Learning By Design: Authentic Inquiry in the Classroom

This post is part of a 5 part series on our Learning Design Principles. To see the rest of the series click here.

Written by Jennifer Mattu, Guest Blogger.

Collaborating productively, thinking critically, communicating effectively and persevering are important competencies students need to master, and an inquiry rich classroom is the perfect learning environment in which to develop them. Inquiry is higher order thinking and problem solving in action. Its power to shift academic ownership from the teacher to the learner is profound and far-reaching, and when effectively implemented, it can create a palpable energy that cannot be duplicated in a teacher-directed, traditional classroom setting.

Although research supports inquiry’s effectiveness, teacher buy-in comes with growing pains. No longer “in control”, the teacher must commit to becoming a learning facilitator and, in some cases, must demonstrate a willingness to replace lengthy stretches of direct instruction with unfamiliar practices that extend beyond long-established comfort zones. Are we educators willing to take a chance if it means building a richer learning environment for our students?

I’m convinced that the inquiry process is worthy of consideration. Here is what it entails. A typical inquiry lesson starts with guiding questions that point students in one direction as opposed to another, and time must be devoted to composing appropriately challenging provocations. It also requires the teacher to model question writing so that students can begin to formulate their own higher-level, thought-provoking questions. As they progress through an inquiry lesson, students learn how to search for answers that may or may not be those traditionally identified as “right” or “wrong”. The academic risk taking that is an essential component of the inquiry process often leads to profound and substantive thinking that reaches beyond the scope of the teacher’s initial learning plan. When this occurs, the teacher needs to be prepared to welcome student exploration, as countless learning possibilities exist.

Planning an inquiry-based unit or lesson that is purposeful and authentic requires both time and considerable effort, and it must be one rooted in the world of real experiences. The teacher carefully crafts the guiding questions so that all students are able to make essential connections on their own. This tends to be the hardest part for teachers. Most of us want to rescue our students and we often build a sense of dependency by giving them the answers rather than requiring them to engage in the productive struggle needed for success. When we accept the fact that learning can be messy and does not always fit into a rigidly scheduled time frame, we position ourselves to reap the rewards of authentic inquiry.

The use of inquiry gives us a front seat to incredible learning transformations, but we need to be willing to empower our students. When encouraged to engage their natural, inquisitive nature, they can propel themselves into areas of exploration they never knew existed. Although it took me some time, I dove in with much hesitation and have not looked back since. Authentic inquiry in the classroom is a leap that every teacher should take!

About the Author: Jennifer Mattu a Pittsburgh native, living the past 13 years in Sarasota County, Florida. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in elementary education from Slippery Rock University, Master’s Degree in Reading and Math from Walden University, and Ph.D in math from Walden University. She is currently in her 13th year with the School Board of Sarasota County as a math teacher, department chair, and lead teacher at Heron Creek Middle School. Her passion is teaching children, future teachers, and current teachers! Education is the most important thing any child can have, so her goal is to continue sharing her love, passion, and knowledge for it.