Modeling Inquiry

In general, I like to classify classroom inquiry activities into three general categories: Independent, Guided, and Modeled.

Independent Inquiry

I have blogged fairly extensively about Independent Inquiry and created a wiki dedicated to supporting interest-driven learning in the classroom. Independent inquiry should be totally independent, in my opinion, not limited to ‘schoolwork’ or ‘homework’, due date free, and without any regulation by authority figures beyond common sense and safety.

Guided Inquiry

Guided Inquiry is what is mostly practiced in schools and provides the richest opportunities to balance autonomy with predetermined curriculum. Differentiation is inherent as learners require varying levels of guidance in various situations. The guided inquiry environment is fluid, productive, and engaging.

Finally, Modeled Inquiry most resembles classical, Socratic education. The teacher has a clear sense of the goal and direction of the learning, and crafts small tasks, like dialogs, in which students participate in order to emphasize learning of the inquiry process.

In my class’ current unit of inquiry, I planned a modeled inquiry into ‘the role of technology in scientific understanding’ and its effects on people’s lives. Feel free to visit the planning document which contains links to the resources we utilized along the way.

Tuning in

Following a standard cycle, I began the inquiry by thinking aloud about ‘science’, ‘technology’, and ‘people’s lives’. I modeled the types of questions that I would typically use to provoke inquiry, and then let myself be provoked. Playing both Socrates and Plato felt strange, but it proved to be an efficient way to make inquiry thinking visible.
My contrived wondering led to a current technology topic: 3D printing. I started my research with a simple Google Search which led to an uncountable number of websites, videos, images, etc. We explore freely, although there were a few resources which I had planned to use in order to drive the inquiry efficiently.

We also watched several informative videos, including Leaders Of The 3D Printing Revolution, which proved to be very stimulating for discussion and led authentically to the primary provocation for the unit:

Will 3D printing change the world?’

After some time to explore independently, the students wrote reflective blog posts to summarize their impressions and identify areas of particular interest to them.

Finding out

Exploring 3D printing led to many areas of interest including fashion accessory design and printed food. However, I wanted to emphasize the importance of gaining background knowledge to inform inquiry. By researching the history of printing, I discovered a wonderful video perfectly suited to this unit, Print Transforming Knowledge.
I also introduced Shapeways, a marketplace for 3D printed products to learn about how people are already using 3D printing to create innovative designs, products, inventions, and works of art.

Sorting Out

Next, it was time to report back about our understandings and especially to draw connections between what we had explored and our curiosities. In my case, I was particularly interested in using 3D printers for medical purposes. In keeping with the intent of this inquiry, I spoke much more than I normally would and felt very awkward doing so. However, using my style of reporting as a model, students communicated more eloquently than they had in previous similar activities, so I sensed that my efforts were successful.

Going Further

To model getting deeper into the inquiry, I introduced Tinkercad, a 3D design application and planned a field trip to a local 3D printing studio, CUBE. I’m excited to see if any students take action to create a design and submit it to be printed!


This experience has taught me that modeled inquiry should be a part of every unit. In this case, we spent about one hour per day for a week, which is significantly more than I had ever dedicated to modeled inquiry before, preferring to guide students when needed but designing units to emphasize independence.

In the future, I think it will be best utilized in the form of mini-lessons embedded in a unit, or even as stand-alone research skills lessons to support more independent inquiry.

Seeing the value of carefully modeling targeted inquiry skills proved to me that, while children are natural inquirers, they benefit greatly from exposure to a variety of strategies and resources. I am excited to see how they apply and transfer what they have learned in future inquiries!


Independent Inquiry: Origami

A group of students in my class is exploring the Origami Club website to learn to fold new and more complex creations. The site includes hundreds, if not thousands of designs with blueprint and animated instructions.

Connected Learning like this is very inspiring. They are utilizing the Internet to pursue their inquiry, using mathematical vocabulary in authentic contexts, cooperating by taking turns choosing which design to follow, helping each other, and enjoying themselves.

I’m interested to see if any of them take the inquiry further, perhaps by earning a DIY Papercrafter Patch or participating in an online community like The Origami Forum. As their teacher, it’s important to make sure that they have access to those opportunities, so I added links to the Independent Inquiry page on our class wiki.

