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.

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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!

The Four Pillars of Inquiry

The Four Pillars of Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt

The Four Pillars of Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt

I love shaping learning and how we spend time in school around things we’re passionate about.  Over my years as an educator I’ve witnessed many students who are incredibly talented and dedicated to their craft.  Whether it be a sport, an artistic endeavour, or a hobby or curiosity that has turned into something greater, passions provide some excitingly meaningful and powerful learning experiences.

But I have also discovered that solely structuring learning around passions can be a tricky thing.  For one, all educators operate under some sort of governing body that requires particular learning objectives be met.  A question I often here from colleagues wanting to adopt inquiry into their classroom is “how can passions and learning objectives be simultaneously honoured?”  This is a great question and one that I unpack in my book Dive into Inquiry and a point I’ll tackle in a future post.

And second, I have often heard from students when I attempt  to weave passions into the classroom that they are not passionate about anything, that they don’t have something that makes them feel fulfilled, that they’ve set their minds to, and that they’ve committed to over the course of some time.  I’m certain you’ve heard the same: “I’m not passionate about anything.”  How can we pull all of our learners in to the inquiry classroom if their connectedness is limited by this one particular hiccup?

In my classroom this is where The Four Pillars of Inquiry come into play.

The Four Pillars are inquiry avenues that provide all learners with the support and foundation to begin to formulate their inquiry topic and their essential question.  Let’s take a brief look at each pillar to help create some understanding of how these support the inquiry classroom.

Explore a Passion: beginning inquiry from a place of passion allows students to start from a place of high interest, commitment, and confidence.  Further to that, students are able to tap into a wealth of prior knowledge that will strengthen the initial steps of their inquiry.

Aim for a Goal: at times students enter my classroom with a vividly clear picture of where they will be in their future.  Whether it be an institute of higher ed, a particular program, or a career path, this pillar provides learners with the support and structure to work towards a goal they possess.

Delve into Your Curiosities: I believe interests and curiosities, things that students have always wondered about but never had the time, space, or support to explore, turn into passions after we’ve grappled with them for an extended period of time.  The third pillar provides students with the means to help identify these questions that have been left unanswered in their educational experience.

Take on a New Challenge: the fourth pillar is rooted in helping students rise to a particular challenge that they’ve identified as worthy of their time and energy.  I’ve supported learners in a myriad of challenges from identifying and attempting to solve social issues such as poverty to facing the challenge of learning something new like a musical instrument or a language.

Each of The Four Pillars of Inquiry is touched down on throughout our coursework.  We constantly weave them into our discussions, our sharing, and our writing so that when it comes time to formulate an inquiry topic learners have already unpacked there their inquiry could take them.

Chapter 7 of Dive into Inquiry is dedicated to The Four Pillars of Inquiry and outlines each pillar in detail, provides meaningful lessons and prompts to support inquiry, and gives student examples to bring the process to life.  Please consider looking further into the book for more information.

Do you incorporate passions in to your classroom?  Do you see The Four Pillars supporting inquiry?  Feel free to comment below!

Dive into Inquiry on Amazon.com!

Today marks the official launch of Dive into Inquiry!  Canadians can now purchase this amazing resource from Amazon.com.  All other countries can order from either Amazon.com or the EdTech Team.

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I am so humbled by the response to the book.  Inspiring educators from around the world have this to say:

“This book is important! MacKenzie has written a powerful argument for inquiry learning to form the basis for twenty-first-century education. He offers detailed explanation as to why this approach is crucial in the current world economic climate. His useful classroom examples from his own experience and around the world will help any teacher implement new student-driven learning. The empowerment of young people to be agents of their own learning is the most pressing issue in this rapidly changing world and MacKenzie has created a blue- print to ensure this happens.”

Richard Wells, author or A Learner’s Paradise, Deputy Principal, Orewa College, New Zealand


“Dive into Inquiry has quickly become my favorite how-to book on inquiry-based learning. Filled with practical examples and solid structures that I know I can implement immediately, it has left me convinced that I really can create the kind of learning space that my students deserve. It is an approachable read that will change both your thinking and your practice for the better.”

Bill Ferriter, teacher, author, education consultant, USA


“Trevor MacKenzie has written a heartfelt book on student inquiry where his passion for growing a culture of inquiry and students feeling a sense of trust and empowerment are front and center. His clarity of message and practical examples of how to co-create this experience in other classrooms is inspiring. He offers fabulous examples of student voice, social construction, and self-discovery.”

Allison Zmuda, author and education consultant, USA


“Trevor MacKenzie has written a fascinating book which takes the theory of inquiry-based learning and explores the practicalities needed to put the approach into successful operation. His passionate argument is underpinned by a deep understanding of the importance of feedback, pupils owning their own learning, and the need for clarity of outcome from the outset. I particularly like the graduated approach to developing inquiry learning. Too often this approach fails because pupils have not been taught nor mastered the skills necessary to successfully undertake such an approach. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the power of pupil-centred approaches to learning.”

