May 02, 2019
Features of Inquiry-Based Learning: A Guide to Writing Unit Plans (Part I)
“Finally, it all makes sense!”
This is what a group of teachers in a school I was working with exclaimed once I presented the Wabisabi Inquiry Process. It’s the missing piece that allows inquiry to “click” for most teachers.
Over the last decade working with over 120, 000 educators in 20 countries, I’ve seen how effective the inquiry-based approach is in transforming all aspects of learning. For building learners' capacity and independence as well as ensuring a significant increase in their academic performance, there’s nothing quite like it.
In this 2-part post, I’m going to share with you my most valuable insights on the features of inquiry-based learning so that you are easily able to shift your practice. If you are already familiar with it, this will take it to the next level for you.
Why Inquiry-Based Learning?
Inquiry is the very foundation of what learning is all about—having a burning question and a thirst to find the answer. It is natural learning. I know you have many questions right now like these, right? I get asked these questions all the time, and I’ve written articles to answer all of them:
- What is inquiry-based learning?
- Who created inquiry-based learning?
- What are the advantages of inquiry-based learning?
- Are there disadvantages to inquiry-based learning and how do we solve them?
- What’s the difference between inquiry-based learning and direct instruction?
- What’s the real purpose of inquiry-based learning and why does it matter?
There are many misunderstandings and misconceptions about inquiry and how inquiry differs from direct instruction that have created unnecessary barriers of entry for many teachers. Below I’ll unpack for you a unit of inquiry and highlight all the elements and functional features of inquiry-based learning so that finally it will make sense.
Components of Inquiry-based Learning
The unit I’m sharing with you is called “Lead On” and is for Year 6 (Grade 6) level. It’s one of the premium units available for you to access and use instantly in your classroom through the Wabisabi app. You can sign up for the app and access this unit for free.
The Global Concept is referred to by different names in different curricula. In IB schools (International Baccalaureate) it’s the “Global Context.” In British Columbia, it’s the “Big Idea.” It’s all the same thing; the overarching concept that is being explored or better understood through inquiry and reflection. For this unit, it is “Integrity/Social Justice.”
Wabisabi Inquiry Process
One of the criticisms I hear most often about inquiry learning is that there is a lot of curriculum to get through and most teachers don’t have time for it. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the schools I work with, I find we churn through the curriculum so fast and collect so much rich evidence that we are miles ahead of where other schools are.
Inquiry is not about avoiding the curriculum, but about learners simultaneously assimilating multiple standards at a deep level.
The Wabisabi Inquiry Process is the secret sauce we use to make the inquiry sandwich. When I unpack curriculum, no matter which curriculum it is (Common Core, Australian Curriculum, British Curriculum, Indian Curriculum, IB Curriculum), every standard usually fits and can be addressed through one or more of these four categories:
These are mostly content or concept-related; they are things that our learners are expected to know. I call them 'curious' because research says that if there is no connection to the learning, it won’t happen and so our job is to create or inspire that curiosity.
Connection is the synthesis of ideas and information to gain new insights and understandings. Because it is a realisation, it can’t be taught—it happens inside each of us. It is the “Aha!” or “Ohhhh, I get it!” moment. (I know that’s not elegant writing, but it’s the best I could come up with.)
Because this is also about connecting to the learning context, it is one of the most significant advantages of inquiry. It's about bringing the concepts and content of the curriculum into the world of the learner. Curricula across the globe have shifted to include things that are “connections,” and they don’t happen with teaching as talking, so we must shift our pedagogy to allow learners to access these understandings.
The third element is present in every subject area. In Math and Science, it’s charts, graphs, equations, solutions, illustrations, and experiments. In English and Social, it’s the multiple forms of speaking and writing. Often these are things that are assessed to demonstrate learning, so the curriculum is full of them.
So why do we create all those reports and writing and experiments and graphs? We create products to communicate our essential understandings which are the intended outcomes of the curriculum.
Line of Inquiry (Finally, it all makes sense!)
When we put it all together, it is our line of inquiry which is really our overview, and it becomes crystal clear firstly why we are doing this unit, and what we want it to achieve. This is precisely how we tie inquiry to the curriculum. In other words, it’s ALL curriculum, and heaps of it.
Learners are curious about (something) and make connections which allow them to communicate (something) by creating (something).
Here’s our Line of Inquiry from the “Lead On” unit:
Learners are inspired to be curious about peaceful and inclusive societies and connect examples of integrity in leadership to communicate how leaders have the potential to influence others by creating a shared understanding or charter of global citizenship.
This is just one possible line of inquiry, and there are countless others.
Essential Questions and Herding Questions
There’s a lot to say about essential questions and how to build them, so much so that we’ve written a whole book called the Essential Guide to Essential Questions. (If you’d like a copy you can buy it now and take 10% off using the code #inquiryrocks.)
I was recently asked if an essential question was essential for learning. My response is usually another question: If we are about to deliver some content to learners, what was the question that made that content necessary?
If learning is the answer, what was the question?
For our unit, the essential question is “What is greatness?” I won’t go into detail of how we created this question, but if you’re struggling to come up with one, here’s 100 essential questions by subject area.
