Ask any builder and they will tell you the most essential part of creating a home that will stand the test of time and endure the elements is a strong foundation. A focus on 21st Century Learning and Innovation Skills has prompted schools to identify opportunities for students to incorporate the 4Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. In addition, the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards has teachers incorporating problem-based learning in education now more than ever. This exciting shift requires students to be the center of the learning experience, actively working with and manipulating academic content through inquiry by authentically engaging students to support Academic Learning Time. For inquiry-based learning to fully be embedded into the learning process and sustained throughout a student’s academic career, every school and classroom must create a Culture of Inquiry.
Culture is often referred to as a “soft skill’; however, the deeper we dive into 21st Learning and Innovation the more clarity is given to its importance in developing citizens of the future. Culture is foundational and is one of the most critical aspects in any organization. Paired with inquiry, a learning culture is transformed through student ownership, engagement, and authentic educational experiences that deepen conceptual understanding. Cultivating a Culture of Inquiry is hard work and is not done overnight. The first essential building block to extend students’ thinking is to provide an environment where it is okay to question and seek opportunities to uncover solutions to reveal learning. This is easier said than done! Walk through many classrooms today and listen to the questions students are asking to examine the level of inquiry present. Are students asking questions? Are they grappling with the content to deepen their level of understanding?
Younger students can be taught these three simple prompts to initiate guided inquiry:
- I Wonder (developing curiosity)
- I Noticed That (making observations)
- This Reminds Me Of (making connections)
Utilize these prompts to explore and model inquiry throughout academic content within the classroom. Take time to develop this way of thinking in all aspects of a child’s learning day. Focus on giving them (and yourself) permission to ask questions . . . permission to inquire. In addition, explore ways to value all questions that come into the classroom, but in a way that is manageable. If a student brings up a great question, try using it as the basis for a class discussion or creating an inquiry team to investigate. Another strategy might be to create a “Wonder Wall,” or ongoing list of questions that could be investigated at a later time or in a different setting.
Another crucial building block in inquiry is essential questions. Wiggins and McTighe articulate the importance of “opening doors.” Too often, the questions that we design might close doors for students, so we need to know who our students are to create questions that will open doors and invite them into the learning process. These types of questions are provocative, open-ended, and aligned to the content, but also allow space for exploration. Teachers of secondary students can use the essential question to leverage inquiry and engage them throughout the lesson and/or unit.
Creating a culture of inquiry is hard work, but with intentionality, purpose, and guidance we can generate learners who dive deeply into content and surface with skills that will launch them into a successful future equipped to be college and career ready.