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How to Create Inquiry-Based Lessons in Every Subject


I struggled with whether to call this post, “Inquiry-based Lessons” or “Inquiry-based Classrooms.” I decided on lessons because we often get overwhelmed with trying to wholesale change our entire classrooms, and usually to do is unnecessary and unrealistic. So then, if we focus on changing some of our lessons to inquiry-based, we will no doubt feel more able to complete the task.

But, why is it important to do this? This idea came to me after an educational conversation on Twitter no less! (picture below) Often, when people ask me how I create engaging class environments, I reply, “I don’t know. It comes naturally.” However, I began to realize through this twitter conversation that one of my keys to engaging students is through inquiry.

So as I stated in the tweet, teachers must remember, “questions are the answers.” This is true if we are talking about the world outside of our classroom or inside. For instance, professionals often ask questions about why something is to answer how to solve, fix, or enhance. We’ve seen the posters that say, “millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” In essence, asking why has led to millions of discoveries. Inside the classroom, if we ask students “why” or we allow them to ask “why” and explore solutions or answers, they begin to learn without even knowing it.

Indeed, stop trying to give all the answers as teachers, and allow kids to find them!

Below are simple ways that I allowed inquiry to lead different subjects that I taught over the years.

Math Example

Who doesn’t like a good mystery. I taught an entire unit of multiplication of multi-digit numbers by allowing students to try and discover whodunnit. I created a case with a crime, suspects and all. Day one, the problem would be: let’s discover how much was stolen from the mansion: 2 pieces of jewelry each worth $256, three televisions worth $987 and so on. It may not seem like a big deal, but for some reason, students knowing that at the end of the week, they’re going to know who broke into an imaginary mansion hooked them to the lesson!

Science Example

Science is already filled with questions. I remember studying acid rain in Germany’s Black Forest. My students, every single one had never been to Germany, and the vast majority had never traveled outside the US. Why should they care about a forest in Germany? I could have shown them pictures of the dead trees, but that’s 1990s stuff. Instead, my inquiry was this. If we plant these little plants in pots and water them with fresh water, slightly acidic water and very acidic water, what do you think will happen? We then did so using lemon juice as our acidic solution. The students then made hypotheses and we conducted our experiment over the course of a few weeks. Surprise the more acid that was in the water, the sooner the plant died! Now they’ve seen personally the damage that acid rain has on vegetation.

Social Studies Example

Asking, “Who was Mahatma Gandhi?” will lose half your class. They don’t know. They don’t care, unless you allow them to try and discover a historical secret. For example, give them two saltine crackers. One without salt and one regular. Ask them to vote on which taste better. No doubt, the majority will say the saltine. Now, ask your question: How did salt lead an entire country to independence from the strongest empire in the world? Have them search and find out about Gandhi’s March to the Sea. This really isn’t all that hard, when we think to lead with questions.

ELA Example

I am not sure I ever did a very good job of incorporating inquiry into English Language Arts, so I will use an excellent example from my son’s teacher. Apparently smart teachers everywhere are starting to use podcast in their instructions. I had no idea! His teacher had students listen to a mystery podcast, and make predictions on what happened, who did it and how. On Apple Podcast it is described like this, “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is a high-quality serial mystery story for middle graders, performed by actual kids. Think Goonies, meets Spy Kids, meets Stranger Things for 8-12 year-olds.” My son and his classmates were glued to the story, asking their teacher to release the next season before she was ready! I wished I had thought of this idea. She had her students engaged, practicing listening skills, comprehension, rich vocabulary, inferencing, and writing their answers all with the click of a mouse. It’s almost too easy!

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