50 Ways to Inquiry

Is inquiry synonymous with research? This was only one of many questions that a group of teachers had as they explored what inquiry is.

They shared some examples.

Example 1
Learners are given some factual questions to answer around a unit’s concepts. The questions are designed to bring out the students’ prior knowledge, and they are all teacher-generated. The sessions for the week involve choosing sources from a bank of teacher-provided texts, to find answers to the questions.

Example 2
A teacher assigns a text to read to a whole class. Students have found that they have more questions after reading the text. They bring questions to class and share these with everyone. The teacher asks students to write their questions on a chart paper pinned to a classroom wall. They will spend the next days gathering resources and synthesizing what they learn.

Example 3

A class is learning about change in societies through revolution. A learner thinks about the patterns of revolutions, and asks if technology use in global context is a form of revolution. The teacher paraphrases the student, and provokes further thinking by asking, “What makes you say that the rise of technology assisted life is a revolution?”

Example 4

A student notices that muffins are super sweet, and although he likes them, he wonders if there is a way to make them with healthier ingredients. He looks up bakeries in his city and calls to make appointments to talk to the bakers.

The teachers found that all of the above is inquiry-based learning. Out of these examples, the last one implies a full inquiry cycle. So the question they next asked is, Is it inquiry if it’s not part of an inquiry cycle?

When a team of teachers attended Kath Murdoch’s workshop some years ago, we looked at inquiry within a cycle for younger students in the Primary Years. We realized that our primary students would benefit from the structure of a cycle, with clear phases or stages, and that primary teachers would also appreciate using the inquiry cycle as a scaffolded process. Additionally, the cycle could be made visible on the walls both as guidance for the process and to keep track of students’ thinking. The primary teachers were happy to create a school-specific inquiry cycle.

The secondary teachers who taught both middle and high school had a question about following a cycle. As students progressed through the middle years and up, they become more independent, able to explain individual processes that they feel are strong elements in their repertoire of approaches to learning. Secondary teachers felt that their students, depending on their facility with inquiry, may not need the structure of a single inquiry cycle to follow.

Is it inquiry if it’s not explicitly following an inquiry cycle?

This may sound like a simple question to answer because we can reduce it to a Yes or No answer and be done with it. Answering with a single word doesn’t address some of the questions of teachers who are entering into inquiry and trying to implement an inquiry approach to learning into their practice.

The answer we came to together in the secondary school was that learning that uses the inquiry approach does not have to follow a cycle, necessarily. We can implement the inquiry approach in day to day lessons. This is what characterizes inquiry as an approach rather than a lock-step process to follow religiously.

We also found that the process of inquiry may not be a sequential one. As the secondary teachers became more comfortable with the approaching learning through inquiry, they noticed that individual students would follow their pace in asynchronous, nonsequential ways. For example, this is one student’s process, below.

One student’s (non-linear) process of following a line of inquiry.

The student did not follow a linear process, but came back to reformulate a question in the middle of the process as she investigated one line of inquiry.

The asynchronous process of inquiry for individual students implies that it is differentiated and personal. Each student is able to approach learning in his or her pace and process.

The summary of what secondary school teachers learned about approaching learning through inquiry with their students taught them these valuable ideas:

  • Inquiry is non-sequential learning.
  • It is asynchronous for individuals in a group of learners.
  • It can be personal and differentiated.
  • It can shift to being learner-driven.
  • Inquiry is not necessarily or essentially learning following a cycle, and a cycle can guide inquiry.

As the secondary teachers grew more comfortable with the idea that inquiry was not only following an inquiry cycle and is an approach to learning, they shared what worked in their classrooms with the group.

Here are 50 ways that the group of secondary teachers used to enter inquiry in their classrooms.

1. Teach the question formulation technique

Learning how to ask effective questions is a skill central to the inquiry approach. Explicitly teaching question formulation can lead to facility in creating questions, and approaching learning in this way.

2. Object based inquiry

In an inquiry in Individuals and Societies, a teacher asked students to bring objects from home, which they used to activate prior knowledge of the ways ideas travel from culture to culture, sparking changes as the idea immigrated to a new culture.

3. Shift perspective

A useful question to ask was, How might thinking change from a different frame of thought? Exploring different frames of thinking about a particular text or event or era transferred from one subject group to another.

4. Take sides and take sides again

Critical thinking skills deepened when learners considered arguments or theses from opposite or different sides.

5. Bring an example of a mentor text

Learners brought in examples of texts that demonstrated concepts or skills.

6. Deconstruct an example

Groups analyzed the examples of texts they brought in, making visible the concepts or skills these texts demonstrated effectively. This led to an inquiry using the language of quality (criteria) to discern how different text types achieve successful production.

