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Great Learning Begins with Great Questions

Thursday, September 29, 2016 - 16:51

Supporting Student Learning in Stage 1 of the Inquiry-Based Learning Process

Great questions can lead to great discoveries... and all it takes to get started is a little curiosity. In inquiry- based learning, teachers start by helping students to formulate questions that are meaningful and interesting to them.

From an educator’s point of view inquiry-based learning is exciting for many reasons. It’s easy to implement and the process can be entered into at any stage. It lends itself well to differentiated instruction and it often leads to cross-curricular connections. But from a student’s point of view, it’s all about satisfying a need to know—not to mention building autonomy as a learner.

“Inquiry deals a lot with student motivation,” says André Cyr, a Health and Physical Education (H&PE) teacher for grades K-3 in the Conseil scolaire du district Catholique Centre-sud. “We want our students to be motivated for the right reasons. Intrinsically motivated—not just motivated for a reward or for praise. We want them to love learning.” And when students’ own questions are placed at the center of their learning, it’s amazing how their curiosity can take their minds to new heights.

How does inquiry-based learning work?

The inquiry process, as a whole, can be broken down into three stages. The first—which we’ll look at in this article—is called Launching. It involves formulating effective questions.

From there, students are encouraged to investigate widely to find information that they will organize, interpret and analyse (the Facilitating stage). Finally, they will evaluate the information they’ve gathered, draw conclusions and share their findings (the Making Sense of Inquiry stage).

The three-stage inquiry-based learning process can be used effectively in all subject areas. Not only does it help students to develop higher-order thinking skills (such as analysing, synthesizing, evaluating and reflecting), it also helps them to become more independent learners—an important skill in our information-rich age.

What makes inquiry questions a powerful launching pad to learning in H&PE?

“We live in a world where knowledge is very accessible,” comments Joanne Walsh, Ophea’s Secondary H&PE Curriculum Consultant. “Inquiry is about students being able to understand content and really think about it critically.”

This makes for an especially powerful approach in H&PE, where all learning is personal. “To solve a math problem you might need to use a certain equation, and then take it step-by-step,” says Walsh. “In phys ed, however, we’re not all following the same process.” For example, if the class is doing yoga, to maintain a stable, balanced pose, one student might need to widen their base of support. For another, lowering their center of gravity will be the key. As they develop their physical literacy at their own pace, the questions they need to ask themselves will depend on where each student is starting with a particular skill, and where they need to go next.

Likewise, when exploring health topics, students begin with different levels of understanding and bring different life experiences to the classroom. For example, when discussing healthy relationships, one student might be wondering if their current romantic relationship is healthy. Meanwhile, another may want to understand how to maintain a cherished friendship.

By taking an inquiry stance, an educator can gently guide students in exploring the same topic in different ways by helping them to formulate their own questions—meeting students where they are and building on their prior knowledge.

 “They become their own teacher or coach in a sense,” Walsh explains.  Rather than always being told what to do through direct instructions, students increasingly gain autonomy as well as the ability to transfer their questioning and problem-solving skills to new situations.

What does an effective inquiry question look like?

Good inquiry questions share several qualities, including being open-ended, thought-provoking and calling for higher-order thinking—but, most importantly, they need to be interesting... not to teachers, but to the students themselves. “Students have to be open to asking and hearing questions,” says Cyr. “It needs to be something they’re interested in knowing and sharing. Good questions get the students to dream and explore areas they might not have expected.”  

“A good question should be sparked by genuine curiosity,” agrees Natasha Davey, a grade 7/8 teacher at The Johnny Therriault School. “And there needs to be a personal connection.”

How can an educator help students to come up with good questions?

 At Davey’s school, on the Aroland First Nations Reserve, inquiry questions are often generated through a knowledge building circle. “We use an eagle feather as the talking stick,” she explains. “In that way, we’re connecting the culture to inquiry.” As the feather travels around the circle, the student who is holding it is invited to express their ideas or ask a question—often by using the phrase ‘I wonder....’

“I find that ‘I wonder’ questions often develop into very effective inquiry questions,” says Davey.  “It’s a way for students to freely ask about something they don’t understand. It generates great discussion.” Students who don’t feel ready to speak can also simply pass the feather along. “It’s a really nice approach because students are challenged in a safe space and at a safe pace,” says Davey.