The Evolution of Independent Inquiry

When I introduced Independent Inquiry in my Grade 4 class during the last school year, it was out of a desire to reinvent homework as a more relevant activity connecting learning at school with learning at home. The primary inspiration was the MIT Media Lab Learning Creative Learning course, and in particular, being introduced to Connected Learning.

Interest-driven learning comes as naturally to us human beings as breathing and scratching ourselves. The brain is made for it. We naturally seek creative solutions to problems and desire to learn what is useful and/or fun. I also became fascinated with the Maker Education Initiative and the implications of purposeful play for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education.

Why does school try to make learning so hard?

We began using a Google Form to reflect on our inquiries and holding weekly meetings to discuss the independent projects we were doing at home. Some highlighted projects can be found by searching the independent inquiry label here on Symphony of Ideas.

Soon after, I discovered Genius Hour. There were thousands of teachers around the world providing class time for students to pursue their passions and interests! Teaching at an inquiry school, I always provide time for independent research and autonomous learning opportunities, however, only along the lines of inquiry specified in our units.

The time had come to blow it wide open. I started a wiki to clarify purpose for myself and share with other educators, collect relevant resources and supporting articles, and publish my students’ reflections.
Starting this school year, and for the past three months, we have dedicated one to two hours per week to “indinq”, independent inquiry. The students operate on their own authority, with only suggestions or assistance coming from me. The only requirement is that they use our google form to reflect and document their activities.
The results have been impressive, including a pair who collaborated to create a robot using Lego MindStorms, a group who choreographed a dance routine to one of their favorite songs, an inquiry into improving basketball free-throw percentage, earning do-it-yourself badges, and exploring various web-based tools like Soundation and Mozilla Popcorn Maker to produce and remix original works of art.
Most of what I do these days during ‘indinq’ is document. I’ve created a notebook in Evernote for each student and take pictures, occasionally with brief voice comments, when I notice a student reaching a milestone, obstacle, epiphany, or when collaborations begin or end, or for just about anything, really. The atmosphere in the room is so electric, virtually anything is an assessable learning experience.

If I had to choose the greatest benefit of independent inquiry, I would say that it is relevance. Because the students are pursuing their own interests, their learning is always meaningful. The skills and attitudes they develop transfer fluidly to other activities and they take pride in sharing their creations with the school community.

To a teacher unsure how to start or reticent to release the reins in their classroom, I recommend to start with something structured and gradually let go. Trust your students to trust their instincts. They know what they need to learn. Let them.

Make/Hack/Play Together 2

When Kevin Hodgson shared his song in the post, Making a Song, for the first ‘make’ of the Make/Hack/Play Together MOOC, I was immediately impressed by its mournful mood. I thought it would be appropriate for this week’s ‘digital make’ to hack his song by arranging it for string quartet using MuseScore. Here’s a link to my work-in-progress, Hacking a Song.

I’ve only spent a short time on it, but have found some bits I like and some that probably wouldn’t make the final cut. Arranging is different that writing a song. It’s rather scientific and requires taking into account many variables such as register, the mechanics of the instruments involved, acoustics, etc.

I even started to ‘play’ at the end, but it’s getting late and I can’t tell whether those ideas are worth staying up for…

The trickiest part, however, is capturing the mood. Since the mood of Kevin’s song is what struck me, I tried to interpret that feeling for a different ensemble. It never works to copy it. It’s more like a translation than anything else. The sounds, like words, may have the same meanings, but they don’t say the same things.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading and listening to my little, albeit, incomplete piece.

Make/Hack/Play Together 1

During the past week, I participated in the Make/Hack/Play Together MOOC. Experience has taught me that every learner builds their understanding themselves, and very often literally. Thinking is not something that occurs ‘in our heads’. Thinking is everywhere, visibly and tangibly. This MOOC is a fantastic opportunity to explore Constructionist pedagogy as a learner and teacher.
The first assignment was to build something physical. I didn’t manage to find time to build anything myself, but I did with my son. He is two years old, and has had a set of wooden blocks for about a year. When he first started playing with them, they always represented objects. Sometimes they were spoons, sometimes trains, sometimes only he knows what.
In recent weeks, however, he has started building. Noticing his curiosity, I started building alongside him and describing my creative process. He enjoys watching and listening, and gets very excited as my creations grow. That is, before he obliterates them. He is definitely still in the ‘destroyer’ stage as a maker, but as his hand/eye coordination and fine motor skills improve, I’m sure he will finally start to make his imaginings concrete and visible.
My ‘Garage Cathedral’ moments before demolition.

