What is inquiry? A reflection on #BIT14

November 9, 2014 — 20 Comments

November 5-7 was the Bring IT Together Conference in Niagara Falls.  Here are some of the most discussed key words.  This graph shows how many times these words appeared in presentation write ups.  For what it is worth, innovation came up only 18 times at 7% of key words found in session titles and descriptions.

Key Words at BIT

I attended 6 totally different sessions on Inquiry

I attended six sessions on inquiry and they were all different.  In fact, if you were to get all these people and put them in the same room but ban them from using the word inquiry, I bet they would have no idea that they were interested in the same topic.

What is counter-intuitive, perhaps, is that each of the sessions was excellent and compelling.

But, if each group had a different take on inquiry, then, what is inquiry?

I am unsettled by how differently each presenter perceived inquiry.  What does it mean that each of these sessions was so completely different? Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? What is inquiry in Ontario schooling today?

What is inquiry?

According to a paper in the Journal of Science Teacher Education by Barrow (2006) and another article in ZDM Mathematics Education by Artigue and Blomhøj (2013)  inquiry can be any of the following:

  • a teaching strategy (teacher posing questions for inquiry)
  • a set of student skills
  • knowing about inquiry
  • being inquisitive and taking action
  • engaging students
  • hands on and minds on
  • manipulating materials
  • stimulating questions by students
  • learning to act like professionals in the field

Why is inquiry important?

From the same articles, the purpose of inquiry can be:

  • helping students prepare for a world of work and careers
  • fulfilling a personal need
  • fulfilling a societal need (critical thinkers)
  • helping prepare students academically
  • generating greater awareness
  • experiencing the discipline like real mathematicians, scientists, sociologist etc.

Inquiry as hands on investigations

Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas presented on their classroom work about inquiry-based learning. They have compiled lots of resources here. Peter described spending a couple of weeks going deep into one theme or building project such as go carts. While he keeps his math separate, he lets the students engage in extended periods of creating, building and hands on learning.  From what was shared at the session, these two take the perspective that inquiry is about hands on to get the minds on.  It seemed like the purpose for inquiry was to engage and fulfill a personal need.  Here learning is a bi-product of a busy, unstructured and bustling with activity classroom.  The advice was to relax, let go and embrace where the students take you once you have provided a guiding question or a bunch of materials to inspire.

Read their session description here.

Fabulous session. Lots of honest talk about Peter’s classroom and the wonderful opportunities he provides.

Inquiry as a teaching strategy and a mindset

Aviva Dunsiger and Jo-Ann Corbin-Harper presented a half day session on inquiry.  What a great opportunity to go deep! They brought tonnes of examples of teacher work and student work.

They curated resources here and invited participants to crowd source even more information in the documents!  Their session was called Inquiry into Action and the description can be found here.

With a focus on the new social studies curriculum in Ontario, Aviva and Jo-Ann took inquiry to be a teaching approach that would leave students into thinking and taking action.  They saw their role to prompt and provoke. Next, they would guide students to ask their own questions and seek to find answers. They were comfortable with letting students ask questions they did not know the answer to and then made it their mission to support the students in finding out. I love that their was an emphasis on taking action and social awareness.  Another impressive session. But, a totally different take on inquiry.

Engaging Students

It is clear to many, including the thoughtful and nuanced thinker and educator Brandon Grasley, that engaging students can be achieved by inviting and supporting students own questions. His thoughtful blog post on engagement is also, as a side note, another write up on how challenging it is to grapple with these hot words of the day.

Then there was Inquiry Based Learning and E-Portfolios in FDK  (session description here) by passionate teacher-librarian Ray Mercer.  Students dressed up as astronauts and told stories of their learning journeys with the use of technology.

His presentation can be found here.  He has just received technology to augment inquiry learning with FDK students.  I wonder how that might change his approach to inquiry?

