3 Tips to Drive Inquiry in the Classroom

Inquiry-based learning is much more than asking students to generate their own questions when investigating a certain topic. Certainly there is some of that involved, but it’s really about generating curiosity and equipping students with tools to wade through complex questions and concepts that catch their interests. It’s about giving students the power to investigate the world around them and encouraging them towards understanding the bigger picture. One of my favourite articles to get started with Inquiry-Based Learning in the classroom comes from Edutopia.

Inquiry-based learning is great for summative or larger PBL programs, however it’s also a tool to use in the moment when you are having a deep discussion with your students or even pushing their thinking deeper around a particular concept. I’ve been utilizing an inquiry model in my teaching for the past 4 years and I can’t imagine teaching with out some back-pocket tools when I need to drive inquiry on the fly:

  1. Utilizing mental models and stance: Introducing students to mental models or the concept of stance is probably one of my favourite things. Mental models and stance allow us to understand how we think and feel about a particular concept, topic, or even the world around us. Understanding that we each hold our own stance or mental models around a particular concept allows for open, and even deeper conversations with our students. Utilizing mental models and stance in your inquiry practices allows students to:
    • Understand how their investigations have change their thinking or understanding of a concept
    • See how their thinking or learning has developed
    • Openly discuss their personal views on a topic
    • Reflect their thinking and share it with other students to gain a larger understanding of a concept
  2. Causal Models and a Systems Thinking framework: Systems Thinking is a great framework to incorporate into your Inquiry Model! Systems Thinking is an approach to understanding an event or concept with the aim to look at it as a larger system with inputs and outputs. For example, investigating a concept like Climate Change and all of the various causes and outcomes as a whole, rather than parsing them out as individual entities. In the end, students understand the complexities involved in Climate Change and how one thing may effect another. But a Systems Thinking framework doesn’t work for students by simply explaining it to them. I absolutely love using causal models as a way for students to visualize a concept as a system. Causal models are pretty much what it sounds like, modelling cause and effect of a particular concept or mapping concepts that are connected together. It’s a lot like a mind map, but you integrate direction by using arrows and other symbols. I love Heidi Siwak’s education blog describing how she has used causal modelling with her grade 7 class. This is a more in depth example of causal modelling from Less Wrong. You can help your students create a large causal model as an entire class, students can create a causal model in small groups, or even have students create their own. I also LOVE The Systems Thinking Playbook for more ideas to get your students thinking about their thinking. Causal models and the Systems Thinking Framework:
    • Helps make students thinking explicit
    • Helps visualize complex concepts and thinking
    • Helps students draw connections between concepts
  3. Using the power of feedback: Feedback is an amazing thing and it can help push your students to dive deeper and point out gaps in their thinking – when it’s constructive! First and foremost, I ALWAYS remind my students of the rational behind feedback and that it is a tool used to make our thinking stronger and improve our ideas. I also use 3 questions as scaffolding and a way to keep it productive:
    • What would you add?
    • What do you have questions about?
    • What did you like?

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This article was written by Erin Carmody, an experienced educator, consultant, and Content Manager at STEM Village. Erin has been an educator for 8 years in the U.S. (Chaparral Elementary and Woodland Hills Private School) and Canada where Erin acted as an educational  consultant and program developer for ACTUA Canada and I-Think Initiative and Design Works at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Erin created and managed programs for many schools and organizations including Branksome Hall, Branksome Hall Asia, John Polanyi Collegiate Institute, University of Toronto Schools, The Leacock Foundation, TRFCA, Hackergal, STEM Village, and Ledbury Park Elementary.