Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What is inquiry? What isn't inquiry?

We have been doing a unit of inquiry about science for the last four weeks. The focus of the unit is on designing experiments to answer questions about materials and matter, but it has evolved also into an intense learning experience about questions. The students have really struggled with questions because they have been struggling to ask questions that are worth answering or can actually be answered. So many times I have found myself almost saying "Oh, good question" when faced with a student question that is way beyond their means, totally illogical or simply not worth knowing.

Hang on! I hear the rallying cry... not worth knowing? How can a student's question not be worth knowing? This is inquiry learning!

Is it though? It would be interesting to travel back in time through a child's education and add up the number of times they have posed a question and got the reply "good question", had their question posted on the "question board" and then never looked at it again. My estimate would be - a lot of times. I've done it myself. There's a tendency in us all, I'm sure, to give the standard answer of "good question" when we're faced with a kid who's asking a ridiculous question. It makes life so much easier, doesn't it? I mean, the kid must be learning if they're asking questions, right? That's inquiry learning isn't it?

Not really. In my opinion, it's inquiry learning if students are asking effective questions that provide them with a vehicle for inquiry. It's inquiry learning if students are finding answers to their questions, and using those answers to pose new questions. In genuine inquiry learning, teachers know where their students are heading. Their pathways there may be entirely different, but they know where they're heading to. We need to teach them how to pose the questions that will get them there.

I attended a PYP workshop a while ago where the workshop leader put four words up in the four corners of the room. The words were:


She then gave us this sentence starter, "Inquiry learning is...", and asked us to finish the sentence by standing with the word we believed finished the sentence off. Nearly everybody stood under "discovery". We were naive and inexperienced in thinking that inquiry learning is discovery. Inquiry learning is guided, teachers know the knowledge, skills and understandings they want their students to gain. We must, therefore, give them the ability to pose and use effective, realistic, answerable and meaningful questions on which to base those inquiries.

Until we stop accepting poor quality questions from kids, and teach them to pose effective questions, will we ever be making inquiry learning happen?


  1. What are some examples of effective and ridiculous questions your students have asked? Do you have a sequence of lessons that you use to teach effective questioning?

  2. i really agree with this. i've found that students' personal engagement within an engagement progressively surfaces deeper and more interesting questions. we've talked a lot as teachers about those 'leftfield' questions that blow us away and often take an inquiry in a really interesting direction and to a deeper level. funny thing is we know more about how to recognise these that create the conditions to generate them.

  3. Hi Anonymous and dazedinquirer!

    Sorry to have been so long replying. Blogger has been banned in China so it's not as easy to stay in touch with this blog right now!

    I'll get some examples of the questions I was talking about in this posting. Chad could write up the plans that he used to develop questioning in our students - it worked really well.

    "Creating the conditions" for effective questioning, I like looking at it that way. It's like setting the scene, putting the students in the right context, the right frame of mind and arming them with the skills they need in order to develop questions that can become inquiries.

    One thing I've found is that many of us get the students to ask questions at the start of an inquiry, often just provoking very basic thoughts. We then are under the impression that our inquiry is guided by student questions, but is it really?