Hands on technology to inquire

Learning to act like professionals in the field

Inquiry Science Incorporating Technology was a session by secondary teacher Colin Jagoe.  The session description is here. Among other things, his students used Minecraft to do investigations to measure force of gravity in a Minecraft world by having Steve jump off towers. Here is an example I found online.  Colin presented his student’s work and shared how it was important that he let go and allow students to conduct investigations in contexts that were personally meaningful and interesting, like real scientists!  Did he plan the minecraft thing? Apparently not. But did he support it? Yes!

Amazingly, his students had done the same thing as a legitimate physics researcher. The only difference? The physics researcher has a PhD and published his findings in a peer-reviewed journal, here.

Impressive. Also, another totally different take on inquiry.

Inquiry in Ontario?

How important is inquiry in Ontario? Below is a chart representing the number of times the word appears in each of the most recent curriculum documents.

Inquiry Word Count


The mathematics curriculum word count is low. So, I checked problem solving (28 times) and solve problems (83 times). It would seem that problem solving and inquiry are perhaps synonymous.  Are they?

In closing, I am uncertain about what inquiry is and what it should look like in Ontario.





20 responses to What is inquiry? A reflection on #BIT14

  1. Myself along with 20-some other teachers have signed on for a journey into inquiry-teaching/learning at a newly opened school in Brampton. While we all have the drive to dive into teaching based on an inquiry model, it is clear that each individual teacher in our school has a differing understanding/view of what inquiry actual looks like in the classroom much like what you took away from #bit14. I too wonder what inquiry should look like.

    • Thank you for your comment, Phil. I am leading a TLLP project on inquiry with 10 other teachers in my district. We are reading Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in action http://www.heinemann.com/products/E01230.aspx to help us understand inquiry. However, Harvey is about reading comprehension and Daniels is about collaboration and neither one of them are really expert in the area of inquiry. So, I am not sure it was the best pic. If you are reading some books to help guide your thinking, I would love to here which ones and whether they are valuable. Again, as per the comments above, I think we must focus on an Ontario context. If you are, like me, an Ontario teacher in a publicly funded institution I think it is going to be most fruitful to start with what inquiry looks like in Ontario. Inquiry Based Learning monographs here and here is where I plan to turn to next to start untangling. I think some common ground is key for our teachers and our students. I wouldn’t want to go to narrow, I think that would uproot some of the dynamic, flexible and responsive nature of inquiry. But at the same time, if it’s something totally different to each person at the table, then what?

  2. Aviva @avivaloca November 10, 2014 at 4:58 am

    Thanks for the mention in you post, Michelle! I wish that I had the chance to attend the other sessions: they were either when I was presenting, or on the Friday, when I wasn’t there. While each session definitely sounds different from each other, I wonder where the similarities and differences lie. Is this a case of inquiry being on a continuum and all of us falling somewhere on the continuum? What’s the impact of the different grades that each of us teach? Would we be approaching inquiry differently if we were teaching another grade? I can’t help but think of the book, WHY ARE SCHOOL BUSES ALWAYS YELLOW?, and how the author mentions many approaches to inquiry & many ways to get started. I wonder if we’re examples of all of these ways in action.

    Thanks for giving me so much to think about!

    • Thank you for your comments, Aviva and once again thank you for your session. You and Jo-Ann teach different grades, but your overall understanding and values around inquiry were similar. I don’t think the interpretations from the different sessions were on a continuum, they were not all from the same “mother.” Or, if they were on a continuum, they were so far apart they would be almost unrecognizable to each other. My concern is that the word is so broad that it is difficult to interpret clearly. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to figure out what inquiry means for an Ontario context and be clear about what it is, what it is not. Even problem solving, teaching about and teaching through, has a more narrow meaning in Ontario. A concept such as inquiry will not scale and will doubtfully have an impact across Ontario if we do not take seriously the mission of coming to some sort of consensus of the meaning and purpose of such a pedagogical approach (if it is even considered an approach). Or, in a less drastic view, we need to be aware of which version of inquiry we are discussing. This way, we can be clear about our stance and our objectives. Again, fabulous work on your session. Same with all the other presenters. I was just stunned about how incredibly different the stances were all to the same word! Thank you for commenting. I hope this discussion of inquiry can continue.

