May 17, 2013

11 Ways to Make an Inquiry based Classroom

eu-63985_640You became a teacher not to pontificate to trusting minds, but to teach children how to succeed as adults. That idealism infused every class in your credential program and only took a slight bump during your student teacher days. That educator, you figured, was a dinosaur. You’d never teach to the test or lecture for forty minutes of a forty-five minute class.

Then you got a job and reality struck. You had lesson plans to get through, standards to assess, and state-wide tests that students must do well on or you’d get the blame. A glance in the mirror said you were becoming that teacher you hated in school. You considered leaving the profession.

Until the inquiry-based classroom arrived where teaching’s goal was not the solution to a problem, but the path followed. It’s what you’d hoped to do long ago when you started–but how do you turn a traditional entrenched classroom into one that’s inquiry-based?

One step at a time, and here are fifteen you can take. One or more will resonate with your teaching style:

Flip the classroom

The night prior to the lesson, have students read the lecture materials so you can spend class time in hands-on discovery.

Don’t answer student questions–show them how to do it themselves.

When students have questions, you guide them toward answers. Don’t give them a fish, rather teach them to fish. When students understand the methodology, they can repeat the process. Without understanding, they are robots.

But this requires comprehensive teacher preparation to be ready for the multitude of directions a conversation can go, not just steer student inquiry where you’re comfortable. Inquiry-based lessons are process-, not product-oriented. How students reach conclusions is as important as the conclusions they reach. That critical thinking is what it’s about. Think back to your favorite school lessons. Were they where you learned the capital of every state or where you came to understand the scientific method? (OK, maybe that comparison doesn’t work, but you get my point–likely, your favorite lessons required you to think, not regurgitate).

Listen when students speak

It’s tempting to think you know what students are going to ask/say. Resist the impulse. Listen. Try to understand what their real question is, not what their words say. Watch them. Are they comfortable with your answer, or does it make them squirm? Take the time to travel the distance to a solution.

Encourage questions.

Class is ticking away and there are too many questions. If you take time to answer all of them, you won’t cover the material scheduled.

That’s OK. Take the time. Make the issues clear. An odd thing will start to happen. As students more thoroughly understand a concept, they will transfer that knowledge to other lessons and those will go faster than expected. By the end of the year, you’ll have covered more material in more depth. Cool, hunh?

Spend time on projects, not lecturing

There’s an old Chinese proverb, although Ben Franklin occasionally gets credit for these words:

“Tell me and I’ll forget.

Show me and I may remember.

Involve me and I’ll understand.”

Inquiry is about doing, not observing, action not inaction.

Lessons are fluid

Learning isn’t linear. It’s a web that grows out from the central question. As such, your lesson plan may change dramatically based on student inquiry. If you teach three fifth grade classes, each will likely be different from the other. That’s OK. Your challenge is to track what you did in each class and pick up from where you left off. That’s OK, too. It’s part of the job of teaching an inquiry-based class.

Publish and share

Inquiry-based classrooms share knowledge. This can be accomplished via a class wiki, blogs, websites, but it’s done. Students understand how to embed articles and projects into the internet or class network so its shared by everyone. They accept that part of their responsibility as a student is to ask questions about these shared materials, read and comment on them, and use them as resources. We all grow when one grows.

Reflection is included in every lesson plan

What did students learn? Where can they transfer it? You as teacher do that after every teaching experience. Your students do it also. Then you understand if what they learned was what you planned. Or something else.

You are a fellow learner

Students learn they are valued in the classroom experience. Their conclusions bend discussion, mold learning. In this way, they understand the importance of their participation in projects, reflections, and collaborative experiences. Encourage this. Accept that the inquiry-based classroom will be noisier than the typical class–and that’s a good thing.

Questions don’t have yes-no answers

Likely, they don’t even have a concrete answer. They are more ‘how’ and ‘why’, which requires investigation into multiple strands to answer well. Assessment, then, becomes the student ability to use problem-solving and thinking skills, not to repeat someone else’s conclusions.

Summative assessments are less paper-and-pencil and more hands-on, creative, and student-centered

They are less about answering teacher questions than sharing student learning. You might even have students create their own assessments in something like PuzzleMaker.

That’s it–eleven ideas. Any handful of these approaches will morph your classroom from passive to sparkling, from boring to brilliant. In the comments, share what happened the first time you tried to remove the pedagogic anchor and set your class lose, the simple goal: learning?

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blogger, a columnist for, featured blogger for Technology in Education, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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