Questions in inquiry learning

A welcome development this year in the Elementary School at KIST has been an emphasis on inquiry. It is more than likely due to feedback from our recent IB re-authorization visit and for me, an opportunity to grow in one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. I’ve blogged quite a bit about the theory and practices of inquiry learning, most recently in the post, CLMOOC Unmake: Unintroducing inquiry learning.

When it was announced that inquiry would be a focus, I sifted through articles I had read and collected over the years.

I also enjoyed gliding over memory lane and revisiting some saved tweets with choice perspectives on inquiry.

One article that grabbed my attention last autumn was Good research starts with good questions by David Farkas and Brad Nunnally. What I found most interesting was that many of the pitfalls of research questions are actually key techniques in developing questions for inquiry learning. For example, research should avoid ‘leading questions’ that may skew data in a particular direction. In teaching, we want the learners to find their ways to a common destination, either general or specific.

Erasing prior knowledge

In an occurrence I wish were more common, while reflecting on the experience, a colleague commented that one challenge inquiry teachers face is the desire of students to ‘get the right answers’, or even worse, to answer in the way they believe the teacher wants. This can lead to regurgitated prior knowledge answers rather than creative explorations of the concepts and contexts presented in the questions.

In Grant Wiggins’ article, 5 Tips To Help Students Arrive At Their Own Understandings, the distinction between Understanding and Knowledge is highlighted. It’s vital that learning in an inquiry setting begin with as close to a clean slate as possible. The more a class feels that their teacher is soliciting a ‘right’ answer, the less likely they are to develop deeper and personal understanding.

Student questions

One solution to the problem is to ask students to generate questions based on elements of the understandings we wish them to pursue. In an IB PYP unit of inquiry, the ‘lines of inquiry’ should help to define the scope of an intended inquiry, while the ‘key concepts’ provide a frame or lens through which to interpret one’s findings.

The photo above is a list of questions generated by a provocation in which students identified company logos, then considered them in reference to the line of inquiry, ‘How images, text, and music are used to influence people’s choices’.

Teacher questions

This year, we are collaborating with another grade level team to develop questions together to provoke inquiry into a new unit. The initial concept was to begin with carefully selected materials and a starting question intended to stimulate creativity and curiosity. Subsequent questions would climb the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder to higher-order thinking skills, as well as ‘funnel’ students’ understandings in the general direction prescribed by the Central Idea and Key Concepts of the unit.

Our first meeting was to develop questions for the other grade’s lesson. Then, we observed them and followed up with a debriefing session, and to develop questions for our lesson. They attended our lesson and we concluded the collaboration with a final debriefing about the entire experience.

The process reinforced my belief in the importance of collaboration and design thinking in Learning Experience Design.


What is technology?

On Monday morning, I embarked upon a unit of inquiry with my grade 5/6 class by using our usual ‘warm up’ routine to reflect on and discuss the slide below.


As students arrive in the morning, when possible, I project some sort of provocation, sometimes directly connected to our inquiries, sometimes specifically not, and sometimes just for fun (link to ‘warm up’ slides).

Many students sit down and begin writing or sketching immediately, while some prefer to converse before working independently. After a few minutes, we share and discuss our ideas.

This ‘technology’ provocation was effective and I was pleasantly surprised by students’ insights. Their responses included definitions with words like ‘tools’. ‘useful’, and ‘solve problems’. Some also alluded to negative as well as positive effects of technology. At the conclusion of our brief discussion, I introduced our central idea for the unit: Scientific understanding constantly evolves to build and destroy. (link to unit planner)

Before setting the students loose, we will conduct a modeled inquiry into 3D printing. The purpose will be to model a standard inquiry process as well as generate interest in various aspects of technology including scientific, social, artistic, and cultural. It was extremely effective last year and, especially based on my current class’ formative understandings, I’m confident that the next few weeks will be fun and enlightening.

Deeper Learning Student Work

Looking at student work

I’d like to share three pieces of student work, each of which shows unique applications of deeper learning.