Two students in my class have been making what they’re calling a ‘model mansion’ out of cardboard and other stuff as one of their independent inquiries. Independent Inquiry is a project I have been developing to try to connect learning in school and out of school, and to foster a maker mindset in my classroom.

The tube on the side represents an elevator.
I believe it is the first time either of them has ever done this. Discussions during their collaborations have been fascinating and hilarious as they suggest, debate, iterate, revise, and build. I have documented several instances of them developing critical collaboration, communication, and creative skills and can say without hesitation that this activity is having a profoundly positive impact on their learning.
Finally, I would like to share a photo I took during a field trip to the Bandai Museum. It is Rick Hunter’s mecha from Robotech, and possibly my all-time favorite toy.

Interestingly, Robotech was the US release of two Japanese series that had been hacked and edited together. The show I watched was itself a remix, so to speak, and one of my favorite features of the toys was their transformability. They had three modes, one that looks like a jet, one that looks like a person, and one, as you can see in the photo, that looks like a mix of the two. That element of choice, being able to remix as one played, made the toys very engaging, just like ‘making’.

I hope I will have more time to participate more directly during the next week, but for now I’ve enjoyed being in a maker mindset despite not making much of anything myself.

BYOT Field Trip

My sixth graders and I took a field trip to The Bandai Edison Museum yesterday and I thought it was an ideal chance for a Bring-Your-Own-Technology experiment. Our current inquiry focuses on personal histories and the primary objective of the field trip was to reflect on how the Thomas Edison Exhibition tells the story of his life.
The task was to choose three artifacts in the exhibit and deduce what invention led or might have led to it, and what inventions came after. Usually, iPads and other mobile digital devices are not allowed in school, but for the field trip, I said they can bring any technology they want to complete their assignment. I created a simple google form and posted it on our class blog for those with Internet access. Some students chose to write their reflections with paper and pencil, but a few brought their iPads, smartphones, and a couple DSs, and were excited to use them!
After completing their reflections, some students took photos or made videos of their favorite exhibits. It felt great to provide them with the autonomy to use their technological resources to inspire and motivate their inquiries. The enhanced engagement and enthusiasm to share their work was a clear benefit.
I plan to have a BYOT policy in place in the classroom when we start working in earnest on our culminating Exhibition, and the field trip experiment demonstrated to me that these technologies, coupled with independence, are remarkable learning multipliers.

In our reflective discussion, many students cited their digital products when describing Edison’s place in history and the connections between inventions. I’m considering ways that this strategy could be expounded to transform field trips into “Connected Learning Expeditions” and would appreciate knowing your experiences and thoughts!

Back-to-School Marshmallow Spaghetti Tower Challenge!

I was first introduced to this activity during the MIT Media Lab Learning Creative Learning course. There are a few variations, such as limiting the amount of resources or including tape, but for my students’ first day of sixth grade, I let chaos reign.
I gave each group a package of dry spaghetti, three small bags of marshmallows, and the simplest rules I could think of:
1 Build the tallest structure you can.
2 You may only use the materials I gave you.
3 We’ll measure after 60 minutes.

The primary objective was to get comfortable with each other in our learning space. They made a huge mess and laughed a lot, so that goal was achieved. However, this exercise has implications in many learning domains:
The more a group shares and synthesizes ideas, the taller and stronger their tower becomes.
This is an authentic inquiry into materials and structures. All of the students’ reflections mention ‘balance’ and being frustrated when their building materials broke or didn’t perform as expected. Every group deduced that triangles are the most stable shape and one group even built a base of four square pyramids.
Every group spent at least some time searching for solutions online.
Another common theme in reflections referred to the need to think ahead and plan more. Comparing structures at the finale was a terrific visible thinking exercise.
In retrospect, I would limit building materials more in the future, but the activity was a blast and set the stage perfectly for the sorts of independent inquiry and exploration our school year will emphasize.