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6 Strategies For Creating An Inquiry-Driven Classroom



by Irena Nayfeld, TeachThought PD Inquiry Workshop Facilitator

Teachers of young children juggle a lot.

There is literacy, math, science, social and emotional development, learning standards, the needs of each child, materials to make activities engaging, safe, and educational…the list goes on. More and more, researchers are finding that Habits of Mind and ‘21 Century Skills‘ such as curiosity, persistence, collaboration, growth mindset, critical thinking, and creativity are malleable and, when fostered, improve learning across all academic domains.

Curiosity is a powerful catalyst for learning. Young children want to understand the world around them, and naturally reveal their interests by asking questions – sometimes even too many questions! As educators, we may feel pressure to keep going with our intended lesson plan or to get to our ‘point.’

This may lead us, as teachers, to push ahead instead of listening to a child’s question, or to answer it briefly and move on. The goal of education should be to nurture and grow minds that are ready to solve problems and think critically, and asking questions is a necessary skill in that process.

For this reason, we want to prioritize the asking of great questions and place it at the forefront of our mission for our classrooms and our students.

6 Strategies For Creating An Inquiry-Driven Classroom

Given all of the other responsibilities and priorities, how can early childhood educators create environments and experiences that encourage curiosity and inquiry to flourish?

1. Let students explore and learn through play

Imagine you are at a professional development workshop, and the facilitator hands you a bunch of materials for your next project. Before you’ve had the chance to take them in or figure out what’s what, the facilitator says “Okay, what questions do you have?”

Besides “What are these?”, it is hard to come up with in-depth, meaningful questions about the materials or project you have not had any time to explore. Once you have had a chance to examine them closer, touch them, move them, make sense of their relationship to each other, you will likely make observations and start exploring more purposefully; now you are ready to ask some questions and take your understanding of this project to the next level.

Keep this in mind whenever you introduce a new activity to your students- we cannot expect children to ask meaningful questions if they do not have time to explore and play first.

See also 8 Critical Skills For A Modern Education

Spending a whole small group on playing with new materials may seem like ‘wasting time’ but this exploration will pay off – the next day when you are ready to introduce the activity, their desire to touch and play has been fulfilled the day before. This lets them focus on your instructions better, and brings in that prior experience as a foundation, which means more engagement, more thoughtful questions, and more lasting learning.

2. Turn a lesson into a project (or project-based learning opportunity)

Often, we feel that every lesson we do has to have a ‘point’ or something concrete that the children created or learned or accomplished. We want to be able to say, ‘Here is what I taught them today. Here is something we can show the parents. Here is a lesson I can check off the list.’

The truth is, real learning takes time, and experiences that gradually build on each other over time can create investment, interest, and understanding that is impossible to create in a one-day lesson.

Creating a whole project might sound intimidating at first, but teachers actually find that a project-based mindset takes a lot of pressure off, gives them room to explore children’s interests and use their questions as springboards for exploration while still meeting your requirements and objectives.

Let’s say it’s Halloween and you want to talk about pumpkins. One lesson on pumpkins can become a week-long of science and math activities where children explore the pumpkins first, cut them open and observe the insides, compare them to other fruits and vegetables, measure their size, circumference and weight, and then generate some questions that lead to an ongoing experiment.

What else do we want to know about pumpkins? Maybe one child wants to know what happens if we leave it out – will it rot? How long will it take? Another might wonder how a pumpkin becomes pumpkin pie. A third might ask about where, or how, pumpkins grow.

As the teacher, you can then take that curiosity and pick a question to investigate, teach children how to use find answers using books or technology, and, most importantly, show them that their questions can lead to experiments and explorations and new knowledge!

3. Stop being the expert

Once a question is asked, there are three paths a teacher can take:

1. Ignore the question or tell the student now is not the time.

2. Answer the question as best as you can and keep going with your lesson.

3. Say “I don’t know, but that’s a great question… how can we find out?”

It’s okay not to know the answer! In fact, that can lead to richer, more in-depth and more interesting discussions. When you are not sure of the answer, use it as an opportunity to model curiosity.


