Flickr: Duchamp

By Shelley Wright

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.

The question I’ve been asked often throughout the past year is “Where should a teacher begin?”  I’ve reflected on  this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key.


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.


Talk to your students about their learninga 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 TED-X 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 student’s 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.


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.


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.

Shelley Wright is a teacher/education blogger living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in Canada. She teaches high school English, science and technology. This post originally appeared on Voices of the Learning Revolution.
Shifting the Classroom, One Step at a Time 26 November,2012Tina Barseghian
  • Houser

    This sound wonderful. I am looking for ideas for a second grade classroom. Please help.

  • Joe

    I would also add to the list of tools for bookmarking and citing research.  I just head about it in Mashable and have started using it in my class.  Here’s the article:

  • Jeltjie

    Has anybody tried project based layering in maths? I am new to teaching maths (managing this much better in science, my own field). Any and all help appreciate

  • Jeltjie

    *project based learning and a flipped classroom

  • Mary

    Great article.  We are in the process of transforming our school and this article is perfect.

  • Rola Tibshirani

    It is very true what you describe about the inquiry process. Students have to be included in all of the thinking process and decision making. I am enjoying the journey with my Grade 4’s and 6’s. I am still learning and developing with them along the way. The main success for me is the assessment for learning that is guiding the thinking and the learning process. For now my inquiries are based on the curriculum. I present the students with a variety of front-loading for background knowledge of the topic and then from the curriculum the students decide on what they would like to inquire and research. Rich tasks are also part of the process. Technology is embedded to support the learning and thinking process. I am very fortunate to have iPads in my class.

  • Ailine

    Another important aspect to consider is to have conversations with your students to reveal their thinking. Not all tasks reveal student thinking, so without the conversation you may be missing key pieces in their understanding or their misunderstandings. Start with… Tell me about your thinking in this part of your work.

  • Lgfranks2

    I agree that the inquiry process has an emotional component, which is integral to the learning. We face frustrations and delights. We share commonalities and take our own paths. We accept responsibility for our learning, or we don’t — at any given time.
    As an experienced teacher who has recently returned to the classroom in grade one, I am constantly reflecting, and learning how to engage my students. I agree with Ailine that it is important to ask learners to tell you about their learning — what did they notice, what do they wonder, what did they discover, what will they try next, and thinking about why something has occurred.
    I am challenged to find time and ways to incorporate this type of inquiry process within the great pageant of all that we do in the course of a week, but I am committed to doing it more. I looked at Kathy Cassidy’s website, referenced below, and plan to use her idea for Oreo stacking. We will extend our skills in number sense, estimation, graphing and critical thinking. Maybe I will assign some students to help document the experience with my Flip camera! Hmm… maybe I will invite our 5th grade buddies to help.
    Thank you for stimulating my professional growth!

  • You can also find a ton of resources and examples on the Calgary Science School blog:

  • Thank you for this excellent article. Focusing on the particular needs of your unique class will so personalize the learning the kids will benefit not only in skills and knowledge but be nurtured as individuals.

  • Melissa

    Can this method of teaching work in the lower elementary grade levels?

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