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When we talk about inquiry-based learning, we’re talking about possibility. Given the right concepts and essential questions for helping students navigate through an inquiry journey, the prospects for insightful discovery and authentic learning are endless.
However, inquiry-based learning is about more than just asking meaningful questions. It’s also about capturing your learners’ attention and holding it with energizing inquiry units full of activities that pique their interest and connect them to the world.
Our goal in this post is to take you along the route we use to build inquiry-based learning lessons that do all that and more. It all begins with the Future-Focused Inquiry Cycle. When we’re finished, you’ll have a firm grasp of how this cycle leads to inspired learning. Additionally, you’ll be equipped to start writing your most interesting and engaging inquiry-based learning lessons yet. So let’s get started.
Beginning the Cycle of Learning
THE GLOBAL CONCEPT
Big learning begins with big ideas, so our inquiry cycle starts here with the “Global Concept.” This is called by different names in different curriculum, but it's all the same. It is a broad overarching concept that defines—in often just one word—what the core of the learning focuses on.
When we build inquiry-based learning lessons, we focus on the Global Concept as pre-planning first. Then we add student voice through an open discussion of the concept in relation to what learners are curious and concerned about, and also want to create.
CIrcles of possibility and influence are also helpful at this stage. For example, we ask students to consider "What does this concept mean for me, for family, for the community, or even the country?" This is where you build your context and relevance.
The Essential Question
So we've discussed our Global Concept in length with our learners and considered its significance—what now? The Inquiry Cycle next continues with asking an essential question that drives the learning.
How important is this? Very—in fact, we were asked once if an essential question really is essential for learning. Our answer was that if we are teaching content to our learners, we must consider what questions make that content necessary in the first place.
It is through deep thinking and discussion around the Global Concept that we unpack the inquiry process and create a line of inquiry. Powerful questions drive powerful learning, especially inquiry-based learning.
We also need to talk about “herding questions.” Questions that drive useful and relevant learning journeys are not only essential and meaningful, but their inquisitive nature initiates more specific and focused questions. If the essential question starts the learning, then what is a herding question?
Herding questions are the increasingly more specific questions you ask a learner. If you think about it, every question you ask is intended to drive learners in a specific direction. You’re asking it for a reason, and that reason is what you are herding them towards.
The 4 Cs Line of Inquiry
The inquiry cycle—characterized by the 4 Cs—happens around both the Global Concept and the essential questions that come from it.
These are things that are content or concept-related. They’re things that our learners are expected to know. Our job as educators is to create that curiosity and interest about them in ways that truly stick with them.
Connection is the synthesis of ideas and information that helps learners develop new insights and understandings. It’s what you may know as the “Aha!” moment. This is also about connecting to the context for learning and providing relevant connections to it. As much as possible we must strive to bring the concepts and content of the curriculum into the world of the learner.
At some point in the inquiry-based learning journey, learners must communicate their essential understandings which are the intended outcomes of the curriculum. This is often done with products and mediums that speak to them personally and that allow them to express themselves fully.
The 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.
When we put all these together, our line of inquiry becomes the overview of the entire unit. It looks something like this:
Learners are curious about ______ and make connections to ______ which allow them to communicate ______ by creating ______.
How to Create a Unit of Inquiry
Now that we’ve covered the Inquiry Cycle, we need to marry this with a few other key concepts that we include in our recipe for an inquiry unit.
Connections through context and relevance
These are concepts we consider that help us connect content to the interests and experiences of our learners.
These are the achievement standards drawn from your curriculum.
The 6Ds Learning Progressions
Each stage of the inquiry-based learning journey is developed using the 6 Ds of Solution Fluency. They are Define, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Debrief.
Further ideas aligned to Global Digital Citizenship
The tenets that define the ideal global digital citizen are personal responsibility, global citizenship, digital citizenship, altruistic service, and environmental stewardship. This section of the unit plan is idea for activities in or beyond the unit that would cultivate each of these tenets.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Jun 6, 2019, updated Dec 19, 2021