Do You Have an Inquiry Classroom?

One of the strengths of Dive into Inquiry is that it provides the how behind adopting inquiry as your own.  It’s full of lessons, structures, definitions, graphics, and artifacts of learning that help teachers grasp how the inquiry classroom flows from day to day, week to week, and month to month.

After the book went to print I was asked by colleague and friend Sylvia Duckworth to collaborate on a 10 Reasons to Use Inquiry-Based Learning sketchnote.  We easily drafted a powerful list of reasons and I found myself having an incredibly difficult time narrowing it down to just ten.

Inquiry Sketchnote

Take a few minutes now to do the following exercise for yourself: have a careful look at the sketchnote, take your time and reflect on which of these reasons to use inquiry are evident in your classroom.  Make a list of these reasons and identify what you do to foster each and ensure that they are a part of the learning culture in your room.

Now let’s turn the tables and prepare yourself to be brave and courageous in your reflection: which of these traits is not evident in your classroom?  Which are not a part of the learning culture in your room?  And, most importantly, what can you do to bring them to the forefront of your student’s experience at school?  I am fairly confident that the answer to this last question is found in Dive into Inquiry.

Do you have an inquiry classroom?  Are there any adjustments you can make to optimize the power of inquiry?  Please share in the comments below.

Organizing Inquiry

I’m often asked about the organizational structures I utilize to ease workflow and support students in their inquiry.  Free inquiry can be daunting.  Take this time of year for example.  I currently have 30 students in each of my four English classes all working on different inquiry topics with unique resources and methods of collecting learning evidence.  From the outside looking in, things can appear overwhelming.

I firmly believe that the more voice and choice there is in a classroom the more structures we must have in place to ensure learners are successful in their inquiry.

One structural piece we utilize in our classroom is a Google Doc that acts as an inquiry hub for all projects throughout the year.  Students hyperlink their name to their wordpress blogs and they share an inquiry folder titled “Learning Evidence” that allows us to share our work as inquiry happens.

This format works great for a number of reasons.  One, all students in a class have access to the doc and to each other’s folders to view what we are all learning and working towards.  This is powerful as it acts as a natural springboard for collaboration and sharing.  I’m always pleasantly surprised as students connect and comment on their peer’s work and seek ways to support one another.

Two, these folders help shift our focus from end product to process and in doing so helps students reflect and comment on the competencies of learning as opposed to the method of communicating their learning.

And third, I’m able to check in to their learning evidence folders whenever I want to.  Whether it’s during class time, over my coffee break, or after my kids are asleep at night, this Google Doc grants me permission to pay their learning a visit whenever I am ready and able.


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A screenshot of our inquiry hub Google Doc

I love being pleasantly surprised when I check out their learning evidence folders.  Certainly I see the more traditional forms of evidence such as notes, photos, articles and websites.  But I also see learners taking a more personalized approach to their sharing their learning.  Check out these three and feel free to leave a comment below.

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The Inquiry Process

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I love this visual.  When adopting an inquiry mindset it’s important for educators to grasp that although we are giving agency over learning to our students, we must help them be successful in their new roles in the inquiry classroom.

We need to model how questions lead to learning.

We need to be explicit in our teaching of the structures we will use to be successful in our inquiry.

We need to share assessment and have students take the reins of metacognitive reflection.

One strength of Dive into Inquiry is found in the graphics throughout the book.  The power of an image to help create understanding and inspire change cannot be understated.  These graphics can be used as teaching tools to help strengthen the inquiry process.  In my classroom these are on display on our walls, students have copies of them in their binders and on their blogs, and we refer to them often.  They help learners understand where we currently are in learning, where we will head to next, and how their inquiry skill-set is growing and evolving.

One such graphic is titled the Inquiry Process and acts as a map for our inquiry journey together.  At its essence, inquiry takes learners on personalized learning pathways that are often unique in their details as well as when they meet particular benchmarks phases.  This map allows learners to visualize where we will go and understand that although our individual journeys may be unique, we are all in a similar landscape that provides connections across topics and questions in the processes we all follow.

Download this image and others from Dive into Inquiry and use them with your learners.  Have them reflect on how the graphics help their understanding of inquiry and share their thoughts in the comments below.

Closed Questions in Inquiry

In the inquiry world closed questions have gotten a bad reputation.  This is for many reasons.  Whether it’s because they don’t lead to deep learning, they’re “googleable”, they tend to be content focused (and easily standardized when it comes to assessment), or they don’t drive powerful inquiry, closed questions have become synonymous with bad questions.

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Closed questions: are they bad?

And this shouldn’t be the case.

Closed questions are necessary in learning.  They provide a common understanding of subject matter or content that allows learners to collaborate and create new, and often personalized, meaning.  They provide the jargon of a discipline or focus area, language that allows users to speak intelligently, engagingly, persuasively, and confidently when it comes to communicating in and about the realm of said discipline.  And they are the first step in the research phase of inquiry.  These closed questions must be answered if deep learning and open questions are to be explored.

