inquirED Blog 

Research, resources, and reflections on inquiry-based teaching and learning.

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Inquiry Unit Design

What’s your personal inquiry? Do you want to visit every country in the world? Are you looking to master the art of French cooking—or just searching for the perfect slice of pizza? What about your professional inquiries? Are you trying to improve your teaching practice? Have a greater impact on student learning? Whether personal or professional, the inquiries we explore challenge us, make our lives more meaningful, and give us a sense of purpose.

And isn’t that the future that we want for our students as well: lives full of meaningful inquiries? If that’s the case, then let’s engage students in authentic, meaningful inquiries right now in our classrooms.

Inquiry in the classroom follows a process that begins with a question, moves through an investigation, and ends in action. But that seemingly simple process is actually incredibly complex. Let’s explore some of that complexity by examining each step in more detail.

The Inquiry Question

Every inquiry begins with a question. Sometimes we can articulate that question and other times it lies beneath the surface as we drive forward to learn and discover. In the classroom, however, an Inquiry Question is always explicit. It’s the complex, open-ended question that begins an inquiry. An Inquiry Question is kept front and center as students explore and create. This way, students can remember the purpose and meaning of the inquiry even when they find themselves deep into an investigation.

Most of the time, teachers formulate the Inquiry Question (or use a version provided by a curriculum) to ensure it aligns to the content knowledge and skills students need to learn. But therein lies the rub! Inquiry Questions are so powerful because they’re personal. We choose to explore and investigate them. How can an Inquiry Question be assigned?

Very carefully, that’s how. And with attention to the interests and lived experiences of students. It’s actually a bit of a magic trick that inquiry teachers perform when designing and presenting an Inquiry Question. They craft the question and share it with students in ways that hook them into the inquiry and create a sense of ownership. Visit our Field Guide page to find strategies that prompt students to generate questions, predictions, and wonderings. Use these tactics to help connect students to the question that’s framing your inquiry.

Essential Questions

There’s more to planning an inquiry than designing a great Inquiry Question, though. If you ask a personal Inquiry Question—like “How can I visit every country in the world?”—think about how many essential, need-to-know questions that would bring up. Questions like: How will I travel? How can I pay for this? And, wait, how many countries are there, anyway?

When teachers plan inquiries for their students, they craft these Essential Questions as well. Essential Questions actually help a teacher structure the journey of a Unit, allowing them to chunk together content and scaffold learning. But, just like they do with Inquiry Questions, teachers must also work their magic to get students connected to the Essential Questions. That’s an important point to remember: Students should always feel ownership of the questions that frame an inquiry. Because the ultimate goal is for them to own the process itself, to be able someday to generate questions and plan their own inquiries!

While generating questions is an important first step, it’s just that—a first step. If we only had to ask great questions to complete an inquiry, then we’d all be world-traveling masters of French cooking! We must also dig in and get ready for a sustained investigation.

Conducting Sustained Investigations

If it’s not challenging, then it’s probably not an inquiry. That’s a good rule of thumb. Our own personal and professional inquiries can’t be finished in a day or accomplished with ease. The same applies to the inquiries we design for students. Inquiry requires a personal investment of time, energy, and focus. That’s what we mean by “sustained investigation.”

If students are new to inquiry, they might not be used to sustaining their energy and interest over several weeks of investigation. It’s hard work! There’s a big payoff for this investment, though, because a sustained investigation allows students to make connections and derive meaning across an inquiry. And this kind of connected learning also helps students build skills more quickly and deepen their understanding of content.

Inquiry teachers employ a few important strategies to help sustain investigations and facilitate connected learning. Throughout an inquiry, they prompt students to reflect on what they’ve learned and to anticipate where they’re headed. Inquiry teachers also employ a wide variety of student-centered protocols and methods, using multiple discussion strategies, assessments, activities, simulations, group assignments, etc. Just because an investigation is sustained doesn’t mean it has to be monotonous! Once again, visit our Field Guide page to find a sampling of inquiry-based lesson strategies. Use them to add variety to your classroom investigations.

What happens after a sustained investigation? There’s a point when every inquiry turns into action.

Taking Informed Action

Imagine if you questioned, planned, and researched your country-hopping expedition, but never started it. How about if you skipped the research for your French cooking inquiry and just put together one of your old standard recipes? The former is information without real action, leaving you to wonder what the point of all that research was. The latter is action without information, which can end up making you feel like a bit of a fraud. Both options drain the meaning from your inquiry.

When designing inquiries for students, teachers are looking for the sweet spot of informed action, when the challenge, purpose, and audience of student action come together to create meaning and deepen learning. If students are only informed during an inquiry, they might pursue an inquiry question, but only be challenged to show their understanding to their teacher for a letter grade on a test or deliverable. And if students only take action, then their challenge might be limited to participating in an activity that’s vaguely related to their learning - even if they are addressing a public audience. It’s not that there’s no purpose for a test, stand-alone project, or activity; during an inquiry they can serve to assess learning, engage students, and check for understanding. But these can’t be the point of an inquiry.

When an inquiry promotes informed action, however, the point becomes clear and resonates with students. They identify a challenge that is informed by learning and addresses a real-world problem—one matters outside the walls of their classroom. Their audience is outside the classroom as well, whether it’s students in a different grade or the wider community. And while they may receive a grade, the grade isn’t the point of their action. Students are trying to make an impact on the world—whether it’s to solve a problem, inform, inspire, or change behavior.

Please find a recording of the webinar below.


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