7. Design different entry points

How might you approach this problem? was a question, which allowed secondary learners to identify and use approaches each considered a way in to learning. Some chose numerical facts, others chose humanistic approaches, historical, and other entry points to learning.

8. The show and tell reboot

Bring an artifact and host a Socratic seminar was one group’s approach to their line of inquiry. The artifact could be an object, a literary text, a non-literary text, or other item.

9. Video provocation

For a unit on creativity, students created a bank of videos exploring all dimensions of creativity and used it to consolidate their personal lines of inquiry.

10. Song and lyrics

For concept formation and attainment, students chose a song that they rewrote to illustrate a concept, after completing a Frayers Model of the concept.

11. Playlist

Learners created a playlist of songs illustrating the Learner Profile in their personal identity.

12. Paintings

In an exploration of what it means to be human, learners shared a painting that represented their conception.

13. Diagramming

Groups created diagrams of the relationships between a global context and a unit’s related concepts.

14. Numbers and facts

Some students chose to create infographics, a non-literary text, which synthesizes numbers and facts from a number of resources into one representation. The infographics allowed students to compare and contrast receptive behaviors of readers of prose versus ‘readers’ of non-literary, 21st century texts and led to questions about what it means to be literate.

15. Contrast

In a unit using the concept of revolutions to inquire into how social change manifests, learners used the skill of making unusual connections between ideas through contrast. By examining patterns of texts before a change and after a change, learners were able to find how social change begins with shifting perceptions people have about cost and benefit.

16. Similarities and differences

MYP 1 students learned how to organize writing comparing two elements through a Venn Diagram.

17. Comparisons of language use

MYP 4 and 5 students from 15 different countries compared how mathematics concepts are expressed through words and inquired into what implications this variation has on how they understand and use mathematics to communicate.

18. Analogies

Analogies were used to express thinking and emotion in an explicit lesson drawing out social and emotional skills.

19. Taxonomies – shoes for classification lesson in science

A MYP 2 class took off their shoes, put them in a pile, and randomly chose a number of them as their materials for a classification and taxonomy task. They had to use the shoes they received as a data set to create a taxonomy of the concept ‘shoe’ complete with morphology, traits and behavioral expressions.

20. Taxonomies – puzzle

To assess understanding of a system, students were given a set of system concepts, which they had already met. The task was to classify the concepts into a representation of their relationships, and to self-assess their own understanding of the conceptual frame.

21. Haptics

To explore learning through feel (or touch) and movement, a golf team spent practice sessions with partners, taking turns swinging at a ball blindfolded. The seeing partner placed the ball on the ground and helped the blindfolded partner set his or her clubface in the right position. Then the seeing partner moved out of the way and told the blindfolded partner to swing. This strategy was used by the students to find out how it feels like to hit good or not-so-effective shots and whether or not it allowed them to develop a ‘feel’ in their golf swings.

22. Symbols

In a study of social behavior and organization, learners explored the symbols found in different places in the city – the shopping mall, the neighborhood, the streets, schools, hospitals, offices, banks, parks. They inquired into universal symbols and place-specific symbols and were provoked to ask questions about meaning and function of symbolism.

23. Simulations

A class simulated a market place for services or goods, to consolidate understanding about market forces, design and consumer experience.

24. Experiments

A group of students designed an experiment using medieval weapon design to learn about levers. They made catapults, trebuchet and ballista out of light wood to explore the concept of force and motion.

25. Treasure hunts

The librarian and the counselor designed a skills treasure hunt in which students had to find and name research and emotional skills used in the process of completing a service learning project.

26. Games

A PHE class played a game in which they had to capture a stuffed toy animal with constraints in the behaviors of the group, to learn about the value of communication and leadership/followership in invasive games and team games.

27. Point of view

Groups of learners took on various points of view in the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Through the roles of villager, politician, engineer, journalist, and other roles, learners explored how point of view influences opinion and choices.

28. All about it

Using the video model of how a pencil is created, learners explored the interdependence of global entities using a commonplace object.

29. Sensory input

Students ate berries and wrote observations of the experience to enter understanding of the poem “Eating blackberries” by Galway Kinnell.

30. Different senses

Learners used senses to observe an everyday occurrence in their neighborhood. Observations were written down and shared, eliciting questions from classmates on function, purpose and meaning of social behaviors.

31. Jigsaw sentences

Language acquisition students created sentence puzzles for other classmates to put together. The group then dialogued on patterns in sentence composition and how order and function of words in the basic written language unit of a sentence reflected how that culture perceived reality.

32. One minute pitch for a skill

Learners developed one-minute pitches or elevator speeches for a skill and why it is essential to the task.

33. Soundtrack for a concept

Groups developed a soundtrack for a concept in science , if that concept were a movie. Groups had to justify the choice of music and explain its value using music terminology.

