Deep Learning in Inquiry (Part 2)

In reading part one of my inquiry blog, one might think, “That’s all lots of fun, but building a bee house isn’t exactly something that I can write on the report card.”  You would be absolutely right.  The learning is imbedded in the exciting things.  It is intentional and it is authentic.  Connecting with a local expert, using technology for research and having hands on activities with students engaged scratches the surface of inquiry.  Our deep learning with this unit began with the types of questions that we were asking.  I noticed that when the students began asking questions on Padlet that Siri could have easily answered many of their questions with one or two word answers.  This lead to a series of lessons on “THICK” vs. “Thin” questions.  We added better questioning to our goals.


The students also noticed that I had included a lot of infographics on the Padlet.  Infographics are seen everywhere in social media to communicate information efficiently and visually.  However, students need to know how to use this information, how to synthesize it, how to put it into their own words and how to source it.  We spent a significant amount of our language periods on reading and interpreting infographics.


Our learning goals and success criteria went way beyond making houses for bees and honey tasting.  Students wanted to DO something to help bees.  We created our learning goals and criteria together:

 D9EDA370-1138-49B8-965E-051FCD44D0A4     8AB3D3E8-C7F1-4B2B-8E49-BD8E4FE8068F     CD26AF15-F831-470F-9522-D17D415D0A33

Early on in the inquiry we watched an informative YouTube video called, We Can Save the Bees Together.  Sarah Red-Laird, bee enthusiast and scientist, gave us a number of ideas of actions that we could take.  The students decided that one of the things that they wanted to do was to call for stronger legislation about mono cropping and pesticide use in farming.  They wanted to write letters to politicians and change makers.  In addition, when Susan Chan, local bee researcher visited, she “planted the seed” about creating a non-stinging bee friendly garden in our school yard.  This prompted students to write letters to local school officials to solicit assistance and guidance.  One of our students from Curve Lake First Nation decided to write the Chief and Band Council to ask them to consider building a bee friendly garden in their community. The desire for letter writing lead to a series of lessons on how to write a professional letter, how to proofread and how to edit in a meaningful and authentic learning context for students.  The students also felt that educating others about conservation of  bees was important so they are now working on developing presentations that they can take to other classes as well as media advertising to share their learning and call others to action.

In math, we had been focusing on data management.  It fit in perfectly to what we were doing with our inquiry!  There is an incredible amount of data about bees on the Statistics Canada website.  We read real graphs with information that the students cared about, we labelled the important parts of the graphs and we will be creating our own surveys and graphing the information from different areas of our inquiry.


Statistics Canada

Honestly, the best part of inquiry is when the students start to direct their own learning.  I guide them.  I provide thought provoking questions and “what if” scenarios.  They make choices and feel good about doing something that is affecting real change.  Inquiry is empowerment for students.  This students aren’t done with this inquiry yet-they have many more plans ahead!  Stay tuned.

Designated time a.k.a Genius Hour


It’s quiet in my classroom right now.
A little too quiet.

Did my students just have the most boring lesson ever?
I don’t hear snoring.

Did they all eat turkey for lunch?
Not today.

Are the students all out of the room during prep?
Nope. They are all here and engaged in something called Genius Hour.

Can You Hear the Pin Drop by Daniel CC BY NCSA 2.0
Can You Hear the Pin Drop by Daniel CC BY NCSA 2.0

Here’s what led up to this moment.

Me: Have you ever wanted to study something on your terms and wasn’t in your text book?
Them: Yes. I do. Wait what? Followed by another 6 simultaneous comments in favour.
Me: Would anyone like to do that now?
Them: Yup. YES! Me! Followed by another 6 simultaneous comments and another 6 side conversations on top. All if favour of this strange, but intriguing opportunity.
Me: Okay, but here are the rules.
Them: Oh great, now here come the rules…(I only imagined this last line).

The Rules

1. Your topic must be declared and shared with the teacher before proceeding. That way some suggestions and direction may be offered if needed. Switching topics in not encouraged. See one idea/interest through, and chase after a new one next time. Ask them if this something they really want to share? Why is this interesting to you? Explain.
2.You must work quietly on your own. Don’t annoy your peers. They’re working too – so be cool.
3. You must be on task. Independent learning sounds easy, but carries a great deal of responsibility to those who are privileged with the gift of time. Use the present(see what I did there?) wisely.
4. You may use technology or texts or whatever you can gather information from to do your research. Interviews are cool too, but may require more than the time allotted. See teacher to negotiate.
5. You may use headphones to screen videos or audio content as long as it relates to your topic.
6. You may share your new learning in the format of your choice. This can include, but is not limited to; visual presentations, works of art, a performance, video, a poem/song/rant, research paper, or TED style talks.
7. You will become the in-class expert on your topic. So enjoy discovering the knowledge that is waiting for you to find it.

