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3 Easy Shifts to Elevate Inquiry Learning

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3 Easy Shifts to Elevate Inquiry Learning

When a teacher looks to make changes in his/her classroom, those changes inevitably fall under one of two categories: changes in a particular activity or lesson or changes in an ongoing process or classroom dynamic. While any improvement in the student experience is valuable, a structural or fundamental shift definitely holds the highest potential for positive impact.

The concept of inquiry-based learning can be accomplished in isolated activities in many dynamic ways, but instilling an inquiry mindset into the classroom experience tends to pose more of a challenge. The purpose of this post is to share a few of those more impactful shifts in ways that any teacher can easily adopt.


Attempting to implement the following changes may require the willingness to “give up” a certain amount of the ever-cherished control that we often feel we need in the classroom. If that concerns or frightens you, then definitely continue reading. Because it shouldn’t!

Shift #1: “What do you need to know?”

This strategy suggests a very basic adjustment in the routine that profoundly impacts critical thinking. Before attempting to tell students what they will be learning about a certain topic or unit or standard, present the topic in its simplest form and ask the question, “What do you need to know?” Be sure to create space not only for the ideas that follow but the process of pursuing those ideas.

Break it Down

  • Present the basic topic and ask “What do you need to know?”
  • Have students consider and share questions about the topic.
  • Allow students to share any and all ideas that might come to mind. Do NOT interfere with the initial brainstorming.
  • Eventually, begin to guide student thinking toward the most essential ideas. Offer more context, but provide space for flexibility.
  • Sort the ideas to show similarities.
  • Provide opportunity for students to pursue particular questions of interest.
  • Keep in mind, this is actually a convergent strategy. Students are ultimately moving toward similar understanding of the same ideas.


Collect ideas on a Padlet to use as an organizational reference tool. Students begin by posting their questions that can later be sorted into columns, if desired. Bonus: use the rating tools in Padlet to allow students to highlight the most important and/or interesting ideas. Also, use the backchannel chat or comment features in Padlet to encourage conversation about the ideas as they are being shared.

Shift #2: “What do you want to know more about?”

While the first shift is a great way to spark curiosity about new ideas, it is still intended to be a convergent strategy, directing students, ultimately, toward certain key ideas. That is necessary, but it is also limited. To expand even further, this second shift introduces the process of seeking and expanding on student curiosity to whatever degree possible. After students have opportunity to develop specific concept knowledge, ask the question “What do you want to know more about?” and create time and space for students to run wild.

Break it Down

  • After addressing the fundamentals (as briefly as possible), expand ideas divergently by asking “What do you want to know more about?”
  • Have students, once again, consider questions to be answered (challenge them to put thoughts into a question).
  • Be sure students can share their ideas with one another as they consider them.
  • Most importantly, allow students to pursue their ideas.
  • Create space for students to publish and share findings as they pursue questions.


Have students use Google Sites to build learning sites or blogs, posting the interesting things they are learning as well as resources they find. Elevate the experience further by having students create products that demonstrate in creative and/or informative ways their new knowledge and findings and share those on their sites.

Shift #3: “What else are we missing?” / “What if…?”

After students have opportunity to venture into the depths of learning, it is conducive to all to consider how best to reunite the students and ideas explored. The final shift suggested here is to ask the question “What else are we missing?” or “What if…?” For this shift to work, students need to actively engage with one another regarding the ideas others have explored. Once they have been able to do just that, they can then consider what else might be missing (or sometimes, depending on the content, the what if question might make more sense).

Break it Down

  • This shift helps to re-converge the thinking so that students are once more thinking on a united front.
  • Strategies that fall quite effectively in line with this shift include debating ideas or considering persuasive arguments (especially when leveraging the what if question).
  • Students view others’ learning sites and share questions they still have after learning about the different ideas others’ have pursued.
  • The end result can be one of two things: (1) based on the questions others have asked, students dive further into the topics they have been exploring or (2) the class as a whole identifies a few gaps and works to fill them in together.
  • The teacher certainly reserves the right to guide this activity toward filling in gaps, as well, especially when considering explicit standards that may not be fully met.
  • Consider directing students’ attention to the standards and posing the question in light of the lesson/unit objectives.
  • Leverage this dynamic to create space for authentic peer feedback.
  • Consider utilizing low-stakes formative assessments to collect data about possible gaps (PRO TIP: have students create or contribute to the assessments based on the questions they are exploring).


Use Padlet or some other kind of discussion tool embedded in student sites for comment threads (the key is allowing students to view one another’s work and share thoughts such as likes and wonders). For formative data, consider utilizing Google Forms (especially because this provides opportunity for students to contribute questions collaboratively – a Google Form can be edited by many users simultaneously!).

Are we missing anything? Inquiry-based learning is not a formula. It is a perspective. The key is creating time and space for student curiosity and exploration to dominate the learning process. Share your own thoughts about such ideas in the comments below!

Like these ideas? To learn classroom engagement strategies that make the most immediate impact, we recommend checking out our program, "Fostering Student Engagement."

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Zach Ripley

Author Since: May 31, 2017

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