Let me provide some context.  English students cannot discuss the open question of how are stories important and powerful vehicles change? without understanding the tools within the English classroom, such tools as point of view, metaphor, symbolism, satire, and so on.  Likewise in the History classroom, learners cannot discuss the open question how can injustices in our history be justified depending on one’s perspective?  This question cannot be deeply explored without understanding, on the surface, the causes and key players in several historical turmoils.

What is the most powerful worksheet you can assign a student?

It is the one the student creates.

Try this on for yourself.  When an inquiry topic has been selected (whether it’s the teacher’s or the student’s) have students brainstorm in pairs as many closed questions as they can for 5 minutes.  Only provide 5 minutes – this is key as this will be extreme on-task time.  Challenge them to get as many questions written down together in the 5 minutes as they can.  Once they’re done have them prioritize this list in terms of the most critical must-know questions towards the less critical.  This list will be their first phase of research.  These closed questions will be the foundation of their inquiry, the jargon and common understanding that will enable them to dig deeper in to their inquiry.

Don’t overlook the importance of closed questions in learning.  Just don’t have these closed questions drive learning.  This is where open questions come in to play (and a future post at that).

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Don’t overlook closed questions

Please try this exercise on for yourself and leave a comment below sharing how it went in your classroom!

What You’ll Discover When You Read Dive into Inquiry


Over my years as a teacher I’ve learned an incredible amount as I’ve taken on a more personalized approach to educating our youth. I’ve seen the enormous benefit of flipping control over learning in the classroom and fostering student agency in our curriculum. I’ve gained an appreciation for my colleagues and their specific teaching areas as I’ve collaborated with teachers to co-plan and co-teach in an inquiry model. And I’ve made mistakes, ones that have helped me reflect, revise, and refine what inquiry looks like my practice.

With Dive into Inquiry I’m excited to share more detail of what exactly this fantastic resource has to offer you and your learners. Dive into Inquiry provides a structure that prepares learners for the transition from traditional teaching models to the inquiry classroom, a structure that is built on building relationships with our students through a gradual release of control over learning. You’ll be given detailed lessons that will help you create the inquiry atmosphere your students need. You’ll read accounts of student learning that will deepen your understanding of inquiry and help clarify my proposed structure. You’ll have access to illustrations to use in your classroom to assist your learners in their own understanding of inquiry. And you’ll be inspired to make inquiry your own whether you are new to the inquiry pool or confident in all Types of Student Inquiry.

The book is jam-packed with passionate narrative, clear examples and lessons, inspiring student stories, and supportive processes. You’ll finish your reading feeling like you are well prepared to make inquiry work for your learners in a manner that is low risk and high reward.

Make Dive into Inquiry yours.

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Drop the Rubric & Set The Bar


One question that I often receive about inquiry when sharing my passion for personalized learning is around assessment.  When adopting an inquiry model colleagues want to know more about assessing Free Inquiry.  Free Inquiry is when learners select an inquiry focus, construct an essential question, plan their entire inquiry unit, and design and construct an artifact of learning.  This is where educators have some hesitancies.  How can I assess so many unique performance tasks?  How can I measure learners in a standardized manner when they are all completing dissimilar artifacts?  How can I continue to empower learners when it comes to assessment?

These questions are completely valid.  At its core the inquiry model is about personalization and supporting learners in taking more agency over their education.  Yet traditional assessment practices do the opposite.  We assess every learner using the same rubric.  We strip learners of their voice when it comes to evaluating understanding and demonstrating what they set out to learn.  And we use data to create criteria that shape the future opportunities for our learners.

In Free Inquiry I challenge my learners to co-create an assessment standard that they can use to self-assess, reflect, revise, and grow.  This is a tremendously powerful process and one that, in my experience, has led to a deeper understanding of what defines excellent artifacts, how to help learners improve as they go, how to honour voice and choice in the inquiry classroom during assessment, and how to make sense of all of the unique inquiry artifacts we assess.

Co-creating an assessment standard calls for learners to research what excellence looks like with regards to their particular performance task.  Learners spend time looking at a body of examples, a breadth of work that offers them the opportunity to assess other people’s attempt at engaging with their audience.  Learners identify adjectives and characteristics that they deem to be of value and add them to what we coin The Bar.  The Bar is an assessment tool that we co-create to be used to assess the learner’s performance task.  To further aid in this process I challenge learners to seek out a professional in the field of their artifact.  If the artifact has a writing focus learners seek out a professional writer (or English teacher for that matter).  If the artifact has a focus in photography learners seek out a professional photographer.  If the artifact is in 2-D art, videography, drama, a performance, a trade or vocation, or any other field or means, learners seek out a mentor or guide that they can interview with the goal of understanding what excellence looks like in their particular field.  They record these rich and incredibly meaningful terms and add them to The Bar, their own personal tally of what an excellent artifact looks like for them.


