Wisdom Begins with Wonder

What an inquiry-centered classroom looks like

Let me paint you picture of an inquiry-rich classroom:

This looks like an inquiry-based classroom to me!

This looks like an inquiry-based classroom to me!

Student work plasters the walls (if there are any), not the teacher’s favorite posters.  At the beginning of the year, the walls are mostly bare but that changes quickly.  The walls reflect the culture of the classroom.

Rules are minimal and focused on community building and learning – they are principles more than rules.  A teacher who dominates the culture of the classroom leaves little room for inquiry.  If a kid is afraid of angering the teacher, they may hesitate to try something with a potential for failure.

Discipline in an inquiry-rich classroom is low-key and subtle.  When a student acts up or is off task, the teacher has a quiet conversation with them and moves on.  When the entire class is struggling to focus, a class meeting is held to diagnose and treat the problem.  The teacher welcomes student questions and criticisms and makes a genuine effort to address them, when possible.

Students are allowed to move freely and communicate openly; they choose where to sit and with whom they will work most of the time (although it is important that they collaborate with different peers throughout the year).  The room often seems noisy and busy, with many students going in many different directions at once.  Students have access to the materials and information that they need, when they need it.  Desks/ tables are arranged in groups, not in rows.

Technology, though not a necessity for inquiry, has it’s place in an inquiry-based classroom.  What technology is present is used freely and frequently by students to gather data, conduct research, and create products.  Technology is seen as a means, not an end and is used as one of many available classroom tools.  The focus of any technology use stays on learning.

The teacher is rarely seen in front of the room talking to the whole class.  Often, when someone walks into the room to find the teacher, they can be seen standing by the door for a few moments, scanning the room, unable to locate the teacher because he or she is moving about the room to work with the students.

Students engage in rich conversations with peers and with their teacher on a regular basis.  These conversations center around content, process and product.  Ad hoc workshops (both teacher- and student-led) often develop around knowledge and skills students need to complete their inquiries.

Assessment is student centered and learning-focused.  When students are too focused on grades, they really struggle with inquiry.  They need to trust that their grade will not plummet if their experiment, design, or ambitious project crashes and burns.

The teacher and the students genuinely enjoy what they are doing.  The teacher loves teaching and loves students and it shows.  The students like to be in this class because it feels different than their other classes; they are stimulated intellectually but they also feel safe and comfortable.

What else would you add to this picture?

Image Copyright John Rostron and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence


4 comments ↓

  • #   Jerrid Kruse on 08.30.10 at 6:57 am     

    I love the picture you paint, however, these pictures can be misleading. This picture could be attained without student learning being increased. What is missing from this picture is the interactions between teacher and students. In what ways does the teacher help students move forward?

    You note that the teacher is moving around the room, working with student groups. However, these interactions could be the most important for developing a culture of inquiry. Many teachers will simply explain student questions/problems rather than helping students come to their own answer through careful scaffolding…..this artful back and forth between teacher and students is where students come to know that the teacher will provide necessary support without providing easy answers.


  • #   Sean Nash on 08.30.10 at 7:10 am     

    Nicely done.

    This is my favorite part:

    “Students engage in rich conversations with peers and with their teacher on a regular basis. These conversations center around content, process and product. Ad hoc workshops (both teacher- and student-led) often develop around knowledge and skills students need to complete their inquiries.”

    Peeking into a classroom to identify a true environment of inquiry can be full of misidentification. To really dig what’s going on there… you have to do just that… dig. Stop and sit with kids. Sit with the teacher and their students.

    The depth of conversations and the ability of students and teacher to seamlessly flow back and forth from independent thinking… to group collaboration… to teacher-led mini-lessons… is a big deal. It’s funny how easy it is for even new teachers to foster an ecosystem of exploration and thought if they truly believe in this approach to learning. If a teacher hasn’t always done things this way, and they make the switch, they really have to believe. They have to believe in that vision of the perfect classroom. It is that belief that will guide them through the inevitable implementation dips in the early going.

    It’s funny. To the uninitiated, this type of classroom sometimes looks like the “no-solution solution.” However, fostering a classroom in the neighborhood of what you described takes an immense amount of thought, planning and careful tweaking along the way. Keep it coming.


  • #   Sean Nash on 08.30.10 at 7:12 am     

    Jerrid… right underneath me there, you were posting nearly exactly what I was thinking as I typed my comment. Weird, yet cool.


  • #   Mr. Rice on 08.30.10 at 7:37 am     

    Sean & Jerrid -
    You guys are both absolutely right. I think this post went both too far and not far enough. I set out to describe what the classroom would look like and strayed into other topics superficially. I think you have hit on excellent points related to learning.

    Thanks for the feedback – you’ve inspired my next post!


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