Teachers who are interested in shifting their classrooms often don’t know where to start. It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else around you seems to think the system is broken.

A question I’m asked often is, “Where should a teacher begin?” Should teachers just let students go or is there a process to good student-centered inquiry? I’ve reflected on this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key. I think letting students “go” without any structure will likely create failure, especially if students haven’t spent much time collaborating. Skills need to be modeled.

Many teachers have likely engaged in some type of inquiry or project-based learning, but with frustrating or dismal results. I hear things like, “students weren’t on task,” “one student bossed most of the kids around,” “the end product wasn’t very good,” and many more. I’ve had these same experiences. What I’ve come to realize when I see these “behaviors” for lack of a better term, it’s likely telling me students are missing skills, or a structure to help them through the learning process. It’s my job to ask kids questions to find out what’s really going on.

When I start with a new group of students, the design is tight. Choice is given, but I often pick the topic and options for student voice. I model skills like collaboration, thinking out loud about my learning, and explicating integrating tech and why it’s being used. I also add particular group activities that help kids develop these skills, and use rubrics, like those found on the Buck Institute for Education website, to help them assess their own ability to collaborate, etc.

I’ve also discovered I need to teach the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Most students have been taught to cooperate. “Play nice in the sandbox.” Collaboration is an entirely different thing. Many adults don’t know how to collaborate well.

1. START WITH ONE UNIT

Start with creating one inquiry unit in one subject. You can jump in and change everything at once like I did, but that’s slightly crazy. Instead, if you design one unit in one subject, at the end of each day, or week, you can analyze what worked and what didn’t. While teaching doesn’t always leave a lot of time for luxuries like reflection, it really is the key to figuring out inquiry learning, and as the teacher, it’s one of your most important roles.

Sometimes you may not understand why certain things aren’t working. Ask your students. I’m often surprised by how much they know and how adept they are at articulating what they need.
Two of the best resources I’ve found for creating an inquiry classroom are Carol Kuhlthau’s work and Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning.

If you don’t know how to create an inquiry classroom, ask me. I’m happy to help. You can begin by posting comments here. If you need resources, I can probably point you to some. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to email, Skype and, if distance allows, have teachers, administrators and superintendents visit my classroom to see what we do.

2. TALK ABOUT LEARNING

Talk to your students about their learning — a lot. Especially in the beginning, I talk to my students about why my classroom is structured differently than every other class in our school. I show them Ken Robinson’s talk about how the 20th century school system doesn’t really prepare students anymore. I also show them Chris Lehmann’s TEDx talk emphasizing how education is broken and Karl Fisch’s Did You Know?


I tell my students that essentially I’m preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems we’re not currently aware of. They get the point. It’s about developing skills and habits of learning, and we use content to do that.

But I also talk to my students about stuff like how their brain works, and how neural connections need to be made. That often, in order for students to learn something new, it needs to be attached to things they already know. Just before the recent break, during the last week of school, we talked about cognitive dissonance and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. They like to know there’s a reason for the way they feel when they don’t “get it.” And they like to know that everyone’s zone of development is different. In fact, they were amazed to find out everyone’s brain is different.

And, yes, I use the big words. I simply explain what they mean. I don’t use them to sound smart. I use them because it makes my students feel smart; most of our society doesn’t treat our students like they’re capable of understanding or doing much. I do.

3. MAKE TECH WORK FOR YOU

Embed technology in ways that are authentic to the learning process. The first tools that I teach my students are Google Docs, Diigo or Delicious to bookmark their research, and Symbaloo to house their tools.

Experience has taught me that the first day I introduce a class to Google Docs, we will get nothing done. To them, it’s the most amazing thing ever. They usually spend most of the class typing back and forth to each other in the doc. No big deal. However, eventually, my students open Google Docs without me telling them to. I have students who literally use them for every lab, essay, and assignment. And the ability for a group to work on and edit the same document at the same time, more than makes up for the initial class we lose.

The social media tools we used to show our learning in our slavery unit seemed like the most natural and logical tools to use. As a learning community, we want our learning to extend beyond the four walls of our classroom. So we have a discussion, or likely multiple discussions, about what that should look like. We also want our projects to have “real world” implications. What’s more real world than advocacy against modern-day slavery using social media?

Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond our classroom — and how can what we do here make a difference to the real world? Our tool selection is guided by the answers to these questions.

4. EXPECT TO HIT THE WALL

Remember that inquiry learning is an emotional process. Each stage of learning has specific emotions attached to it, and at some point, you and your students will likely hit the wall. That’s normal.

I’ve found that we need to talk more as an inquiry class. My role is to be well aware of how my students are doing emotionally, especially when we’re dealing with a weighty, overwhelming topic like slavery. While this may not matter much in a traditional classroom, it can completely blow apart a community learning through inquiry.

I won’t promise you that any of this will be easy. It’s not. You’ll likely have days when you wonder why you ever started it. But trust me, it’s worth it.

This article originally appeared on Shelley Wright’s blog Wright’s Room where she explores her experiences in the classroom and ruminations on the future of learning. Wright teaches high school in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

How to Design a Classroom Built on Inquiry, Openness and Trust 8 September,2015MindShift

  • Thom Markham

    Thanks, Shelly. Too bad about the PBL “being frustrating or dismal”. That shouldn’t happen. As you point out, the key is to have a plan and structure to organize the learning.

  • Lots of talk. What I’d like to see is a video of how this actually works in a real classroom.

  • Donna N

    I would love to learn more about project based learning and using technology in the classroom. Can you recommend resources for US History 8th grade? I teach special ed but would love for my students to explore and engage in the subjecf in the most meaningful of ways for them. Thanks!

  • Samara O

    You said changing your whole curriculum at once was, “slightly crazy.” How long did it actually take you to put it all together?

  • Ashley Sherburne

    Thank you so much for this helpful article. I am hoping to start inquiry in my classroom this year, but I am struggling to find resources for younger students. I live in a rural area on an Indian reservation and my students have had only very structured curricula up until now. My classroom is a 3rd-4th-5th combo with 21 students. Any guidance, resources, or ideas would be greatly appreciated!

    • Laura Williams-May

      One resource is a “science table” . Bring in things from nature, a dead bird, a rock, a wasp nest, a piece of coral, a fossil, a plant with thorns, a plant with waxy or hairy leaves and use it as the basis for creating a lesson about natural science.Show the natural creation in your own “show and tell” at the beginning of the day and then allow visits to the science table to examine it [have a magnifying glass available] throughout the day when students have free time. Pairs work well. then do the lesson at the end of the day when everyone has had a chance to have private time with the object. Do the research on it yourself then transfer it to them guiding their inquiry. Being that you are on a res, their experience with the natural world can be exploited because they already know something about it. they just need help getting off the ground. I can give you off the top of my head lesson plans if you wish.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor