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.


Impact on learning: Author’s purpose

Inspired by a colleague’s presentation during the KIST ‘Teach together; learn together’ professional development event, I took a more formal approach to the impact cycle than I have in the past.

First, I copied the raw data from my students’ diagnostic assessments into an Excel spreadsheet. I added a row at the bottom to show the average result of each test item as a percentage, then used conditional formatting to create a visual perspective into the data.

Reading diagnostic data

This allowed me to identify a general area of need: Reading. Then I simply copied and pasted the test items with average results of less than 50% along with the corresponding learning outcome indicated in the test documentation.

Reading diagnostic data analysis

The common weak thread, in my analysis, can be expressed by the verbs ‘describe’ and ‘explain’. Surprisingly, in Bloom’s Taxonomy, these terms are associated with Knowledge and Comprehension, or ‘lower’ order thinking.

Glaring omission

One issue involves the outcomes related to author’s purpose. Put bluntly, there is no such learning outcome in the standards for Grade 4 at KIST. The students are being assessed in a high stakes manner on learning outcomes that the school doesn’t explicitly teach. I, of course, can add standards about author’s purpose to my working documents. Indeed, that is the purpose of this impact intervention. However, it’s clear that teachers’ voices are needed in the development of the school’s assessment and planning documents to ensure that they are relevant and in alignment with one another.


My plan for having a measurable impact on student learning is to ensure that they are exposed to the idea of author’s purpose, and explore it in a variety of ways in our guided reading sessions. This can be done by direct mini lessons and reinforced by revisiting the concept whenever we encounter a novel or remarkable example in the texts we explore.

Another approach would be through precising and close reading of a master text. For this, the grade four team selected an abridged version of Swiss Family Robinson to be integrated with our unit of inquiry in April and May. This plan might be our students’ first opportunity to read a novel together. The text uses rich vocabulary and imagery, so I believe there will be many opportunities to analyze and summarize selections, and hypothesize about Mr Wyss’ purpose for various literary choices.

Measuring impact

To avoid over-assessing my students, I will plan to use the end-of-year English Diagnostic Assessment, of the same type as the one at the start of they year, to measure impact. Throughout the school year, I have assessed and gathered data on a wide variety of learning outcomes informally during guided reading sessions, but this will be the only formal assessment of the learning outcome of author’s purpose.

Engagement for organization in writing

The challenge of teaching young writers without limiting or stifling their Voice and creative enthusiasm is a monumental task. Designing engaging writing activities which integrate multiple modes of learning is another. Fortunately, the two tasks are complementary and any effort spent solving one problem helps with the other.

As my fourth graders spent the first six weeks of the school year exploring the 6+1 Traits of Writing, one engagement worked particularly well for the students learning about Organization.

In collaboration with my grade 4 teaching partner, we selected a few texts organized in well structured paragraphs. Then, each text was separated so that the paragraphs could be rearranged. Students worked in small groups to organize the texts in the way the made sense to them. Then, groups were reorganized so that each could discuss their reasons for organizing the texts in the ways that they had.
The result was an authentic yet structured opportunity to practice text organization without criticizing student writing, which I am extremely reluctant to do with such young writers. Social and kinesthetic learning modalities made the experience engaging and fun. It was also an efficient use of time as the design of the activity itself was quite self explanatory.