond the collection of superficial facts.

Demonstrate adaptability by changing the inquiry focus, questions, resources, or strategies when necessary to achieve success.

Read widely and fluently to make connections with self, the world, and previous reading.

Demonstrate motivation by seeking information to answer personal questions and interests, trying a variety of formats and genres, and displaying a willingness to go beyond academic requirements.

(National Educational Technology Standards for Students)

Plan strategies to guide inquiry

Plan and manage activities to develop a solution or complete a project.

Apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes.

Identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation.

Websites to Explore

Explore the following online resources to learn more about questioning.


Kuhlthau, Carol (2004). Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services. 2nd Edition. Available through Libraries Unlimited.

Callison, Daniel (February 1997). Key term: questioning (PDF). School Library Media Activities Monthly, 13(6), 30-31.

Professional Development Activity

Think about how you will kick-off the inquiry process with your students.

sharePick ONE of the following three activities. Then, share your ideas on the group Graphic Inquiry Ning. Look for the assignment forum related to "QUESTIONING".

  1. Select a couple specific catalysts for inquiry. How will you use these to provide a context for inquiry?
  2. Explore infographics in your content area. How could they be used to stimulate discussion, jumpstart inquiry, or provide a new way to access content?
  3. Share a lesson idea or worksheet that will help scaffold student questioning. How will you promote deep questions?

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!

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