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Inquiry-Based Learning



















Being told is the opposite of finding out. James Britton

The Inquiry Process

Inquiry is a flexible approach to learning that is driven by the natural curiosity of students to question, explore and make sense of their world. Talk is an essential component of this process. In fact, the four competencies in the Quebec English Language Arts Program are so inextricably intertwined that reading, writing/producing, thinking and talk are all enriched when students are engaged in inquiry.

With inquiry all students are engaged in interesting, authentic learning experiences where they can build on prior knowledge and understandings.

The process is dynamic, reflective and recursive. As students work through the process, they:

  • tackle real-world questions, issues, problems
  • develop questioning, research and communication skills
  • solve problems
  • collaborate with peers and others
  • develop skills and deepen essential knowledge e.g. in literacy
  • move beyond simple memorization
  • adapt and apply what they have learned
  • share new ideas and knowledge with others

Inquiry allows us to provide open-ended experiences and investigations that enable students to enter at their own readiness levels. It is a flexible approach that ranges from the creation of a classroom Wonder Centre to problem-based projects, to action research and ethnography. There are many inquiry models that can be used or adapted by the teacher. Although the teacher’s role is different from more traditional models, the teacher plans and guides the learning, providing support as needed.

Start with a Question

If we reframe what we are already doing in our classroom around a guiding or essential question, we are moving into inquiry. The essential question generates a real purpose for learning and fuels purposeful talk.

Essential Question Criteria

An effective essential or guiding question:

  • is relevant and interesting to the students
  • leads to powerful conversations that build understanding
  • is open-ended and multilayered, allowing for multiple perspectives and possible answers
  • is concise and clearly stated
  • can be researched through a variety of resources that are available for students to use (books, media, primary sources, etc.)
  • may lead to new questions posed by the students

Adapted from Wilhelm (44)

Types of Essential Questions

Essential questions are often stated in one of the following ways.

  • Which one?
  • How?
  • What if?
  • Should?
  • Why?

The Next Step

Once you have an essential question you can ask yourself the following questions to determine the next steps.

  1. What should the student have learned prior to starting the inquiry? 
  2. Do they have enough prior knowledge or do I need to fill in some gaps?
  3. What activities will help students come to new understandings as they work toward the answer?
  4. What strategies will actively engage the students as they work toward the answer? 
  5. How will I know that the students are learning? 
  6. How will the students demonstrate their final answer to the question, e.g. create a PSA, write a picture book, etc.

Essential Question Suggestions

It is possible to reword essential questions to suit the age of the students. 

  • How can advertising affect our choices?
  • How do nonfiction books work?
  • What makes a good home?
  • Are photographs ’real’?
  • How do people reveal their inner character? Which behaviours shown by the main character were evidence of strong character and which ones showed weakness?
  • What problems do we have in our community and how can people influence others?
  • If you could change your neighbourhood, how would you make it better?
  • What makes a good relationship? What messes up a relationship?
  • What does it mean to be a good friend?
  • What problems do we have in our community and how can people influence others?
  • If you could change your neighbourhood, how would you make it better?
  • How does rap or spoken word poetry work for/against social change?
  • Can a story (fiction) be true? What is the relation between fiction and truth?
  • How does what I am reading influence how I should read it?

Additional Resources

There are so many possiblitlies for creating classroom inquiries. The following resources can help you find out more about inquiry as well as provide additional classroom examples.

Galileo Educational Network. What is inquiry ?

Getting Started with Student Inquiry

What Makes a Question Essential? 



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