34. Graphic representation of text

As part of reading a text, students developed a cartoon strip showing the significant ideas of the text. They also chose quotes from the text as captions for each frame.

35. Six word memoir

To capture a learning takeaway, students wrote six-word memoirs from the concept’s point of view.

36. Six frame cartoon strip

Instead of a six-word memoir, students in example 35 could choose to draw a six-frame cartoon to express their takeaway.

37. Question corner (Wonder wall)

A class maintained a question corner to keep track of their wonderings. (Strategy learned from Kath Murdoch.)

38. Assumptions wall

This strategy from Thinking Collaborative’s Adaptive Schools was useful for IB Diploma students who were examining their own assumptions about what’s worth learning.

39. Draw a process

To make visible a skill, learners chose to diagram their own approach to learning using that skill.

40. Match my descriptor

Learners brought in examples of one descriptor for different levels of achievement of that descriptor. The class created a bank of examples and used these as models for their own approach to a task.

41. de Bono’s Six hats musical chairs

This is de Bono’s strategy of using varying points of view to plumb an issue. The variation a class used was to play ‘musical six hats,’ switching hats for each Socratic seminar over a six-day lesson, allowing students to have different experiences of framing their thinking around the issues presented by the unit of inquiry.

42. Peer coaching musical chairs

In a PHE class learning through badminton, trios of students took on roles each week, rotating the roles of coach, player and observer. Coaches had to teach a skill to the player, who had to perform it. Observers noted coaching behaviors and player progress according to the criteria for the skill, which the coach taught to the player for that lesson.

43. Observation stations

An art class learning the function of observation in drawing chose observation stations around the school campus. Observers took journal notes and sketches on the elements present at each place. Notes and sketches were discussed as a large group, focusing on the value of detailed observation in production. The reflection asked the students to assess how they might use the skills of observation to create art pieces.

44. Skill Triads

Similar to example 42, students in Individuals and societies took on the roles of facilitator, observer and active participants for skills used in action planning. Facilitators had the job of ‘keeping the process going,’ participants had to put ideas on the table and engage in the dialog, and observers took notes on how the group performed the skills as they went through the process of working together.

45. 2-4-8

To gain consensus and shared understanding, first individual learners were asked to note their responses to a prompt. Then the singles paired up and shared their ideas, and asked to come up with a synthesis of the two. Pairs then shared with other pairs and synthesized ideas into a common idea. The quartets then met up with other quartets, repeating the same process.

46. 3-2-1

This is a strategy commonly adapted to different purposes. An example might be:

  • 3 ideas that resonated with you
  • 2 ideas that were new learnings
  • 1 question

47. Corners

This is also a common strategy. Four concepts or statements are placed in different corners of the room. Learners are asked to choose the idea that they agree with and go to that corner. The large group classifies itself into idea groups. Groups are asked to discuss and justify why they chose the idea of a particular corner. A large group discussion may arise as result of sharing the justifications.

48. True or false

Used as a review or formative assessment, the facilitator presents statements expressing ideas from the previous lesson. Groups have to say if the statement is True or False, and provide a justification for why they say so. This may also provoke a robust discussion on the previously-learned concept(s).

49. Sculpting relationships

Using a family therapy strategy learned from Maria Gomori, a family therapy specialist who uses the Satir model of change. A class applied one strategy from the Satir system of ‘sculpting relationships’ to our study of the characters and relationships in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. By sculpting the relationships using relative position, distance, height, and posture, learners acquired depth of understanding on the novel’s central conflicts and themes.

50. Dossier

This is a long-term application of numbers 5 and 6, and a strategy useful for gaining an overview of a series of exemplars of specific performances. The dossier is an adaptation of a IB Diploma Language B strategy.

To complete a dossier, learners need to gather exemplars of a product, for example a text type. Texts are instructive in different subject groups, not just in the Language and literature and Language acquisition subjects. For examples, Design has the text type of the design brief; Science has the lab report; Mathematics has the investigation; PHE has the plan for a performance; Arts have the developmental journal; Individuals and societies have action plans.

Students may find exemplars from professional contexts, and analyze these, effectively deconstructing the elements and features of the text type. Learners may add their own products to the collection. The dossier is a useful resource and the process of creating one is itself a protracted inquiry into the tools, skills, and concepts that make up a body of knowledge within a discipline.


I have been fortunate to have had daily opportunities to ‘search for butterflies’ a term I use to speak about the transformational qualities of learners who look for new ways of approaching learning, and in the process transform themselves as learners. These are some strategies I’ve seen teachers and students use to approach learning through inquiry.

In what ways might you have observed the inquiry approach? Share in the comments.

Featured photo Butterflies by Kourosh Qaffari on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.