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Become an Inquiry-Based Teacher in 10 Steps

Jacqui Murray

It's hard to run an inquiry-based classroom.

For those who don’t know, an inquiry-based classroom is a nontraditional style of education and classroom management that is based on investigating and finding answers to a series of questions or scenarios.

But if you’re inclined to try out this style of teaching, don't go into it thinking all you do is ask questions and observe answers. You have to listen with all of your senses, pause and respond to what you heard (not what you wanted to hear), keep your eye on the Big Ideas as you facilitate learning, value everyone's contribution, be aware of the energy of the class and step in when needed, step aside when required.

You aren't a teacher, rather a guide. You and the class find your way from question to knowledge together, because everyone learns differently.

You don't use a textbook or traditional methods of classroom management. Sure, it's a map, showing you how to get from here to there, but that's the problem. It dictates how to get “there.” For an inquiry-based classroom, you may know where you're going, but not quite how you'll get there, and that's a good thing.

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You are no longer your mother's teacher who stood in front of rows of students and pointed to the blackboard. You operate well outside your teaching comfort zone as you try out the flipped classroom and the gamification of education and are thrilled with the results.

And then there's the issue of assessment – way different from the usual methods of classroom management. What your students have accomplished can't neatly be summed up by a multiple-choice test. When you review what you thought would assess learning (back when you designed the unit), no technique measures the organic conversations the class had about deep subjects, the risk-taking they engaged in to arrive at answers, the authentic knowledge transfer that popped up independently of your class time.

You realize you must open your mind to the learning that occurred that you never taught -- that you never saw coming in the weeks you stood amongst your students guiding their education.

Let me digress. I visited the Soviet Union (back when it was one nation) and dropped in on a classroom where students were inculcated with how things must be done. It was a polite, respectful, ordered experience, but without cerebral energy, replete of enthusiasm for the joy of learning, and lacking the wow factor of students independently figuring out how to do something.

Seeing the end of that powerful nation, I arrived at different conclusions than the politicians and the economists. I saw a nation starved to death for creativity. Without that ethereal trait, learning didn't transfer. Without transfer, life required increasingly more scaffolding and prompting until it collapsed in on itself like a hollowed-out orange.

So how do you create the inquiry-based classroom? Here's advice from a few of my e-friend teachers:

  1. Ask open-ended questions and be open-minded about conclusions.
  2. Provide hands-on experiences.
  3. Use groups to foster learning.
  4. Encourage self-paced learning. Be open to the student who learns less but deeper as 
much as the student who learns a wider breadth.
  5. Differentiate instruction. Everyone learns in his or her own way.
  6. Look for evidence of learning in unusual places. It may be from the child with his/her hand up, but it may also be from the learner who teaches mom how to use email.
  7. Understand that “assessment” comes in many shapes. It may be a summative quiz, a formative simulation, a rubric, or a game that requires knowledge to succeed. It may be anecdotal or peer-to-peer. Whatever approach shows students are transferring knowledge from 
your classroom to life is a legitimate assessment.
  8. Be flexible. Class won't always (probably never) go as your mind's eye saw it. That's OK. 
Learn with students. Observe their progress and adapt to their path.
  9. Give up the idea that teaching requires control. Refer to #8 -- be flexible.
  10. Facilitate student learning in a way that works for them. Trust that they will come up with 
the questions required to reach the Big Ideas.

In the end, know that the inquiry-based classroom is not about learning for the moment. You're creating life-long learners, the individuals who will solve the world's problems in ten years. How do you ensure they are ready?

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-6 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, creator of two technology training books for middle school and six ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blogger, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.