Start your lesson with the right question, and you will set your students on a course of discovery, engagement and academic rigor.
During unit planning, a teacher should lay out the learning course. But during the lesson, a teacher should put students behind the wheel and let them drive! Sure, there may be some wrong turns, but when students are collaborating they will usually help guide each other back on route (and you will be there to provide gentle direction).
Inquiry lessons pose a challenging or controversial question and ask students to explore resources or test strategies to answer that question. Inquiry lessons require the right type of question– but what does that look like?
I believe the best questions are those that can be addressed from a wide range of perspectives and through multiple disciplines.
In an ideal school, grade level teachers would all work together to address big questions through through the lens of their various subjects. This is not the reality most of us work in; however, you can still shape YOUR units around meaningful thought provoking questions. Strong questions connect to larger themes in our society so that students can apply their learning beyond the specific topic you are teaching.
Strong questions connect to larger themes in our society so that students can apply their learning beyond the specific topic you are teaching.
Let’s look at an example
Say you are a Social Studies teacher tasked with teaching about apartheid in South Africa. Your learning target might be for students to be able to describe: causes of apartheid, impacts of apartheid on everyday life, and how apartheid was resisted.
You can create daily objectives around these goals and create tasks that teach students the content…. but what are the larger themes at play?
Instead of a content specific learning target, try an open-ended inquiry question such as “what is justice?” or “how can a society measure progress?” or “how should a society remember atrocity in its past?” All of these questions can be addressed by studying South Africa, but they are not unique to South Africa. You could actually pull multiple content topics under the umbrella of this question, and ask students to explore it using each content topic as a lens.
For example, if I decided to use the question “what is justice?” and if I was teaching a geography or current issues class, I might pull in content about the US Civil Rights Movement, the marriage equality movement, and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Ok, so now I have an engaging, relevant, open-ended and controversial question. What’s next?
First, I need to design a hook to get my students excited about the question. I might start by creating a word wall where students write their own definitions of justice on sticky notes that can be posted in the room (we would review and revise our definitions at the end of the unit). After students create their definitions, we compare our definitions to the dictionary’s definitions (there are many).
Then I ask students to write about and discuss examples of injustice, starting with injustice at their school, then injustice in their community, and finally injustice they see in the larger world.
After engaging students in the question, I need to give students context and background information. I provide some direct instruction about apartheid in South Africa using a combination of reading strategies, videos, notes and document analysis. Then I present students with a series of collaborative investigational activities where they collect evidence of moments that demonstrate justice or injustice.
I have created the appropriate organizers to guide students through the material. This process is repeated for the additional content areas. Then, students create their own definition of justice and support their definition with evidence from the content areas. Students represent their thinking in multiple ways by writing, debating and completing their choice of creative project. Finally, students interact with and evaluate each other’s definitions and supporting evidence.
At no point in such a unit have I “taught” students what justice is. Instead, I created space for them to do their own thinking and draw their own conclusions. Students explored the question on their own and directed their learning. Students will understand the district’s learning targets as a byproduct of their investigation, and they have practiced reading comprehension, evidence collection, argumentative writing, and critical thinking.
I believe that the best units start with the right question and end with many different answers. How do you use inquiry in your classrooms? What compelling questions have you asked?