Written by Eliza Stine, Primary School Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator at Riverside International School in Prague

We have all come to that place as educators where you hear about a philosophy or technique and you love it – your mind immediately springs to the possibilities it shows, and it truly lines up with what you believe about learning. You know that it is going to be beneficial for your class, but you also know that fitting it into the day-in and day-out working of your classroom is daunting. You can’t envision how you will find the time for the new technique. You can’t see how it works within your curriculum, within your structure.

Brave New Initiative – Inquiry-Based Learning

That is how I felt when my administrator started talking about teaching inquiry skills in the classroom. My heart leapt at the thought of students asking questions that they cared about, at the idea of students finding answers and cooperatively making meaning for themselves. It was everything that I believed in as an educator. I knew that it was what would be best for my kids.

On the other hand, I took a deep breath as I realized I had no idea how I could really make it work in my classroom and much less in how we could make it happen across the school. Our school follows the National Curriculum for England, which, as an American, I am still slightly intimidated by, even after working with it and its changes for over ten years. As any foreigner working in a different system, I hesitate to “mess” with its requirements. How could I follow this curriculum with its knowledge-acquisition based philosophy and still help lead the way in promoting inquiry-based learning in our school?

The answer, it turns out, was that it would take a lot of trial and error.

The Foundation for a School-Wide Student Inquiry Initiative

We started by thinking about what skills needed to be developed in our students. If we were going to focus on developing inquiry skills, which skills did we believe students needed to develop? Were inquiry skills important enough to prioritize over students developing content knowledge? Which skills and what knowledge did teachers further up in the school believe that students needed to develop to prepare them for the next stages of learning?

Then we talked about the timetable. How much time would student inquiry take? As in any school, no teacher felt that time could be taken from other subjects to give to something new. Was there a way to better use time for subjects by focusing on student inquiry skills without increasing the amount of time given to them on the schedule?

We learned from other educators. We had teachers visit who introduced us to Sugata Mitra’s use of SOLE sessions and while teachers of Upper Primary classes enjoyed using SOLE sessions, it left teachers of younger children without a technique. I went to a workshop by Kath Murdoch and came back with more ideas for planning inquiry-based learning with younger children.

We experimented, we shared, and we commiserated. We decided on a few basic inquiry-based learning strategies for how student inquiry would work in our school.Receive educator-written articles like this in your inbox, and learn and grow with your colleagues globally.

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Seven Inquiry-Based Learning Strategies

1. Inquiries happen within curricular topics and in investigations that support curricular aims.

We didn’t want to leave our curriculum behind and allow students to only follow their interests for inquiry, so we decided to give students and teachers freedom to follow their questions within the confines of the mandated curriculum’s structure. We wanted to develop content-guided inquiry. For example, if the curriculum dictates that students should learn about changes from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, we engage them in this content before they gather questions for investigations. That way, students ask questions that parallel the curriculum.

2. Everyone participates.

Because inquiry-based learning was new and intimidating for some teachers, we decided to make teaching inquiry skills mandatory and provided lots of support to help teachers facilitate student inquiry. We made it a focal point of our peer coaching, we shared best-practice in staff meetings, and we added the use of inquiry to our teacher evaluation criteria.

3. We use common vocabulary to articulate the steps of the inquiry cycle but give teachers freedom to apply the cycle fluidly. 

We realized that some inquiry cycles happen in ten minutes at the start of a lesson and some student inquiry cycles take more than a week. We encouraged this diversity as long as teachers were using the same vocabulary and building the same inquiry skills.

4. We focus on the inquiry skills that students need to perform research but also expanded what counted as an information source.

We continue to teach mini-lessons about note-taking, evaluating websites for trustworthiness, and skimming and scanning material. We have also intentionally taught teachers to encourage students to turn to non-text sources for information too.

  • Did Bobby go on a holiday to Egypt? He can be a source for information about the pyramids.
  • Did the school nurse get trained in healthy eating? Let’s ask her about what nutrients our bones need to be strong.
  • Have students noticed shadows on the playground? We can use our own measurements and data collection to answer questions about how the sun moves across the sky.

5. We add planned inquiry cycles in our written planning but encourage teachers to adapt them.

In our planning, an inquiry cycle includes a good question and list of resources. The cycles are available via our curriculum developed in Atlas, which is given to teachers each year.

  • For example, we realized that every year some students would want to investigate Roman battle formations. Writing plans for a good student inquiry session – included useful, kid-friendly websites, books, and other sources – allowed students to take the lead on a successful investigation while streamlining the preparation process for the teacher.
  • We also realized that, some years, no one would have questions about how the Ancient Greeks influenced modern culture. However, this is part of the curriculum, so in lieu of a student-led investigation, teachers could pose the topic for research and students would fulfill the curriculum knowledge requirements through an investigation without worksheets, lectures, or slideshows.
  • And then, of course, every year a few new questions arise, which lead to investigations that don’t have planned resources. This sort of inquiry cycle allows students to work together to decide where they can find the answers to their questions, and the teacher works as part of the team of learners, finding resources, making discoveries, and creating knowledge alongside the class.

The combination of these different methods for prompting student inquiry allows a teacher to cover the knowledge-acquisition side of the curriculum while still giving students freedom to wonder about the world, ask questions, find information, and develop research and inquiry skills.

6. We promote cross-curricular integration.

We found that blending topics across curricular subjects enriches students’ learning and gives teachers more time to dedicate to inquiry-based learning. For example, a teacher may use a student question as a springboard for research.  Then students can use the results of their inquiry to inform a written report or presentation.  This allows students to use a topic that they are newly “experts” in to inspire their writing while not taking time from a Literacy block to develop ideas for writing.

7. We are learners ourselves.

We encourage teachers to go into an investigation not knowing the answer and allow themselves to be part of the wonder and joy of inquiry-based learning. We want teachers to be generally knowledgeable about a topic but not to feel like they are to act as the expert. As students take on the mantle of asking questions and making their own knowledge, student inquiry is simultaneously strengthened by having a teacher who is also curious and interested in finding something new.

Contributing Author:

Eliza Stine is a Primary School Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator at Riverside International School in Prague. There, she has taught everything from Year 1-6 (K-5). She has worked in international schools for 14 years in Bangkok and Prague and continues to love working with curriculum to help meet the needs of students coming from around the world.

She received her BA and MA from Colorado College where she first fell in love with the idea of students learning through inquiry. She loves that teaching primary school children gives her the opportunity to see students develop new ideas and for her to see the world a little bit differently every day as well.

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