One of the most powerful ways to engage students in their own learning is to give them opportunities to ask questions and the opportunity to investigate to find answers. Inquiry based learning has been found to be an effective way to meet the rigorous Common Core Standards. Furthermore, studies have shown that when students discover information for themselves, rather than being taught with the "stand and deliver" method of instruction, they are more likely to retain what they have learned. NextGen Science Standards and the new Connecticut Social Studies Framework both favor inquiry based learning.
With this in mind, I have launched my own study of inquiry based learning. I have read multiple texts on inquiry learning and have designed lessons for students that provide many opportunities for inquiry. I have undertaken this exploration to discover for myself what methods of inquiry based instruction prove to be most effective. Following are some of the things I have found to be true:
Students become better at asking questions with practice.
This is most clearly observed with kindergarteners. Since the beginning of the year we have done a lot of work with questioning. Before we read a nonfiction text, I will ask students what they know about the subject and what they wonder about. If I hold up a nonfiction book about elephants at the beginning of the year, and ask kindergarteners what they wonder about elephants, most response will be statements. Many times, they have mistaken beliefs about a subject so I will model turning their statements into questions. We write those questions on the board and listen for answers while we read.
Kindergarten students have had Skype visits with two authors: Jeff Mack and Monica Carnesi. The authors have read one of their books and told students a little bit about themselves. A highlight of the Skype visit is the opportunity to ask questions. I have learned that it is best to choose questions ahead of time. When I first asked kindergarteners what they would like to ask the author, they often responded with statements. "I like your books." When prompted what they would like to know about the author, I have heard questions like, "What is your favorite color?" They need guidance, especially the first time, to come up with some questions about the author's work. I helped them compose questions for the first visit. They asked Jeff Mack, "How do you make your pictures?" "How did you get to be such a good artist?" "Do you have a favorite character?"
Jeff Mack did a wonderful job responding to their questions. He had asked have their questions sent ahead which gave him the opportunity to have visuals prepared while he answered. His answers made an impression on our students. They loved having Jeff Mack read to them, but being able to ask him questions gave them a personal connection to him.
When the second opportunity arose to have a Skype visit with author/illustrator Monica Carnesi and ask her questions about her work, students came up with questions that reflected their experience with Jeff Mack. One kindergartener, recalling that Jeff Mack had given them a sneak peak of a book he was working on asked Monica Carnesi, "What are you working on now?"
Objects or powerful images are good ways to stimulate students' interest and questions.
First graders did a brief inquiry project on dinosaurs after reading a fun fiction book called, What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night which featured photographs of toy dinosaurs creating mischief. With kindergarten and first grade, I often explore the differences between fiction and nonfiction. First graders had the opportunity to create their own mischievous scene with toy dinosaurs. The next time we met, we explored the nonfiction world of dinosaurs. I gave them each a small toy dinosaur that was modeled after a real dinosaur. I asked students to carefully observe their features and draw a picture the dinosaur. Then I asked them to do some wondering about their dinosaurs and write some questions. For example, 'Why does this dinosaur have such a large tail?'
We used PebbleGo to try to discover what kind of dinosaur it was and to try to answer some of the questions they had wondered about. Students were very engaged with this short project.
Asking questions using the QFT and Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Fourth grade students did an inquiry project on national parks and famous landmarks in the United States. We started by reading a book called, Lady Liberty's Holiday, a fiction picture book about the Staue of Liberty traveling around the U.S. visiting well known places. I wanted students to become familiar with the library's reference sources before embarking on an investigation of the landmarks mentioned in the book, so I had all students work in pairs and generate questions about the Statue of Liberty using the Question Formulation Technique Dan Rothstein wrote about in his book, Make Just One Change. I projected a large image of the Staue of Liberty on the Smart Board. Students came up with as many questions as they could, changing any statements into questions. I then had them categorize their questions as closed: could be answered in one or two words or open: needing a longer explanation. Student pairs were instructed to choose one open question and one closed question to investigate. I introduced them to Britannica School and Webpath Express to search for answers to their questions. When students stop to consider if a question they have asked is an open or closed question it focuses their attention on the question and gets them thinking about what kinds of questions are helpful for different situations. A closed question with a short answer may be just the thing to provide information about something they are curious about but an open question is often more suitable for a research project where they will be diving into a topic in greater depth.
The next phase of this project was for students to choose one of the landmarks from Lady Liberty's Holiday to find out more about. Their mission was to create a custom map with a pin on the map for their landmark. The were to pretend they were tour guides and were to provide information a visitor might want to know about their location. This time I had students come up with questions using question starters Where? When? What? Why? How? I chose this method because I wanted to steer students to ask questions that would encompass all the important features of their place much like a newspaper reporter would write an article.
This project was both challenging and time consuming. Ultimately they were successful generating questions and finding answers to them. See the link below to visit one of the class's maps.
Lady Liberty's Map
Looking for connections in the Immersion Stage of Inquiry
Carol Kuhlthau and Leslie Maniotes write about finding a "third space" in an inquiry project in their book Guided Inquiry Design. Third space is where the student's world meets the curriculum. School subjects are more engaging to students when they have a connection to the topic. Learning becomes more relevant and long lasting.
I kept this is mind when designing a biography project for fourth graders. I chose a good selection of picture book biographies on the categories of Black History and Women's History. We did a "book tasting" with the books which meant I put a number of books on each table. Students chose a book that looked interesting and dipped into it for a few quiet minutes trying to get a sense of what the book was about. Then we switched tables 3 times so students had a chance to sample a number of books. I emphasized that I wanted them to find a biography about someone they had a connection to in some way. I was pleased when students indicated they had found someone they were interested in reading more about.
Their job was to read their chosen biography and look for character traits and motivations of that person.