The first is a Grade 2 ‘landforms’ project. The task was to build and paint an island with landforms. The example shows a few examples of deeper geographical understanding, especially that the river is carved into the land, rather than simply painted on, and that it flows from the hills to the ocean.
However, it would have been better to provide greater opportunities to practice with the clay and paint in a creative way. The student’s reflection, ‘I could to better’, is very revealing of the fact that this little project utilized too many different, new skills. I should have planned a stand-alone art unit using these tools before applying them in this Geography activity.

It’s a great example of how thoughtful planning should authentically scaffold deeper learning, so that when the real tasks of the inquiry present themselves, students have access to a broad range of skills and knowledge.

Additionally, it was connected to a service-learning project focused on access to clean, fresh water, so the students had opportunities to transfer this learning to authentic situations outside of the school.

Fruit and Seeds

Next, also in Grade 2, in an activity to investigate, observe, and compare the seeds of various fruit, a parent volunteer and I sliced twelve different fruits and arranged centers with each around the room. Students used a graphic organizer to explore, draw, compare and discuss.
Is it deeper learning? I can say for certain that the students enjoyed the activity. This example is from a student who generally struggled to complete work, yet he managed to excel in this case. Referring to the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of Deeper Learning, I believe that this is an artifact of deeper learning for a seven-year-old, primarily due to the social, investigative, and integrated arts nature of the activity.
Perhaps it would have been deeper if there were a connection to a significant global issue, had been extended through an exploratory field trip, or led to an urban garden project.

Flying cars?

This final example comes from Grade 6 and our current unit of inquiry into the evolution of scientific understanding and its effects on people’s lives.
After a modeled inquiry into 3D Printing, students were tasked with researching an emerging technology and publish a blog post about it.

This student’s post shows application of a range of research, thinking, and communication skills. In particular, the student demonstrates growing awareness for digital publishing techniques by way of the embedded videos and text organization.

Finally, it is public and invites the reader to participate in the inquiry, which I think is a hallmark feature of deeper learning.


Looking at student work, I think it’s important to notice that elements of deeper learning occur in almost every experience. The responsibility lies with, in the case of school, the teacher whose task is to design a learning environment that supports the various elements of deeper learning with balance and flexibility to be relevant to each individual learner.

Autumn Leaves in Japan

On Saturday, my wife, son, and I went to the park. After arriving and eating a snack, we began wandering and playing. While chasing my two-year-old, I noticed the rich variety of autumn leaves blanketing the ground. It dawned on me that it might be my last chance to make good on a promise to my friend, Kevin Hodgson, to remix his Learning Walk Photo Blitz: The Autumn Leaves here in Japan.

It was a simple matter of taking time to notice, or allow my attention to be captured by, particularly striking leaves as we charged around the park. I photographed each leaf twice, once in the autumn sunlight and once in my own shadow, taking care to let my iPhone camera focus as well as it can.
The most difficult part was assembling the collages using Pic Stitch. I easily get frustrated trying to work on that tiny screen, and there was no practical way to rearrange the photos between collages. At any rate, I made three and I hope I managed to capture the rich colors and seemingly unending variety I encountered.

My wife, a much more experienced photographer and designer, also undertook a similar project that day as we took turns chasing our son. She shared in her post, Nature collage. During one of my turns with our son, we enjoyed triumphantly impaling some invading trees.

It was a deeply enjoyable day that I will certainly never forget, and reminder to me that learning, playing, making, creating, socializing, and any other growth activity, are not only interconnected, but are often one-in-the-same.

Independent Inquiry: Nature Photography

This was a perfect example of how an apparently simple goal, “take nature photos”, can become a deep inquiry. The artist discovered that time of day and perspective were critical to her project, so was forced to rearrange her daily schedule to go out shooting at the ideal times.

As an added bonus, the photo was emailed to me in the evening! A perfect way to make a teacher’s day.