Inquiry Based Learning Made Easy

As the period ended yesterday, a student said to me, “Ms. Minkin, we should always play games like this.”

I was glad she had fun. But we hadn’t been playing a game.

What my student was referring to was the inquiry based lesson she had just experienced. Notice I didn’t say “the lesson I had just taught.” Because that’s the point of inquiry based lessons. I don’t teach them. Instead, I arrange activities and materials in a way that enables my students to discover the content, rather than me presenting it to them.

Let me give you an example.

The “game” my student thought she had played in my English class was an inquiry based approach to teaching allusion. But I didn’t use the word allusion until the very end of the lesson. Instead, I created an activity that enabled my students to learn all about allusions – what they are, how they are used, why they are powerful – and then I told them the name of the concept they had just learned: allusion.

Here’s a general overview of how I put together this lesson. Using this method, you can assemble inquiry based lesson of your own on any topic.

Inquiry Based Learning Lesson Plans

  • To begin, I said, “Today, I am not going to tell you the name of the thing we are learning until the end of the period. It has a real name, and it is a real thing. But for now, we are going to call it “globnob.”
    • Then I handed each pair of students a very simple handout that had five examples of allusions to things I hoped they would know: Pinocchio, The Incredible Hulk, The Hunger Games, and Albert Einstein.   
  • I set this up this inquiry as a puzzle by saying, “These are all great examples of globnob. Your job is to examine them very closely, notice patterns, and attempt to figure out what a globnob is.   What must all globnobs have or do?”
  • Then I let them dive in.

Listening To Conversations

While the students were working to solve the inquiry challenge I had given them, I moved through the room.  Circulating between student conversations is always my favorite part of any inquiry lesson.  

What teacher doesn’t feel like she hit the ball out of the park when her kids are actually deeply involved and discussing the content she wants them to learn?

Here are some snippets I heard:

  • Student 1:  Globnob means metaphor.  
  • Student 2: No, some are not.  It must mean something else.
  • Student 3: Look at the pattern.  They all have people. Globnob involves people.  
  • Me: What people? What patterns do you notice about the people? 
  • Student 4: They are all made up.
  • Student 3: No, Albert Einstein is real.

Mid-Session Hints and Redirects

After a while, I stopped my students. “I want to give you some hints.” I said. “Some, but not all, of these globnobs are metaphors. But that’s coincidental. globnob doesn’t mean metaphor.”  

I also acknowledged that some students thought globnob meant idiom and that not all the examples were actually idioms.  

To help them along the way, I put checks in front of the ones they got right.

This activity included many elements of video games that are familiar to my students. Before solving the whole puzzle, they achieved little victories along the way. For instance, the first example in the inquiry was “My brother told such an obvious lie, I was surprised his nose didn’t start growing.” I put big orange checkmarks on the papers of the kids who wrote Pinocchio (then corrected the spelling, LOL) to give them some immediate feedback.

Five Lessons Learned

1. Think in Terms of Puzzles

The best inquiries make the students feel like they have been presented with a puzzle to solve.  That puzzle should be squarely in their ZPD, the sweet spot where students are challenged, but not overwhelmed.  They know they can crack the nut with some mental energy and creativity. What they don’t know is that we call that… learning. 

2. Keep The Stakes Low

But we want to keep the stakes low. Not everyone will understand the concept even as the inquiry winds down.  I have found that it is helpful for them to “get credit along the way.”  For example, those orange checkmarks I mentioned above were enough feedback to encourage my students to to persevere through the rest the process.  Most of them were engaged enough that they didn’t even need the feedback.

When it comes to inquiry based learning lesson plans, the stakes are are also low for the teacher, too.  These don’t have to be long and elaborate lessons. You don’t have to transform every traditional lesson into an inquiry based one.  Just consider dipping your toe into the waters of inquiry.

3. Shift Your Mindset

Inquiry based teaching requires a shift in our thinking.  We do not begin by presenting or delivering our content.  We are creating a framework for our students to learn the content through discovery.  

We must also shift our mindset when it comes to where our energy is focused.  Maybe it’s just the way I teach, but I find that inquiry based learning requires more upfront preparation than my traditional lessons (see “Models” below).  There are often examples to generate, copies to make, slips of paper to cut, sets to assemble, etc. Plus, as you get started, the planning itself is going to take some extra time as you develop this muscle.

However, my time in the class during the lesson is much less demanding and much more organic as I respond to students, instead of trying to lead them. 

I’ve heard some people say that during inquiries, teachers are the “guides on the side, not the sage on the stage.”

4. Create Great Models

Great inquiries require great models, samples and “artifacts” to compare, contrast, and analyze and then form hypotheses.  Strong examples are ones that are free of difficult language, and elements that could be interpreted in multiple ways. 

For an inquiry on ethos, logos and pathos, for example, I rejected artifacts that were vague enough to be interpreted as ethos or logos.  Yes, in the real world, examples are vague. But when students are learning a concept for the first time, we want examples that are not open to interpretation.

We want clear, isolated examples. When the student understands the concept in this pure form, then they can better analyze more complex, less explicit examples.

If the crux of the lesson comes down to great models, where do we find them?

I don’t go to the internet to find samples to use.  I go to the internet to find inspiration.  I expect that I am going to have to modify, combine, refine, and even make my own versions.  I typically search google, open lots of tabs and begin to look for ideas and patterns that will help me create the basic “artifacts” of the inquiry. 

One of my favorite sources for inquiry artifacts is the flashcard site  It sounds strange, but I get some great ideas by looking at the study aids that teachers and students create there. 

I also find that many of the traditional lessons that I have created over the years contain artifactual elements that can be refined for inquiries.  For example, I used to teach internal monologue from the front of the room.  Now I use those same examples as artifacts for my inquiry based lesson.  I have blocks of text with the interior monologue in boldface type. I tell my students that the thing we are studying is the bold part of the paragraphs, and I ask them to identify patterns. It’s a simple and effective lesson.  I call that a teacher’s dream.

5. Differentiate

Once the lesson is underway, we have the wonderful opportunity to differentiate the lesson on the fly.  As we circulate and check for understanding, we can give some groups hints, and some groups extra challenges to make the task more complex.  

Earlier in this post I discussed giving hints. But I also added complexity when I saw that some pairs had pretty much figured out what an allusion was.  I did this by asking them to add some new examples to the list of five I had provided.  In retrospect, I could have also asked them to look for other patterns or to list characteristics all examples had in common.  For inquiries that involve sorting materials into groups, such as one I did on “connotation and denotation,” I added complexity by asking students to sort the slips differently and articulate their thinking. 

Concluding Thoughts

My hope is that you begin to experiment with this approach in small steps.  Give yourself time to reflect and modify the lesson, even if you don’t reteach it until next year.  As you reflect and refine, you will find that the steps get easier and easier.  I am happy to help you.  If you have any questions, or just want to ring in on this topic, please consider leaving a comment below. 

Want more ideas for implementing Inquiry Based Learning? I have just started reading this booK, Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry (Theory and Practice) and so far I am loving it.

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