Meanwhile, in Walsh’s gym and classroom, most of her teaching takes place from a questioning stance. “I’ve really moved away from direct instruction and telling or showing students how to better perform a skill,” she says. “All I did was start to ask questions instead. How might you do that? What do you think you need to know to do that better? What are you interested in when it comes to this particular topic?”

Walsh now saves direct instruction for times when there’s a gap in students’ knowledge, or uses it to offer a variety of perspectives on a topic so that students can choose the one that makes the most sense to them.

She also helps students to take a closer look at the inquiry questions they’ve come up with for themselves by asking them to hold them up against certain criteria.  “I say: ‘Look at the question. Can you answer yes or no? If you searched the internet, could you find out the answer?’ If they answer yes to both, then let’s talk about how that question can be shaped into something more investigative.”

Strong inquiry questions support the Living Skills.

Effective inquiry questions can go a long way toward supporting the Living Skills—the personal, inter-personal, and critical and creative thinking skills that are woven throughout the curriculum.

“Most obvious is the connection with critical thinking skills,” says Walsh. “When looking at information students learn to ask themselves, do I agree with it? Does that sit well with my personal perspective? Is that information reliable?”

Personal skills are also developed through the process. “If students are asking questions they’re already setting their own goals for learning,” explains Davey. They also then learn to monitor their own progress as the inquiry process continues through the second stage—Facilitating Inquiry—and they’re developing further personal skills as they make connections to their own lives and think about the choices they need to make to be healthy.

Finally, students hone their inter-personal skills as they practice communicating their learning in the third stage—Making Sense of Inquiry, and as they work together throughout the process. “We live in a global community,” says Walsh. “It’s really important to teach ourselves to be attentive and open listeners. Even if students disagree with a perspective, they need to know how to respond in a respectful way that acknowledges diversity.”

Cross-curricular connections and differentiated instruction seem to happen almost spontaneously.

One of the most exciting things about asking good inquiry questions is that it can often lead both students and educators to unexpected places. “It’s all cross-curricular,” Davey points out.

At the beginning of the school year she did a unit with her students about safety in the gym. They began with a knowledge building circle about how safe behaviour is important and, from there, came up with a contract about what they expected their physical education classes to be like.

“If I tell them to be safe and not to push, they tune me out... but when they’re the ones making the connections and coming up with the contract, I definitely notice a change in their behaviour,” she says.  The students’ discussions centered around concussions, and they were able to draw some personal connections, especially when it came to one of their favourite hockey players, Sydney Crosby, who has suffered from multiple concussions that required a lengthy recovery.  

The discussions also led Davey’s students to make some cross-curricular connections to science topics. “We talked a lot about the brain,” says Davey. “It isn’t in the grade 7/8 curriculum, but the students were really interested in learning how the body works.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to differentiated instruction, working with inquiry questions is a wonderful way to help students dive in to the material they feel ready for.

 Do you have questions about inquiry?

Most educators already use inquiry-based learning approaches in their classrooms (either formally or informally). However, asking good questions (and supporting students in doing so) is a skill we can all improve on with practice and support. Luckily, there are many resources available to guide you.

The curriculum itself is always a great place to begin. It contains many sample student questions and responses that can provide a perfect jumping off point for inquiry.

Ophea has also developed an Inquiry Based Learning in Health & Physical Education Guide that’s a one-stop shop for anyone interested in learning more about the learning approach. “It’s very extensive and not only theoretical. The resource includes many tools, like sample questions, self assessment forms you can fill out and  print, ready-to-go sample inquiry plans and more” Comments Cyr.

 “There’s a great template called the Question Builder Chart that teachers can use to formulate their own questions,” adds Walsh, referring to page 40 of the Inquiry Guide. “They can also use it to help their students take their own inquiry questions and make them stronger.”

Furthermore, there are a number of other excellent inquiry resources available, including Inquiry-Based Learning and Collaborative Inquiry in Ontario (both part of the Capacity Building Series, K-12 from the Ministry of Education) and Natural Curiosity—an environmental inquiry resource for teachers published by OISE.

Good questions can lead to lifelong learning.  

At the end of the day, students who know how to ask good questions will be better prepared to search for good answers—an essential skill in the 21st century. “Rather than being consumers of information they need to be questioners of information,” says Walsh.

That’s especially important when it comes to e H&PE. How can students learn to set appropriate goals for eating well and being physically active? What strategies can they use to navigate the vast array of health information at their fingertips? How can they go about making healthy choices in their personal relationships? These questions and their answers will go a long way toward determining students’ health and well-being long after they’ve left the gym and classroom.