Once these two steps are completed we spend time together hashing out the rest of The Bar so each learner can begin to work towards this achievement.  This meeting allows me to ensure that their assessment meets the standards of our course and grade level, a critical piece in marrying inquiry and our traditional educational structures.  They use this document to self-assess as they go, make changes and revisions, and finally, complete a summative assessment when their inquiry unit is complete.  It should be noted that at times particular artifacts force me to reach out to the professionals or mentors my learners had initially contacted.  A great example comes in the form of a choreographed dance piece from  few years back that reflected symbolism across an anthology of poetry.  The learner’s performance was beautiful and I could easily sense and pinpoint where symbolism was evident.  However when trying to evaluate whether the performance included an arabesque, a pirouette, a plié, or a passé, I was stuck.  I needed to call on our school’s dance instructor to help assess this unique performance task.  Together (and with the learner) we were able to co-assess this extremely unique demonstration of understanding.

The Bar is an extremely powerful process for us all.  The ownership over their learning and the connectedness to their understanding of their own artifact is awesome to witness.  Further, there’s no settling for less than what they’ve set out to achieve.  If they don’t meet this expectation their assessment will reflect this.  There’s no fussing with a rubric that identifies less than excellence, a 6-point scale, or a letter grade structure.  Learners possess the vocabulary and skill-set to reflect, review, and assess their own understanding.

How do you see using The Bar in your own classroom?  Could you invite certain professionals into your classroom to aid in constructing The Bar as an exercise for your learners?  Please leave a comment below!



The Power of Essential Questions: How Do We Tell Stories & Why Are They Important?

When unpacking inquiry and helping colleagues create a deeper understanding of how we can move from a traditional teaching model to a learner centred classroom, one critical step is evident in the use of essential questions to guide learning.

Essential questions, open-ended in nature and not answered without research and action, are a key characteristic of the inquiry classroom.  I often advise teachers curious about adopting an inquiry model to begin their transition by selecting a unit of study they have seen great success in (success meaning engagement, interaction with rich material and information, and resulting in a deeper understanding for your learners).  I ask colleagues to restructure this identified unit so it begins with an essential question that guides their resources, activities, planning, and learning.

To help this planning I provide essential questions I have used in the past in the classrooms I have worked with.  Whether it be Science (what is the importance of the scientific method?), or Math (what time in the morning must a ship, anchored in a harbour, set sail to avoid being beached at low tide?), or History (how can the events of the past help us better understand the world of today?), providing examples of essential questions helps get the planning ball rolling.

One essential question I love exploring in the English classroom is: How do we tell stories and why are they important?

This essential questions provides a few powerful opportunities in the Structured Inquiry end of the inquiry pool.


First, by beginning with this essential question (as opposed to a piece of writing) we can immediately dive into accessing prior knowledge, sharing perspective and point of view, and we can begin to discuss where our understandings, collectively, could take us.  Before we analyze text, video, visual, or auditory sources we share and create a broad understanding of the essential question.  This is extremely powerful.  It provides learners with confidence in learning as well as agency in the classroom.  It engages learners in the process of planning our learning pathway as many of them will identify a resource that will help in our exploration of the essential question.  And it begins with collaboration and sharing, as opposed to passively “participating” in a lecture.

Second, by beginning with this essential question we are able to bring in a wide array of resources and unpack meaning from them all.  Novels, poetry, stories, song, artwork, speakers, and experiential opportunities all guide our learning through this inquiry unit.  Too often in the traditional English classroom units of study are shaped and dictated by the resource the teacher selects.  Typically referred to as Novel Unit, Short Story Unit, Poetry Unit etc, the key defining characteristic of learning, according to this structural approach, is the resource.  By exploring many sources of information in the inquiry classroom and not limiting our learning to a single text, learners unpack a variety of voices and formats of communication all the while deepening their understanding of the continuous strand throughout the learning process, the essential question.

And third, as we are all exploring the same essential question together I, the facilitator of inquiry in our classroom, can successfully plan a strong inquiry unit.  By creating the essential question prior to the unit I have the time to explore, research, and identify strong sources that will help deepen our understanding of the essential question.  As we begin to unpack the essential question I feel more confident in providing learners with the agency, time, and space (at times a messy process) to seek out and locate resources on their own as I know we have a strong backbone of information (the sources I have gathered) that will undoubtedly support our inquiry.  This planning prior to the unit beginning also allows me to identify several learning objectives of our course, details that I term “must know” or “must do” in our curriculum.  Combined, this essential question and the structure we are operating in presents great opportunity at the onset of our school year.

Are you and English teacher?  If so, what resources would you bring into to the inquiry classroom to deepen our understanding of this essential question?  If not, how do you see beginning with essential questions impacting learning in your classroom?  Please leave a comment below!