The Power of Student Questions to Drive Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning activity student questions elementary school kids raising hands to teacher

One of the keys to engaging students in a challenging learning activity is to pique their interest and curiosity from the start. When using Shared Inquiry with a complex text, teachers can accomplish this through two specific inquiry-based learning activities. The first is a prereading activity, during which students explore a concept relevant to the text they will be reading from their own perspective. Then, after they have read (or, in the case of younger students, listened to) the text, students engage in a sharing questions activity, during which they share their questions and places in the text that they found confusing.

As a training instructor of the Shared Inquiry Essentials course, I often receive questions from teachers about why inquiry-based units begin this way, rather than by giving students at least some background information and support for new vocabulary. These are good questions and in other situations, good strategies to use; however, in inquiry-based learning, student questions actually drive the inquiry.

In my other role, in which I support teachers after training as they use Shared Inquiry in their classrooms, I find that those earlier teacher questions have disappeared. In their place are comments about how engaged students were in these activities, how much they were able to learn from each other, and how eager they were to dig deeper into the text, despite its complexity.

After experiencing Shared Inquiry with texts from Junior Great Books (Learn more: K–5 or 6–8), it is not unusual for teachers to want to extend the Shared Inquiry methodology into areas of their curriculum that may not be text-based. In these cases, they may want to consider doing something similar to what a second-grade teacher in New York City did at the beginning of a unit about local geography. Using her digital whiteboard, she pulled up an unlabeled map of the region that showed only the difference between land and water, and asked her students two simple questions: “What do you notice?” and “What do you want to know more about?” She reported back that five of the six key points she wanted her students to know about were raised by the students themselves.

Senior Professional Learning Consultant Linda Barrett has over 20 years of experience as both a professional development coach and a training instructor with the Great Books Foundation, working with a wide range of student populations in schools throughout the country and abroad. She has supported Great Books implementations, including several Comprehensive School Reform projects in the New York City area. Now based in Florida, Linda continues to support a number of large Junior Great Books implementations, while also growing multi-school Junior Great Books initiatives in several Florida counties and a number of other states.