How to Set the Stage for Inquiry-Based Learning


This article is based off last week’s webinar “Driving Inquiry-Based Learning” with Educational Consultant Kristine Scharaldi. You can find the recording here.

Hands raised in classroom


As we move towards student-focused and process-based approaches to teaching, we give our students ownership of their own learning. During our efforts to shift our focus from teaching to learning, it’s important to think about how we’re designing opportunities for students to develop skills and achieve specific goals. Consider this quote from Albert Einstein:

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

What are the “conditions” that will foster learning in our classrooms? While teachers don’t have control over all the conditions that will impact students, they do have tremendous influence over things like the use of classroom space, allotted time for each activity, and the materials they use. Less obvious, but extremely important to the quality of the learning environment, is the way in which the teacher and students relate to one another.

There should be one critical goal behind figuring out how all these factors come together in your classroom: stimulating curiosity in your students.

Curiosity can be characterized as a heightened state of interest and eagerness to learn that results in excitement and exploration. Studies show that curiosity is essential to learning, and that people learn more and better when they are curious (Susan Engel). Marilyn P. Arnone, a researcher in the field, offers strategies to foster curiosity through instructional design. Her suggestions include tips on creating an atmosphere for questions, and using “hooks” to trigger curiosity in class.

Promote a spirit of inquiry in the classroom where every student can follow their curiosities:

According to Arnone, it’s important to start by making sure everyone feels comfortable asking questions in class. The next consideration should be that each question is acknowledged. Not every student is eager to raise his or her hand in the classroom. Children who are more reserved, or need more time to ponder, benefit from alternative ways to communicate what they are thinking.

I can remember an example of this type of situation from my own childhood. I was in third grade during a whole-class lesson about the respiratory system, and, at the end, the teacher asked if anyone had any questions. I remember that I wanted to know what causes hiccups. But by the time I had formed this thought, there was no more time for questions, and I was not able to ask the teacher. How funny that this missed opportunity stuck with me all these years.

As I think back now, as an adult educator, what if the teacher had allotted time at the end of the period for every student to write on a piece of paper something interesting that was learned in class, and something they were still curious about? If this happened today, it would be referred to as an exit ticket, which is now considered an excellent assessment tool.

Today, the teacher could have a Google Form for each student to fill out, or a digital space online, such as on Padlet or Google Classroom, to post to. Technology also offers a vehicle for student discovery when students have the chance to research questions on their own. (An explanation of what causes hiccups can be found in the topic “Breathing” in Kids Discover Online, which my younger self would have appreciated!)

Student-driven, inquiry-based learning takes place in a classroom environment where students are encouraged to not only develop their own questions, but also be able to lead their own investigations.

Build anticipation for what’s to come:

Part of the joy of being an educator is stimulating an excitement for learning in young people. When students look forward to activities in the classroom, and find pleasure in learning experiences, our work is supremely rewarding! Many teachers incorporate “hooks,” such as compelling video clips, thought-provoking statements, and other surprising and novel ways to captivate their students.

Dr. Judy Willis, an expert in neuroscience and education, suggests a brain-based activity called “Big Picture Previews” to help prime motivation when starting a new unit. In her book Learning to Love Math she shares an example from a lesson on negative numbers. She recommends bringing in related objects to display, such as a thermometer, a picture of a scuba diver, a checking account register, a photo of a submarine, and stock market quotes. Students start to think about what they have in common and may come up with the idea that they are related to things that go lower than one. During the course of the unit students can add their own items to the table, connecting their own interests to the topic being studied. A child interested in airplanes might bring in a model airplane, relating to high and low altitudes. Another child who likes golf might bring in a scorecard showing numbers under par. Inviting students to contribute allows them to realize that what they are learning is applicable to the real world, and also gives them a chance to express their hobbies, talents, and passions with others in the class.

Teachers can also use technology to pique student curiosity about an upcoming study or project. One example is to use a movie-making application such as iMovie to create a preview of something that will be “coming soon” to class. There is a built in “movie trailer” template in iMovie that guides users through the production process. The movie can be showed in class or sent out to the students as a multimedia message. With older students, educators can use the Remind app to schedule and send text messages to the students. Teachers can send intriguing clues, fascinating facts, and links to webpages and videos that help to build interest in upcoming class activities.

How do you arouse your students’ curiosities and provide opportunities for them to question, explore, discover and create their own pathways for learning? Tweet your responses to @kscharaldi and @KIDS_DISCOVER!