The certainty of uncertainty

When students are empowered and engaged, the resulting learning is immersed in intense inquiry and thought. The room is filled with nothing other than productive silence; barely broken by keystrokes and infrequent fidgeting as grade 5s are wont to do. Students’ questions are usually met with responses of redirection that affirm their instincts rather than direct answers. I want them to develop and trust their instincts as learners by stretching beyond their comfort zones. If that means answering a question with another question, then so be it. One thing’s for sure, it will be a stretch for everyone including you.

Me: Here’s your chance to discover something that you’ve always wanted to know more about. What do you think it should be? What did you discover when you were doing your research? Have you considered…?

Then there’s the momentarily unsure. Occasionally, there are students who are really stuck when given so much latitude in the classroom. It might be a good idea to have the class share some general ideas that can be used in the case of Genius Hour Learner’s Block. Keep in mind this is new for some students as they have been conditioned to learn what is being taught without ever having time to scratch their own intellectual itches. If a learner is still stuck, keep directing them back to what they are passionate about in their lives. Feel free to share what you might study if given a chance. My students always love when I share my own passion projects in learning. Here is my latest one about the Psychology of Accents.

Handing over the learning to students is a struggle for some educators. We are so used to having everything organized, on time, and in its place. If this is you? Don’t panic. Please keep in mind that it will be messy at times. Some educators will feel compelled to assess this somehow. I get it. Perhaps for the first time, you consider only assessing the presentation skills rather than the content. If this is truly to resemble self-driven inquiry in learning, students should not be afraid to take chances because a mark is hanging over their heads.

Take it as opportunity to construct the success criteria with your students. They will not let you down. Consider having students assess one another’s work for the purposes of learning. Maybe you can make it like a gallery walk where half of the class shares and the other goes from one presentation to the next. You can also model and post some guiding questions as prompts.

One more rule

8. Have fun and celebrate all of the new learning that your students have discovered.

Assessment for Inquiry Projects

Alison_BoardTeachers are encouraged to use inquiry in all subject areas. Using inquiry is not necessarily a set of steps to follow or instruct, but an approach to guide student learning. It usually results in greater engagement and can easily be differentiated to individuals and groups. What is often the biggest challenge for teachers is the assessment piece.

Here are a few ways to support your assessment:

  • determine check-ins with students as they complete specific stages of the process, such as planning, research/recording observations, interpreting and communicating (use rubrics for these stages as provided in curriculum document – Continuum for Scientific Inquiry)
  • use mini-lessons to teach skills and content to the whole class that support the Inquiry subject area
  • use whole-class discussions or small group discussions to make observations about student knowledge and understanding (this also builds knowledge among the larger group)
  • provide access to a computer for each group or a notebook to record their questions and plans and stay accountable. Communicate with them to further their thinking and provide next steps (Google Docs works well for this)
  • Keep observations sheets handy to make notes and take photos
  • Inquiry work provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the learning skills
  • Provide students with a checklist to ensure specific learning, such as “Show impact on environment” or “Determine best solution for power generation at our school” – when assessing effectiveness of final task/project that students may present in a variety of ways (poster, video, website, etc.)

There are some great project based learning guidelines and assessment tips/strategies on the website or follow edutopia on Twitter.

Science in Play-Based Learning

Science in a Kindergarten classroom looks like many different things. There are learning centres such as the sand or water table, where children are using free exploration and where teachers are guiding specific experiments. There are also inquiry projects that may last a day or a few months that evolve with the children’s interests and are continued with the educators’ guidance. I would like to share an inquiry that has evolved in our classroom this winter.


It all started with a fish. The children found a piece of ice on the pavement in the schoolyard. They noticed right away that it was formed in the shape of a fish. One of the children carried it in his arms as we lined up to go back into the school. My first reaction was to tell them to leave it outside, then I realized this could be the beginning of something bigger – an inquiry on ice and possibly how it melts into water – that the children could observe and discover.





So, the children were thrilled and brought it into the classroom. We put it in the empty water table container. Before we left for home, I asked the children to predict, “What do you think is going to happen to the ice fish?” Here are some of their responses after a brief discussion:

  • It will melt in spring.
  • It will melt in one hundred days.
  • It will melt if we put it in the refrigerator.
  • It will melt by tomorrow.

The next morning when I entered the classroom, my teaching partner asked me if I had looked at the ice fish. I hadn’t, and figured I already knew what to expect, a container of water. When I looked, I was surprised to not only find the water from the melted ice fish, but an imprint. This was a surprise for me, something I couldn’t have planned for. We were excited to share the finding with the children when they arrived.






The children were excited to see the shape of the fish made from the sediment in the ice. They instantly realized that it was left from when the ice fish melted. That day, the children observed the dirt and some made drawings. As a group, we discussed the possibilities and the children decided it was the dirt from the snow that had sunk to the bottom of the container.




This inquiry led to more experiments with snow. We talked about the difference between liquids and solids. Through our discussions we wanted to make snow melt faster. The children made suggestions on how to make the snow melt faster and we tried them through various experiments. We set some snow under a lamp in our classroom, and it took all day to melt. We also tried adding cold water and hot water (with adult assistance) to the snow. The students discovered the effects of water and compared these to the conditions outside.
This inquiry has led us to learn more about water…