Andy Buck, teacher, author, and founder of Leadership Matters and #honk, fellow of the RSA, England


“In Dive into Inquiry, Trevor Mackenzie tells the story of how he came to be an inquiry-based teacher and gives his readers tips on how to successfully move through the various types of inquiry-based learning. As teachers we know that scaffolding is key, and this approach can help any middle-school or secondary teacher who wants to learn more about how to integrate this type of teaching into their practice. I especially enjoyed all of the sample questions that Trevor shares in his book—I will definitely be using them to help students reflect!”

Gallit Zvi, teacher, co-author of The Genius Hour Guidebook, Canada


“Without action, the goals of ‘genuine student inquiry’ and ‘personalized learning’ will remain aspirational. Trevor MacKenzie’s book offers practical and proven advice for bringing these ideas to life in a classroom. Your students will thank you for following his advice.”

Jay McTighe, co-author of the Understanding by Design® series, USA


“As a promoter of Genius Hour, I was happy to read Dive Into Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie. The book fleshes out how teachers can make, not just an hour a week, but an entire class/course driven by inquiry. With passion, experience, and insight MacKenzie explains what to do in the first days of school to change the landscape of learning for students transitioning from a teacher-centered classroom. He carefully covers everything a teacher and students will need, including how to co-create the course syllabus, types of inquiry, the four pillars of inquiry, essential questions, planning, research, authentic work and how to share it and more. You will read and be inspired by stories of Garrison and graffiti, Eli and emergency medical care, Zoe the flourishing figure skater, and a score of other students who will bring inquiry in the classroom to life. Dive Into Inquiry is a quick read, but it is meaty and worthwhile.”

Denise Krebs, teacher, co-author of The Genius Hour Guidebook, Bahrain


“This is a book brimming with energy and idealism, full of insights and practical wisdom from Trevor MacKenzie, a teacher who takes student agency seriously. He provides thought-provoking examples of teacher generated questions and the rich discussions that ensued. He is also keenly aware of the importance of moving beyond teacher questions to a higher level of inquiry in the classroom where students are formulating their own questions. Inquiry, MacKenzie demonstrates, needs to be fostered if students are to regain their natural curiosity.”

Dan Rothstein, author of Make Just One Change, USA

Get your copy today and begin to transform your classroom!

What You’ll Discover When You Read Dive into Inquiry

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Types of Student Inquiry: one of the helpful illustrations from the book that will strengthen your inquiry classroom.

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 nearing its official release 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.

Stay up-to-date at trevormackenzie.com and the EdTech Team’s library.

Announcing the Release of Dive into Inquiry

Dive into Inquiry
I am thrilled to announce my first publication in partnership with EdTech Team Press entitled Dive into Inquiry!

This book is the culmination of my years exploring how I can create a more meaningful learning experience for my students while simultaneously best preparing them for the challenges of tomorrow. By increasing student agency and providing a strong structure to explore their passions, curiosities, and interests I have witnessed powerful artifacts of learning and highly memorable and meaningful classroom experiences. I want to pass this on to educators around the world to help them bring inquiry in to their classrooms!

When I work with educators and share learning artifacts and stories from my classroom I have come to realize that two things resonate with teachers the most. First, the highly personalized approach to learning yields amazingly successful results when it comes to addressing the learning objectives of our course. Sharing what we learn and changing how we learn it doesn’t mean we sacrifice course rigour, expectations, and excellence. In fact the inquiry model I propose strengthens student achievement across the board. And second, educators need an inquiry structure that makes sense, that is achievable, and that allows them to smoothen the transition from where they are at to where they want to be. Dive into Inquiry does just that.

Over the coming weeks I’ll share more of the book and provide details on how it is a resource every educator should read. I’m excited to share with you all something that I am truly proud of, Dive into Inquiry.

Blogging to Capture Learning

I absolutely love blogging. In fact, I love blogging so much I have blogged about blogging here, here, and here. All of my students create and maintain blogs with several goals in mind:

1. to create a collection of their best work
2. to create an awesome online self
3. to improve their digital literacy
4. to share with an authentic audience
5. to meet the learning outcomes of our curriculum

I have shared workshops on the topic, worked with colleagues to help them create their own blog or get their classes started on blogging, and most recently, began working with the English department at Oak Bay High School on creating a blogging scope and sequence for all students in our school. Our vision is that grade nine students will create a wordpress space that they can nurture over their high school years that will become a cross-curricular reflection of their learning that they can then share as they move on in to their future endeavours.

