The teacher’s role in an inquiry-centered classroom is absolutely critical. It takes practice. It takes patience. It requires a willingness to try new things, fail, reflect, revise, redeem and repeat. In roughly chronological order (within an investigation), here are 10 things that will allow constructive inquiry to flourish.
A teacher in an inquiry-centered classroom must:
- Introduce challenging, engaging ideas that inspire student questions. Honor those student questions and allow them to guide the path of the class. Help them to identify the questions most worth pursuing and to hone them into strong investigative questions.
- Find a happy medium between giving your students too much direction and too little. This is a fine line. If the students have freedom and choice and choose to do nothing, you need to diagnose that problem and work with them to fix it.
- Establish routines and structures in your classroom that support inquiry. Kids need to know when and how to have whole class discussions, small group discussions, team meetings, workshops, etc. They need to know when, where and how to obtain materials. They need to have a method for planning, monitoring and assessing the progress of their investigations.
- Engage in frequent conversations with your students to keep them moving forward with inquiry while assessing their current understanding. Use open-ended, high-level questioning strategies that help students to come to conclusions on their own. Challenge student misconceptions in a caring, respectful way. Mentor them in a productive direction when they get stuck and can’t move forward on their own.
- Focus students on generating arguments based on evidence. Don’t let them simply regurgitate information – challenge them to provide explanations. On the flip side of that coin, don’t let them pose arguments based strictly upon opinion or unsupported inference. Teach them to respectfully challenge each other’s assertions – and yours.
- Provide opportunities for students to choose how they will demonstrate their learning. Inquiry doesn’t work when you put it in a box and tell students you are going to assess their knowledge with a teacher (or test generator) designed test at the end. At least not one that is graded.
- Connect students with experts in fields relevant to their inquiry and facilitate their conversations. Seek out local university resources – both professors and graduate students. Seek out local experts working in fields relevant to the students’ investigations. Find resources among local community members. Connect the students to these people, in person or virtually (email, Skype, etc.).
- Teach skills and processes that students need to know in order to engage in effective inquiry. Don’t put their inquiry in a box with a rigid set of steps or “scientific method.” However, give them structures and tools to help them move forward. More scaffolding will obviously be needed early on. You may provide planning forms for students to complete prior to investigations, monitoring forms for them to use to track their progress, and peer/self assessment guides, among others.
- Provide time for reflection and metacognition within the structure of learning cycles. Reflection is when students really make meaning of new information, assimilate it, and make it their own. It’s when they learn from successes and failures and consider how to improve for future investigations.
- Have fun with your students! Demonstrate genuine love of inquiry, of learning, and of your content area (if applicable). Inquiry should be fun – if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.