5 Strategies Great Inquiry Teachers Use in Their Classrooms

March 25, 2015   |   By Kimberly L. Mitchell

Inquiry-based instruction was always an enigma to me. Like ‘sustainable farming’ or ‘integrative medicine,’ there seemed to be enough evidence to demonstrate superiority of this ‘new, but not new’ method over traditional ones, but would I recognize it if I saw it?

Fifteen years and hundreds of hours observing and demonstrating inquiry lessons later, I can honestly say that inquiry-based instruction has won me over. Inquiry is, for me, the shiniest of silver bullets in a time of education policy gun slinging.

So, what is inquiry-based instruction?

Inquiry is a way of teaching that allows students to build upon prior understanding and experiences. Students are given the primary responsibility for constructing new knowledge, developing new skills and revising their beliefs.. It’s highly-engaging, authentic ‘detective work’ in the classroom.

If we know inquiry so great, then why are so few teachers actually doing it?

I suspect that we over-intellectualize it. I’ve heard people describe inquiry not as a set of specific strategies enacted by teachers, but as a disposition or stance. While this is true, explaining it in this way doesn’t help beginners understand it.

If belief follows practice, then what is the practice of inquiry? 

Here are five strategies that great inquiry teachers use in their classrooms:

1. Create Emotional Bonds

Inquiry teachers create emotional connections between the teacher and students (“Let me tell you a story about when I...”), among students (“Turn and talk to a neighbor about...”) and/or between students and the topic (“Reflect on your experiences with...”).

2. Ask Great Questions: Talk Less

Inquiry classrooms burst with higher-order questions coming from both the teacher and other students (“Which argument was the most convincing and why?” or “Was this experiment well- designed?”) Teachers provide information and questions to help students verify, debunk or build off what they already know. Teachers also help students practice asking their own questions. Check out the Right Question Institute, an organization that helps people of all ages ask better questions.

3. Encourage Evidence

Students do not need more information; they need to know how to better evaluate and use what they have. By habitually referencing author, publisher and copyright date, ruminating on the potential bias and the possible perspective from which the information comes, inquiry teachers model this practice. Students and teachers in inquiry classrooms regularly ask: “How do you know that?”

4. Maintain Neutrality (& promote participation)

When students are taking risks with their ideas and making conjectures, inquiry teachers encourage them by not reacting negatively OR positively to what they say. For example, you won’t hear “Great response!” or “That’s interesting” coming from teachers. You will hear them simply asking more questions or turning to other students to respond.

5. Extend Thinking Time

Schools generally work within extreme time and space constraints. This can produce a suffocating and stressful environment. 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 movement and talk (even a one-minute ‘meditation’ anytime during the class period is a powerful focus strategy).

There are still needs for direct instruction, lectures and practice in inquiry classrooms. The key 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 using 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.

Explore Resources from Inquiry Partners

Want to watch these inquiry-based strategies in action? Check out our videos in the BloomBoard Resource Library and  join us for a webinar Thursday, April 1st @ 9am PST.

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Inquiry Partners is a global organization dedicated to increasing critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills through powerful inquiry-based professional development coaching and videos for teachers and trainers.

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