Herding Questions Drive the Learning
If the essential question starts the learning, what is a herding question? Every other question you ask a learner is a herding question—they are how you manipulate (in a good way) the conversation to drive it towards the purpose of your inquiry and the curriculum. Once you ask the essential question and engage learners in conversation, you might consider these as possible ways to facilitate and herd the discussion.
- What characteristics make up a good leader, and why are good leaders important in society?
- Who is the most exceptional leader you know of (present or past)? Why?
- How have we developed as a society with global connections?
- What is global citizenship?
- What is my role as a global citizen?
- How does society determine significance, and what does it mean to be significant, or insignificant?
- “With great power comes great responsibility”—what does this mean?
- Do the wealthy and famous have a responsibility to give back to the less fortunate?
- Do we all have this responsibility?
- What are some examples of this?
Connections Through Context and Relevance
In my recent book Future-Focused Learning: 10 Essential Shifts of Everyday Practice, connection through context and relevance is one of these shifts. There are many ways that this unit can create meaning and relevance for the learner. This is the one on which this inquiry is based along with a brief overview of what will be happening.
Leadership in popular culture - famous voices speaking out for a cause
Good leaders are essential to society. They inspire us, guide us, and help us become better people. History is filled with examples of them, and good leaders can even be found among everyday people leading normal, everyday lives.
Students work in groups to develop an interview/panel discussion scenario involving a famous actor or singer. This person will be interviewed by a panel of interviewers on the subject of “what makes a good leader?” They will create personas for each character by developing a deep and relevant line of thought-provoking questions and answers, which will then be used to write an original script.
There are many learning intentions, or outcomes, that can be achieved in a unit such as this. The inquiry is designed to allow us to capture evidence of learning against achievement standards. The Wabisabi app enables us to easily capture portfolio-based evidence and assess against criteria. To give an idea of how much curriculum can be addressed in a single unit of inquiry, I’m including a partial list of the Australian curriculum this unit addressed. As a premium unit in Wabisabi, it can easily be aligned to Common Core, or whatever curriculum you use.
- explain the significance of an event/development, an individual and/or group. (HASS)
- identify and describe continuities and changes for different groups in the past and present. (HASS)
- describe the causes and effects of change on society. (HASS)
- describe how people, places, communities and environments are diverse and globally interconnected and identifies the effects of these interconnections over time. (HASS)
- describe the rights and responsibilities of Australian citizens and the obligations they may have as global citizens. (Civics and Citizenship)
- develop appropriate questions to frame an investigation about the society in which they live. (Civics and Citizenship)
- locate, collect and organise useful information from a range of different sources to answer these questions. (Civics and Citizenship)
- examine sources to determine their origin and purpose and describe different perspectives. (Civics and Citizenship)
- evaluate information to draw conclusions. (Civics and Citizenship)
- when planning for action, identify different points of view and solutions to an issue. (Civics and Citizenship)
- reflect on their learning to identify the ways they can participate as citizens in the school or elsewhere. (Civics and Citizenship)
- present ideas, findings, viewpoints and conclusions in a range of communication forms that incorporate source materials and civics and citizenship terms and concepts. (Civics and Citizenship)
- understand how language features and language patterns can be used for emphasis.
- show how specific details can be used to support a point of view.
- explain how their choices of language features and images are used.
- create detailed texts elaborating on key ideas for a range of purposes and audiences.
- make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, using a variety of strategies for effect.
- demonstrate an understanding of grammar, and make considered vocabulary choices to enhance cohesion and structure in their writing.
- use accurate spelling and punctuation for clarity and make and explain editorial choices based on criteria.
This particular unit of inquiry focuses on a specific challenge designed to lead them through the four phases of the Wabisabi Inquiry Process above. If you reflect on it, you’ll quickly see how it aligns with the challenge:
You are a famous actor/singer who is known for doing a lot of charity work all over the world, and people have come to admire your values and beliefs that helping people and setting an excellent example for others is essential. You’ve recently been asked to do an interview on a popular radio show. The topic is “what makes a good leader?”
Together with some classmates, you’ll create an interview scenario. One of you will play the star, and the others will play a panel of interviewers. Have fun creating unique character profiles and traits for each role. Design a dynamic and thought-provoking line of questioning for the interviewed star about what it means to be a leader with some good answers for each question and turn it into a working script.
Each group’s script should include examples of some of the interviewed celebrity’s favourite leaders from history, or even current figures or famous people, who he or she feels have done great things and helped people or tried to make the world a better place. Your group will incorporate three chosen examples of such leaders into the interview script. In the script, you must give the leaders’ names, occupations, and what they have accomplished that is important to the theme of the interview.
You are then required to rehearse your scenario and perform it as a recorded podcast, a filmed live interview, or as an acted scene. You have 10–15 minutes for your interview to take place.
That’s All, Folks (For Now …)
By now, you’re starting to get a sense of how the Wabisabi Inquiry Process works, and how it can take your students to new learning heights. We’ll explore it even further in part two, but for the time being,we’ve got something else for you to explore.
As part of our campaign to bring a higher awareness to how the features of inquiry-based learning are geared toward students’ interests and inherent talents, we created a free ebook full of inquiry-based scenarios you and your learners will love. We called it 10 Great Activities for Exploring Inquiry-Based Learning, each with a real-world context with which to challenge and inspire your learners. Download it now, and watch the inquiry learning magic happen in your classroom.