Five KAPOWs in Inquiry-Based Classrooms

When tasked as a new principal to help implement inquiry-based instruction in every classroom, I was stumped. I knew that inquiry had something to do with asking a lot of questions, but beyond that, I really had no clue. I read several articles about inquiry and could imagine its natural fit in, say, a science classroom. I needed something more concrete. Was inquiry-based instruction obvious to everyone but me?! Did inquiry mean we would be doing project-based and hands-on everything? What happens to classroom management? Does it work for all students? What will test scores look like? Would teachers be able to get through their curriculum? What will the parents think?

Fifteen years and hundreds of hours observing and demonstrating inquiry lessons later, I can now identify inquiry when I see it. It takes on different forms depending upon the age level and subject, but there are core elements or teacher dispositions that are recognizable. 

So, what is inquiry-based instruction?

Inquiry is a way of teaching that allows students to build upon their prior understanding and encourages them to follow their curiosity. My favorite definitions come from the seminal writing of Postman & Weingartner and Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Socrates might well be our earliest and most recognizable inquiry teacher; turning lessons into conversations and feeding students with questions until they come to their own reasonable conclusions. The Socratic Seminar is a great model for inquiry. But inquiry isn’t an event; it’s an approach. Honestly, done right, it's KAPOW. Inquiry changes the 'game' completely and once you get a taste of it...there's no going back.

Whether you teach first grade or Calculus, here are five “common sense but not common practice” strategies or KAPOWs (what I'm calling them until I can come up with a better term) that are evident in every inquiry-based classroom:

1) Getting Personal

Inquiry teachers regularly create and maintain emotional bonds between the teacher and students (“Let me tell you a story about when I...”), the students and one another (“Turn and talk to a neighbor about...”) and between the students and the topic (“Reflect on your experiences with...”). Emotional bonds create the essential conditions necessary for students to explore their curiosity and take intellectual risks. The best way of quickly establishing lasting bonds? A terrific story. For inspiration, check out Carmen Agra Deedy.

2) Asking More: Talking Less

Inquiry teachers aren’t big lecturers. They provide access to information and create a range of questions to help students verify, debunk or build off what they already know. Students in inquiry classrooms ask a lot of the questions to themselves and one another, a skill nurtured by their teachers through activities like the Question Formulation Technique.

3) Encouraging Evidence

Students and teachers in inquiry classrooms regularly ask one another: “How do you know that?” With the volume of information available today, students do not necessarily need more information, they need to know how to better access, evaluate and use what’s available to them. By habitually referencing the author, publisher and copyright date, ruminating on the potential bias and the possible perspective from which the information comes, inquiry teachers can model this practice and expect students to do the same. Researcher and author Alan November has this strategy down cold. 

4) Staying Curious

Inquiry teachers are open to learning and approach their work with a beginners mind. They regularly share their own curiosity with students. When students are taking risks with their ideas and making conjectures, inquiry teachers encourage them by resisting the urge to narrate the conversation with too many judgments. Instead, you will hear teachers responding to students’ answers and comments with more questions. They also enlisting other students to respond (“What do the rest of you think about that?”) or simply saying “Thank you.”

5) Extending Thinking Time

Schools generally work within extreme time and space constraints. This can produce a suffocating and stressful environment; one in which it can be very hard to breathe, let alone learn. Inquiry teachers 1) pause frequently, 2) offer time for students to gather their thoughts or write and reflect before moving into groups or responding and 3) slow down their own movement and speech. Learning is a process that takes time and inquiry classrooms respect this. An easy way to start is to set aside time for meditation. Check out the Mind-Up curriculum for inspiration.

Inquiry classrooms integrate direct instruction, lectures and skill-based practice. The key, like most things in life, is balance. Ascribed standards, curriculum and assessments won’t dictate whether or not we ‘do inquiry.’ Individual teachers will decide. Teachers can create a professional culture where inquiry isn’t unique but the norm by applying these strategies, analyzing the results and getting regular support and feedback from colleagues and students. Inquiry’s great promise is to build classrooms truly worthy of our students’ and teachers’ time and talent. Inquiry’s amazing result is joyful learning. KAPOW!