      • Aviva @avivaloca November 10, 2014 at 7:06 pm

        After reading your comments, Michelle, I wish again that I saw these other presentations. I’d love to see where the similarities and differences lie. If all of our approaches are really that different, then I definitely agree with you that we need to come to some kind of consensus. How do we make this happen though? How do we help all people see the value in some kind of inquiry when there are still many that doubt its value?

        It’s interesting to read the comments from the other people that shared ideas too. I also started with reading Natural Curiosity (and yes, your link is correct). I really like the Comprehension and Collaboration text. I kind of like that we can teach the mini-lessons around the language components, and give more control to the students around the content areas. I also don’t think that we need to give up total control for inquiry to happen. There’s value in teaching, but I think the question lies in if this is small group or full class instruction and how we’re structuring this teaching on the needs of the students.

        I also think that Jo-Ann and I have similar approaches as we used to work together and learned a lot from each other. We also have learned and shared many ideas with my previous VP (and Jo-Ann’s current VP), Kristy Keery-Bishop (@kkeerybi), and she’s inspired both of us with her thoughts on inquiry. Back at the beginning of the school year, Kristi actually encouraged me to blog about the similarities and differences I see between inquiry in primary versus junior grades: http://adunsiger.com/2014/09/06/the-7-letter-word-that-causes-extreme-reactions-inquiry/. The comments on this blog post help me further think about inquiry and how people perceive it. Hope it helps you too!


        • I like so much about this comment, especially this point: “give more control to the students around the content areas.” Thank you, again, for your thoughtful comments and engaging in this conversation. You’re questions are bang on and certainly what I was feeling as I experienced such varied interpretations. I am heading out on the internet to read your blog post now! Thank you.

  3. Michelle, that is a good text (the Harvey one). We will be getting to it through our PLN book club this year. Quickly, before students arrive, we are starting with the first part of Natural Curiosity. Wilhelm’s Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry has pieces which are “big idea” before descending into a literacy focus. Black Ants and Buddhists by Mary Cowhey is a new one for me, getting ready to read it as soon as some other books get cleared away. Mark Barnes’ Role Reversal, in an indirect way seems to touch on elements of inquiry. But Natural Curiosity, easily found on line, and through University of Toronto and Jackman School, is a good jumping off point.

  4. Like you, my definition of “inquiry learning” seems to be changing/growing each day.

    As a math teacher, I think the reason inquiry in math gets such a bad reputation is because most of us don’t know how to do an effective inquiry lesson. Worse yet, educational leaders who preach inquiry have not enabled teachers to use this strategy because they have not provided the necessary PD.

    For me, I like adding the word “guided” before the word “inquiry” because I think too many teachers think that inquiry means the kids will just figure things out on their own.

    An effective lesson with an inquiry component is really difficult to lead because of all the planning and predicting we must do as educators. What sorts of questions will help guide students down the path towards the intended learning goal? How can we ensure that students will “get there” without us saying “here’s the formula…”

    I’ve made it a professional goal to better understand what makes an effective inquiry lesson in order to share my learning with my PLN. I completely believe that inquiry in math is effective and necessary, but we just haven’t been doing a good job at it yet.

    • Thank you, Kyle. I am glad to have you in my PLN! I agree that inquiry and guided inquiry require a great deal of planning and predicting. I am a little uncomfortable with too much letting go. Maybe that is an area of growth for me, or maybe it’s healthy skepticism.

      If you have some blog posts that you have written on the topic, I would love you to direct me towards them.

      Guided inquiry, yes, I think that’s the direction I would like to head in. Do you see a connection between inquiry, problem solving and the 3 act lessons you do? What is the connection there.

      • I think all teachers would agree that they have trouble letting go. The more I tinker with how I deliver a lesson, the more I realize that I am actually doing the opposite. By designing tasks that will guide students to solve using their prior knowledge, I typically see many of the same 3-4 strategies which could be consolidated by using the learning goal I intend to introduce that day. The best part is that the kids are usually using this new strategy, just with concrete representations rather than the abstract representations I am hoping we can explore that day. Makes it very easy to make connections between the two and avoid the “why are we doing this” question because they clearly see the efficiency advantages.

