4 Ways to Bring Inquiry to Your Classroom

One thing that grabbed my attention over and over again this past school year was the skill of asking questions.  Essentially, that skill was still in its infancy in my own classrooms.  Although I encouraged the process, I did not enter the year knowing how to teach or assess it.  It therefore remained a mystery to my students, and as a result, my thinking continued to seep into their learning.  My questions steered the projects.  My suggestions steered the resources and (most of) the texts we read.  Attempts to solicit questions from them often saw responses of “idk” or “nothing.”  Also, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the awkward pauses that frequently arose during Socratic Seminars after the inner circle had “finished” answering one of my entry questions, looking to me for the next statement rather than generating their own.

After I then received an evaluation that recommended I look further into inquiry, I felt my resolve solidify.  I realized that I needed to target inquiry-based learning as my number one goal for the coming year.

The resulting investigation this summer has so far focused on two resources:  Trevor Mackenzie‘s Dive Into Inquiry (buy it on Amazon here), and Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana‘s Make Just One Change:  Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (buy it on Amazon here).  I cannot recommend these highly enough.  They offer AMAZING entrypoints into inquiry for novices, and they provide more experienced practitioners alternate perspectives and design ideas for inquiry.

In this post, I am going to be reflecting on four approaches to inquiry in the classroom.  The first two are more purist readings of the books’ approaches, discussed separately.  Then proceeds my thoughts and questions after reading the two, followed by two thought experiments on how a classroom teacher might marry Mackenzie with Rothstein and Santana.  These ideas are not finished; they are the residue as I think through inquiry and the two books.

Here we go:

# 1:  Mackenzie’s Model (Dive Into Inquiry)

In his Dive Into Inquiry, Mackenzie offers a bird’s eye view of inquiry.  Following his approach, a teacher would enter the year by co-designing the class with his/her students.  She would ask them to create drafts of the class syllabus and to define an ideal vision for her role as a teacher.  (Rest assured, as Mackenzie encourages, she would still bring a “must-know” list of the skills, standards, content, etc. that her students must address.  The content and means of exploring those, however, would come from the kids themselves.)

After an introduction to inquiry with a definition, an example, and a chance to discuss it, her students would embark on a journey that is carefully scaffolded and organized by backwards designPer Mackenzie’s insightful and wildly popular graphic below, students progress through units that give them increasingly greater control over their learning due to tweaks to several design variables (e.g., essential questions (EQs)).  Along the way, students study skills in preparation for the holy grail of Mackenzie’s model:  Free Inquiry. (Mackenzie’s book truly shines in its description of this last “type” for the multiple chapters devoted to it AND for the nitty-gritty details on implementation.  For more on Mackenzie’s model, read the book and visit his site.  Give it a try.)


Types of Student Inquiry

Trevor Mackenzie’s “Types of Student Inquiry.”


# 2:  Rothstein and Santana’s Model (Make Just One Change)

In their Make Just One Change, by contrast, Rothstein and Santana offer a close look at the how-to of teaching students to ask questions.  Each chapter of their book teases out – and provides examples of real teachers using – one of the steps of their Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  This powerful (but simple!) approach (outlined in the graphic below) taps into divergent thinking, convergent thinking, and metacognition.  In its initial emphasis on quantity of ideas (without judgment!), it leverages the excitement of ideation / brainstorming sessions employed in some professional development conferences for teachers.

Even better? The authors provide a comprehensive list of different uses of the QFT.  With examples for the beginning, middle, and end of a unit or class, they encourage teachers to try it out for do-now activities, formative assessments, prep. for Socratic Seminars (yay!), test-prep, exit-slip exercises, and more.  They also discuss their The Right Question Institute, an organization dedicated to helping schools and teachers guide their students to ask questions. (I became a member, and the resources available for educators are AWESOME! They can help streamline the process of introducing, facilitating, and reflecting upon the QFT.  Check it out for yourself, and give the model a try after you read the book.)

QFT Classroom Template (PRINT!)_000001

The Right Question Institute’s “QFT Card: Key Steps of the Process,” shared via Creative Commons Sharealike.  Source:  rightquestion.org.

Questions that Remain:

After I finished both books, I felt pumped.  I was excited because they gave me two separate but essential perspectives on inquiry.  Mackenzie’s book provided a big picture of the practice and tons of helpful details on Free Inquiry.  Rothstein and Santana’s provided the nitty-gritty of teaching question-asking in-class.

I was also energized by the questions that remained for me after completing both texts:  How can an educator deepen the process? How can she use inquiry not only to set up Mackenzie’s scaffolded units but also to sustain and conclude them? Finally, how might she regularly embed the QFT in a course?

One source that really jumpstarted my thinking on these questions was an example in Make Just One Change concerning Jimmy Frickey of the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Colorado.  He developed a unique approach to QFT:

Frickey started them [the students] off by giving them a relatively simple problem to solve ….  After they took some time to work on it, he asked for a volunteer to present a solution and explain why it was correct.  There was nothing out of the ordinary up to this point.  But then Frickey challenged them to take the answer they had just come up with and generate new questions about it.  The answer to the previous question had now become a Question Focus. (108)

This example inspired me.  It was a loop that celebrated student thinking, where answers generated additional questions for students to explore.   I do not remember for how long Frickey used the approach, but I felt struck by the potential.

