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  • Jill Sims

Initiating Inquiry in the Classroom

I have been on a fifteen-year journey with fellow educators to explore and share the what, why, and how when it comes to initiating inquiry in the classroom and school cultures. As I encounter new colleagues that want to either learn more about this topic or refine ways to help others understand the importance and logistics of inquiry-based experiences, I thought a quick presentation of ideas to use and expand upon might be useful.

The What?

Merriam-Webster defines “inquiry” as 1- a request for information; 2- a systematic investigation; 3- examination into facts or principles. These synonyms are provided as well: delving, exploration, inquisition, investigation, probe, research, and study. These words serve as clues to how to unlock the ways that we can engage students into the inquiry process, but for now, using our WHAT findings, are questions are:

  • What can we do to get learners to request to know about information that we want them to?

  • · What might we do to structure systematic investigations?

  • · What can we do to lead students to examinations into facts or principles?

The Why?

Now that we looked at what inquiry is, one might wonder, so what? Why would we want to use an inquiry approach in our classrooms? The results of inquiry are student-centered, self-directed learning, as well as learners that are critical thinkers, reflective, and inquirers. Inquiry cultures breed inquisitive learners.

Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “inquisitive” are: 1- given to examination or investigation, and 2- inclined to ask questions.

If we want our students to be motivated, lifelong learners as so many of our school mission statements express, we would need our students to be disposed towards examination, investigation, and asking questions. We would want them to be intellectually curious beings.

Additionally, researchers at the University of California Davis Center for Neuroscience (1) discovered two important findings, 1- Curiosity helps learning and memory, and 2- Curiosity makes learning more enjoyable. We all know that drive to know something feeling when we are curious about topic X, and the satisfying feeling when we discover the answers to our inquiries.

The How?

With our “What?” and our “So what?” figured out, let’s think about how can we create a culture of inquiry in our classrooms?

We can use a three-pronged approach that entails serving as role models of curious thinking, designing opportunities for formulating questions, and providing guidance as learners share their thinking. These steps would look like this:

  1. Model: Provide a big idea provocation at the beginning of a learning experience, unit, or situation under consideration that is significant enough to provoke learners to adopt an interest.

  2. Design: Create learning experiences that provide opportunities for learners to make and share their questions that evolve from our provocation. The gold ring of the Verb Wheel below can spark ideas for processes that can be used when designing the learning.

  3. Guide: Facilitate learner reflection for connections to self, previous learning, and the world.

Following are some final thoughts on initiating inquiry with our learners.

Creating the Provocation

To create the provocation, we can use pictures, videos, a field trip, scenarios, expert speaker, propaganda, articles, literary excerpts, charts, data, demonstration, role play, etc.

Integrating Student Questions

We can document learner questions in a shared space, such as a Wonder Wall, as well as learner’s individual reference spaces like a journal. Also, we can encourage and show value to learners asking questions, wondering, and hypothesizing.

Facilitating Student Connections

Learners can be guided to reflect and connect by being asked to choose to create products such as graphs, sculptures, diagrams, recordings, events, magazine articles, poems, cartoons, or plays, to further process their thinking on the topic under examination.

Facilitating Student Connections

Learners can be guided to reflect and connect by being asked to choose from student products like the ones in the green ring below, to further process their thinking on the topic under examination.

Designed by Ken Halla and Daniel Moirao, CalState Technology Enhancement Project


(1) Cell Press. (2014, October 2). How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 10, 2020 from

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