        I’m hoping to get to a post on this, it just seems like I am always putting things on the back burner. My session at BIT14 and EdCampSWO were on this very issue, but in a sort of “hidden” way. Session titles with words like “inquiry” or “algebra tiles” tend to yield low numbers. I hide it in there and people are none the wiser :)

      • Michelle, I saw you on The Agenda in the spring and was absolutely taken in by your forward thinking and your ability to articulate exactly what you hoped for our classrooms in the 21st century. Your are an inspiring leader in Education.
        Kyle, I was in your workshop this Saturday entitled, Students as Creators not Curators and immediately felt the similarities of Dan Myers’ philosophy of inquiry and yours.
        Today, I facilitated an inquiry based Geometry lesson where I started at a primary entry point, lead the students through grade 4 and grade 5 levels of mastery into the intended grade 6 lesson for the day, in which I wanted the students to truly comprehend, on their own terms. They created their own question to solve, for interior angles of triangles. It worked! I have students with some special needs including an explosive child and I believe Inquiry based learning is a natural, less ‘triggering’ way to teach our students with special needs, as well.

        • I love that you said facilitated instead of taught. Interesting word choice. Sounds like an engaging lesson that put the learning in the hands of the students. So much of this is really around power and control, as you suggest with words like “on their own terms.” That piece is important too. Thank you for reading and adding to the discussion here. Many voices makes things fuzzy at first, then brings things into clear view. Many different voices and stories are needed. Thank you.

  5. The new Ontario Social Studies Curriculum outlines what the Inquiry Process is in this subject area. I find the process to be very similar to traditional research projects with perhaps a greater emphasis on the higher level thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Having a “hook” to engage, recording prior knowledge, asking questions, student choice or “voice”, sharing learning and evaluating and extending knowledge is not new. All that is new is the fashionable term “Inquiry” and the ability of educators to share their interpretations through technology and social media.

    • What’s old is new again? Possibly. I think something that is different is a greater emphasis on collaboration and putting students in control. As Jonathan points out in his comment, there is a greater emphasis on voice and choice within a community of learners. I appreciate that you reach back to look for continuity. Let’s look forward and seeing how it’s different. I am now reading “The Unscripted Classroom” http://goo.gl/bdAhZs about emergent curriculum, creativity, inquiry and so on. I am also re-reading Tony Wagner’s book “Creating Innovators” http://goo.gl/KrbXM8
      I am on a mission to make sense of inquiry, play-purpose-passion, problem based learning and assessment. I am reading a lot of Dewey too. Your point of view is valuable since we must look backwards and forwards to solve the challenges of how best to teach our students now. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. So (no pun intended there) I have finally gotten around to replying to some peoples great reflections from Bit. Inquiry is a huge beast! It has had a bad rap because of a misunderstanding and because it has evolved over time. I can even reflect on my own practise and the transformations that I have gone through. What I first thought of inquiry when I first started teaching is far different then what I am doing now. For me inquiry is about honouring student voice and choice; however, that can be hard when you have the constraints of a curriculum to teach.
    In the classroom, I pose problems based on students talk and interest and then let them explore. It becomes an almost organic discussion but with purpose. Its not letting them go on a free for all reign of the classroom. I am facilitating talk throughout the classroom and then during our class debrief highlighting important points to consider. In the end I provide a summary of the learning for the students to consolidate their ideas. I will say that the more that I have taught through inquiry the more I have let go. I tend to do more provocations to learning, let students observe and discuss. We do a lot of debates and throw out ideas for the group to mull over. My job is to curate, facilitate, and collate their learning; this is the important part of inquiry that is often forgotten about. Thanks for sharing your reflection and research. Can’t wait to talk with you again.

    • Thank you for this super thoughtful response. I like the way you are thinking about inquiry and posing problems in your classroom. I think the class discussion is a really rich piece that I did not connect to in my blog post. Thank you for bringing in that element. It’s really essential. The dialogue is what builds the community of learners. It’s also where the teacher can listen in and guide the unscripted classroom. Thanks Jonathan, your SO great;-)

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