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6 Structures and Supports for the Inquiry Based Classroom

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Human beings are born to question. We are born to ask why. Inquiry begins with acquiring data and information through interactions with our environment. Stimuli provide us with information, and we ask questions to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, traditional educational offerings often work in ways that discourage inquiry and limit students’ innate curiosities. This stifling of a student’s need to know has served to shift the focus of today’s educational system from inquiry to assessment. The shift has manifested in classrooms filled with students less likely to ask questions and more likely to be told what to learn and what questions to answer. Memorizing facts to help answer questions is an important skill for students to master. Inquiry, however, is a skill that will lead students toward being prepared to enter a workforce that is placing increasing emphasis on creativity and problem-solving.

Inquiry implies a need to know. Further, it highlights a desire to find out, to determine, and to continue exploring a topic to arrive at a resolution that sufficiently quenches the student’s thirst for understanding.  Effective inquiry relies on the effective implementation of instructional practices weighted heavily in favor of student exploration. Structures that support student engagement, collaboration, open-ended questions, and teacher facilitation are just some of the tenets of inquiry-based learning.

Fostering Civic Responsibility

The C3 Framework was developed to provide states with voluntary suggestions to update and enhance social studies curriculum. Aligned with the Common Core through similar language and student outcomes, the focus of the C3 Framework is squarely on inquiry as the catalyst for deep student learning.  Using the Framework as a guide, teachers of social studies can begin the conversation with colleagues and administrators about how to ensure that the content facilitated by the teacher is rigorous and fosters civic engagement.  At no other time in America’s history has the importance of structuring social studies classes to not only provide historical perspectives on

At no other time in America’s history has it been more important to structure social studies classes not only to provide historical perspectives on events, but to also foster the development of a student’s deep understanding of civic responsibility.

Today’s social studies educators continue to strive to balance the demands of teaching the curriculum with a desire to move beyond it.  Teachers focused on the process of learning, rather than simply what is learned, serve to foster an inquiry-based learning environment in their classrooms. If the goal of an inquiry learning environment is clear, the steps for successfully implementing this type of instruction can be challenging. In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow

In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow inquiry to move students to what is possible?

1. Engage in Inquiry-Based Professional Development

Learning to think deeply, critically, and creatively requires that educators themselves receive the type of professional learning that facilitates inquiry-based learning for students. Teachers need to model, through their thinking, actions, and comments, what it means to read critically, think deliberately, and respond in an informed way. Deeper learning is the byproduct of intentional planning and deeper teaching. Inquiry-based learning demands hands-on learning experiences for those teachers whose responsibility it is to facilitate deep learning for students. When embarking down the inquiry path, consider professional learning options that offer the opportunity to learn how to support students in creating complex and incisive questions. Those types of questions serve as the backbone of inquiry-based learning and are essential to the success of an inquiry-based learning classroom.

2. Create a Community of Inquiry

To create a community that values opinions and thoughts of others, it’s imperative that teachers create structures that encourage students to share their opinions even if different from those of their classmates. Asking questions, developing opinions, and researching topics of interest must be standard practices in a community of inquiry. Discourse must be accepted and encouraged. Collaboration among students is at the focal point of an inquiry-based classroom. But to get to the point where students are comfortable sharing their ideas, it’s imperative that the teacher formulate rules, norms, and expectations for how students will interact with the content and with one another.

Class meetings where students have opportunities to discuss issues pertinent to the class or share a connection they have to a particular topic allow students to appreciate the uniqueness of their classmates while teaching them the importance of actively listening to one another. Establishing how the class will run and the important part each student will play in the success of the class will provide students with a model upon which to build their community.

3. Inquiry is not a ‘Special Activity’

Students need to fully understand that deep learning isn’t something that takes place in one classroom session. To learn about something deeply and to ask the questions needed to get students to that level takes time. Inquiry is not reserved for special times during the school year, nor is it an activity to be done once and then never revisited. In classrooms where inquiry thrives, students rely on the structures they’ve been taught as the framework to guide reflection and action. As Edutopia writer Andrew Miller states in his post Creating a Culture of Inquiry, it’s not enough for the teacher “to simply state that their classroom is inquiry based, and doing an occasional inquiry-based activity is not enough.” Every day needs to be focused on providing students with the type of learning that fosters their innate curiosity for inquiry to succeed.

Middle school classrooms provide excellent settings for the introduction of inquiry as a tool to foster deep learning. Teachers who challenge students to develop their own questions centered around their desire to learn more about a topic help to create classrooms where inquiry thrives. Opportunities to teach with inquiry in mind occur throughout the recommended social studies curriculum in middle school. When considering a debate that will focus on the concepts of right versus wrong, for example, students can be provided with a setting for debate, mock trials, and role playing. These interwoven and connected learning opportunities become the norm, rather than the exception, in a classroom focused on inquiry.

4. Deep Learning Requires Connections and Relevance

Making learning relevant to today’s students requires that teachers help their students find connections to documents and historical events. Reviewing the Declaration of Independence, for example, and reimagining how the document would be different if it had been written by women or people of color, allows students to think deeply about the issues taking place during that time period from the perspectives of those not reflected in the document.

Students think outside the box in order to make personal and lasting connections with historical documents and time periods. In this way, learning becomes meaningful, powerful, and relevant.

5. Reflection on Practices

Even the most seasoned educator can struggle with the concept of facilitating, rather than directing, student learning. It’s important to set goals and outcomes regarding what you hope to achieve as a teacher in an inquiry-based classroom. The Inquiry Arc, found in the C3 Framework, helps students “develop a capacity for gathering and evaluating sources and then using evidence in disciplinary ways.” The Arc provides the structure for teaching and learning within a social studies classroom. It’s a set of actions that form the basis for what students should experience in an inquiry-based social studies classroom.

If, for example, the teacher’s goal for his or her students is that they understand the importance of reviewing more than one document to answer a question, the Arc would recommend that the teacher ensure that documents available to students allow them to effectively compare, evaluate, and find evidence to support their research. Reflecting on their own understanding of a document, it’s relevance in history, and the perspective these documents will provide to students are key actions of the teacher whose practices support, rather than direct, student learning.

6. It’s Not Just About the Question

Effective inquiry-based learning moves beyond just a well-thought-out question. It requires the teacher to consider the purpose of the questions posed and how student responses will help to facilitate student discussions. Inquiry-based learning demands that the teacher pose questions to students, elicit questions from them, and allow their responses to questions to be heard. In addition, the questions posed by students help to drive the content learned and the rigor with which it is understood by students. Inquiry encompasses the actions, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of the learners in the classroom.

For this type of learning to succeed, students have to make the connection that their civic responsibility is inherently tied to their deep understanding of history and historical events.  Being well informed about the way our past has served to shape our future is essential for students to develop an appreciation for civic responsibility and participate actively in society. Simply asking questions of students in the hopes that an interest is sparked is not enough to reach a deep level of learning. Complex questions that help students create learning for themselves must be at the forefront in the inquiry-based classroom.

Establish a Culture of Inquiry

Students who ask questions, think critically and learn deeply become informed and responsible citizens who do the same. But without the creation of an emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe learning environment by the teacher, this type of learning cannot thrive.

Careful consideration should be given for the learning that must be undertaken by the teacher in order to effectively facilitate an inquiry-based classroom. To do so allows both students and teachers to learn not only in a deeper way but in a more meaningful way; a way in which both are prepared to meet the demands of an ever-changing civic landscape.