We are a mere week and a half away from our Explore More day. This means we are knee deep in inquiry projects. I think the scariest part about letting students branch out (for many teachers) is the turning over of control. If you walked into my room in the afternoon you might think that chaos was going on. However, upon closer inspection you would see that most kids are hard at work and on task. (Hey I’m not going to claim that everyone is always doing what they are supposed to, that’s just life.) So how did we get here? This is the key.
The first step is to really get the students invested in the project. They have to be truly whole-heartedly interested in what they are doing. In order for that to happen it has to be their idea, or at least they need to think it’s there idea. Good teachers are like Greek wives (I’m pulling a My Big Fat Greek Wedding reference here) the child is the head and the teacher is the neck. The neck can turn the head in any direction it pleases. So, while we strive for 100% student driven inquiry we also have to acknowledge that some students need more guidance than others so they can be successful. This is a little thing the people in the “biz” call differentiation. I will also admit that I switch this role and have often been steered in directions by my students.
So, the foundation of a quality inquiry is a quality question. Not too narrow, not too broad, just right. Usually my students come up with an umbrella question and then a list of supporting questions to help them, sometimes it’s just a list. I ask them to post these questions on a chart like this (see picture) so that I can monitor both the questions and how the students are progressing. I also like for it to be a visual reminder to them that they are, in fact, trying to answer a question not just copying four pages of information so they can start building something.
Questioning is a skill that we work on all year. I teach it as a reading strategy and slowly segway into beyond-the-book questions with picture book read-alouds. I model finding information, sorting questions, and evaluating questions to decide if they would sustain a longer inquiry or just be answered in one word. That’s not to say that everyone starts with ideal questions. If they have enough to get going I let it slide, because them refining their questions as they work is much more powerful than me just saying, “um, that might not work.”
So right about now my main question to students is, “that’s a great model/poster/experiment/keynote/website/movie/tapdance/mime, tell me how it is going to demonstrate what you found out about your question and the process you went through to get there.”