What if you gave this loop greater power? Could you leverage Mackenzie’s and Rothstein/Santana’s models of inquiry to make this loop the structure of an entire unit? An entire course?


# 3:  Hybrid Model – The Deep Dive (Unit)

Process:  An instructor proposes an EQ (a la Mackenzie) at the beginning of one of the scaffolded units.  Once she has also introduced the parameters for the resources and performance task, students riff off of the EQ with a round of QFT and walk away with their own questions.

So What?:  On one hand, this model conforms to one of the examples provided in Make Just One Change:  “Students use questions to identify specific topics for research papers, essays, experiments, and projects.”  On the other hand, however, it also leverages the collective strengths of both models.  Spurred by Rothstein and Santana’s QFT, the inquiry proceeds according to the parameters of the specific Mackenzie-inspired inquiry “type”:  Structured, Controlled, Guided, or Free.  Students therefore perform Mackenzie’s scaffolded journey and realize greater autonomy across a course.  However, they simultaneously do the mental heavy-lifting by immediately designing their own questions in response to an EQ.  The two inquiry competencies thereby work together, allowing students to generate progressively more complex questions and thinking.

Bonus: one design principle that has plagued me thus far as a PBL practitioner is project design.  I have not yet reached a point where I am capable of guiding students to remain flexible.  This past year, after considering a Driving Question (DQ), my students at times got locked into one particular problem-solving path; as a result, they sometimes designed fairly straightforward processes that would have benefited from more risk-taking and creativity.  An inquiry practitioner might benevolently complicate matters by encouraging her students to wring out a DQ further with additional rounds of QFT.  As a result of generating and considering more sub-questions, students might reconsider their original plans and refine the impact of their performance tasks.  They would then leave the unit with more expansive schema around a given topic, skill, etc. (They would also become proficient at QFT that much more quickly as a result of the additional practice!)

(Before moving on to the next model, it is worth noting that Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy discuss inquiry-based learning in their Hacking Project-Based Learning (buy it on Amazon here).  I have not read this book yet, but please chime in if you have insights on how the text tackles inquiry or the intersection between inquiry and PBL.  In addition, Cooper addresses the topic head-on in his blog post, “Project-Based Learning: Two Painless Entry Points for #HackingPBL.”)

# 4:  Hybrid Model – The Inquiry-Based Class (Course)

This one really excites me.

Process:  An instructor follows Mackenzie’s design principles by co-building the syllabus with her students. (Remember, that document contains not only her “must-know’s” but also her students’ “must-do’s,” or all the elements students feel are important and worth tackling.)  The teacher therefore enters the year with some topics for the class suggested by her learners.

However, rather than use those to design the EQ for a unit (or, I might say, for all units), she elicits the help of her students.  Her students learn of the “must-do” selected (or better yet, select the “must-do” themselves).  They then transform it into a Question Focus using a round of QFT, which here might either follow the creation of the syllabus or immediately anticipate the unit.  The instructor then treats that statement as an EQ.  Or, she guides her learners through an additional round of revision during which they study the elements of an EQ and refine their statement accordingly.  They then proceed into the unit, answer their questions (and maybe utilize “The Deep Dive”), and repeat for the next unit.

So What?:  For starters, such a process gives students a chance to revise/update the syllabus (for which Mackenzie advocates in his book).  However, it does more than that.  It potentially stresses democratic principles if students collaboratively select the topic of interest.  It also gives them a chance to better understand course design by seeing them construct and enact the bridge between syllabus and learning experiences.  This opportunity is of big consequence to learners who might never have had the chance to ask questions (let alone have a stake in a year’s worth of learning).

Finally, this inquiry process would not merely introduce a course to student-centered and student-driven practices.  It would saturate it with them.  The learners would be the ones who make not some but most of the decisions concerning their learning (with the “must-know” list still serving as anchor for necessary skills and standards).


Well:  Of course, there are potential pitfalls in this approach:

  • Planning, for starters, may be a concern for teachers if they are responding to – rather than anticipating – most of their students’ learning experiences,
  • Timing, too, could be tricky if students do not at first agree on the Question Focus / topic (I’ve been there myself),
  • My proposal almost certainly has design flaws (and I would LOVE to hear them!),
  • Students new to inquiry may not have the skills or confidence to do so much heavy-lifting with inquiry at the beginning of a course, and/or
  • It may not be worthwhile for a teacher new to inquiry to jump in this far at the outset.  She might wish to experiment with Mackenzie’s and Rothstein/Santana’s models separately before gradually bringing them together.

No matter your preference or entry point, try inquiry.

Read Dive into Inquiry and Make Just One Change.

Experiment with the models separately.

See if you can wed them in ways that make sense to you and boost student achievement even further.

Use other approaches to inquiry not discussed in this post.

As you do all that, write about your experiences, thoughts, stories, and criticism on your own blog, on Twitter, and here.  As I said, I have much to learn about inquiry.  I hope to hear from you so we can make sense of all of it together.


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