A recent piece by David Stuart Jr resonates with me for number of reasons. He leans on the work of Dr. Angela Duckworth (I am a BIG fan- see here) and the notion that natural talent does not automatically yield achievement. Duckworth’s theory is that talent multiplied by effort yields skill, and that skill, multiplied by effort, yields achievement. And yes, David makes a great connection to blogging. Have a read here.

The past month I had my bucket filled by a colleague at an elementary school in our district named Siobhan Kivell. Siobhan had attended a blogging workshop I provided at the Victoria GAFE Summit and returned to her learners inspired and ready to break ground in the blogging realm. In her digital reflection (below) we see her grade five class in the moment, creating, sharing, and reflecting on their learning. It is awesome to witness. Kudos to Siobhan and her learners! Have a watch:

I am absolutely thrilled educators are working these rich and meaningful learning opportunities in to their classrooms and the curriculum in the elementary years. When strongly scaffolded, supported, and continued over the years, learners gain a strong grasp of what it means to create an awesome online self. I look forward to one day working with Mrs. Kivell’s students and revamping the scope and sequence we are currently building to meet their exceptional understanding of digital literacy.

Do you blog? Do your learners? Do you have a success story to share? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

5 Ways to Create Change in Your Learning Community

The message that our educational model is not meeting the needs of today’s students is one that we’ve repeatedly heard over the course of our careers. Never before has this rung as true as it does today. The globalization of culture, emerging technologies, access to information and the ability to create, publish, and share, as well as the changing landscape of our economies and employment all present challenges that we as educators have never before faced.

I’ve heard these messages before. Whether it was Sir Ken Robinson:

Or Most Likely to Succeed:

Or this recent piece by Will Richardson (take a few minutes and have a read – you’ll thank me later!), I truly believe that we can do better and that the systems and processes we operate in are not designed to optimize opportunity, personalize learning, or best prepare students for the world of tomorrow.

And this is incredibly frustrating. As my colleague Bill Ferriter pointed out in a little Twitter chat after having read Will’s post:

Don't judge Bill for his Bills shirt.

Don’t judge Bill for his Bills shirt.

I couldn’t agree more with Bill. The meaningful and massive change required will be the result of our learners and their community standing up and demanding better for themselves.

So my attention turns to how am I best preparing students for the challenges outlined above given that I cannot presently change the systems and process we learn in. Well, here is my top 5 list. It’s not definitive but I do believe it is a fine start.

1. I empower the learner as often and as much as I can.
The more I can shift control over learning to the students I work with the better prepared they will be to take ownership over the challenges they will face in their future pursuits. I foster this shift in a number of ways all of which give them a certain amount of control over what we learn, how we learn it, and how we demonstrate our new understandings.

2. I make learning (and our classroom) as transparent as I can.
All of my students blog and I do as well (clearly!). I often tweet out and share student learning throughout the year. My doors are always open both figuratively and literally. I want colleagues to poke their head in to our class to see what’s going on. The more I can show others how I am empowering learning the more likely others are to try change on for size.

3. I utilize technology in our learning.
No longer is integrating tech in my practice a question. So many of the barriers to adoption have been removed whether it be a lack of resources, a lack of time, or a lack of necessary knowledge and skill (See). There is no excuse to not turning on a device, pressing a whole bunch of buttons, and seeing what they do. It’s fun!
My attention has since shifted to empowering students in their decision making of WHAT tool to use and helping them understand WHY they chose it. Technology provides access, voice, and personalization, all of which enhance learning and empower students.

4. I open our learning to include as many contributions from outside of our classroom as I can.
Will Richardson states “The middleman is vanishing as peer to peer interactions flourish. Teachers no longer stand between the content and the student. This will change the nature of the profession.” I couldn’t agree more. Certainly there’s a particular amount of must know information in all of our disciplines. But more and more my role is becoming one where I help learners seek out answers to authentic questions that require collaboration with contributors outside of our classroom. How I facilitate this process and assist in bringing these collaborations together is highly important in preparing learners for the world of tomorrow.

5. I seek out authentic learning opportunities, ones where the audience is real, the stakes are genuine, and the impact is palpable.
In our Inquiry Classroom students ask the questions that guide our learning. We share our new understandings with others whether it be online (blogs, YouTube channel, or Twitter), in our school, or in our community. Learners communicate with an audience that is much more “real” than merely their class teacher, me. Their “work” is more than just a sum of assessments that shapes an overall grade. Their learning creates change, inspires and informs an audience, and engages with a genuine community. These qualities bring meaning to everything we do together.

I’d love to know how you are accomplishing these 5 Ways to Create Change in Your Learning Community. Or perhaps you can help me extend my list and inspire some change in my practice. Please comment below.

I look forward to hearing form you!