Tell the kids you are not sure of the answer and ask for suggestions of how we can find out! They might come up with reading books, watching videos online, using Google, or conducting an experiment to figure out the answer!

Think how much more powerful and lasting this learning will be when the students take ownership, and when the whole class is actively engaged in building the knowledge together!

4. Have a (good) plan for questions

Step 1 is to create a classroom environment where great questions are welcomed. However, if we allow every question to lead to a new discussion or investigation at that moment, we will never finish any lesson we start.

This is why it’s important to have a question action plan or a system in your classroom for how questions are handled. Depending on when the question is asked, answering it or starting a conversation might work just fine.

However, what about questions that are on topic, but would take longer to answer fully? How about questions that would take the lesson too far off course to be addressed at the moment? To empower children and send the message that questions are important, we want to think about where these questions fit in, when they are answered, and by whom.

In an inquiry-driven classroom, questions drive the learning, and students drive the questions.

5. Create a ‘Wonder Wall.’

One way to accomplish this is to help students create a ‘Wonder Wall.’

A Wonder Wall is a great space to “park” questions, but it is only great if children know that there is a set time and procedure for when those questions will be reviewed. Perhaps you pick 1-2 questions to answer during morning circle.

Perhaps you review them yourself during independent work time and then raffle off who gets to find the answer of the computer.  

Create a consistent system that works for you and your classroom, and make it a regular part of the routine so that questions are a vehicle for, not a distraction from, learning.

Ed note: The item below was added by Terry Heick to add to the author’s ideas.

6. Highlight the evolution of student questions

Similar to the Wonder Wall, consider highlighting not just questions but the evolution of questions–or even publish them somehow to relevant audiences.

How questions change is a strong indicator of understanding. Consider the following scenario:

A student begins a lesson on immigration with a ‘Question Journal Entry,’ What exactly is immigration? After reading an article about immigration they might ask, ‘Do some countries have more immigrants than others? If so, why?’ That’s a great question.

What if they kept building, asking, ‘What problems does immigration cause and solve?

How should governments ‘respond to’ immigration? Should they encourage it? Discourage it?

What sorts of cultural shifts lead to shifts in immigration patterns? For example, how has technology changed immigration? How do policies from world leaders affect immigration?

How should citizens of a nation respond to immigrants? What is the difference between the rights of an immigrant and the rights of a citizen?

How would I feel if I had to immigrate to another country? Does that matter? Who decides? Is that fair that they decide? Does ‘fair’ matter? Who gets to define ‘fair’?

All of these questions indicate higher levels of understanding than the first; questions are outstanding methods of assessment.

6 Strategies For Creating An Inquiry-Driven Classroom

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Four Stages Of A Self-Directed Learning Model



self-directed learning stagesFour Stages Of A Self-Directed Learning Model

by TeachThought Staff

Self-Directed Learning is not new–but is perhaps misunderstood.

In the linked post above, Terry Heick wondered about the relationship between self-directed learning and the purpose of education:

The goal of the model isn’t content knowledge (though it should produce that), but rather something closer to wisdom–learning how to learn, understanding what’s worth understanding, and perhaps most importantly, analyzing the purpose of learning (e.g., personal and social change). It also encourages the student to examine the relationship between study and work–an authentic ‘need to know’ with important abstractions like citizenship and legacy.

Studied in terms of adult education and vocation for years, self-directed learning is increasing in popularity for a variety of reasons, including growing dissatisfaction with public schooling, and the rich formal and informal learning materials available online. This is the ‘age of information’ after all.

Self-directed learning is one response, something slideshare user Barbara Stokes captures in this chart, based on the model by Gerald Grow. The four stages–very similar to the gradual release of responsibility model–appear below.

The Four Stages Of The Self-Directed Learning Model

Learner                            Teacher

Stage 1   Dependent        Authority, Coach

Examples: Coaching with immediate feedback. Drill. Informational lecture. Overcoming deficiencies and resistance.

Stage 2:  Interested          Motivator, Guide

Examples: Inspiring lecture plus guided discussion. Goal-seting and learning strategies.

Stage 3:  Involved             Facilitator

Examples: Discussion faciliated by teacher who participates as equal. Seminar. Group projects.

Stage 4:  Self-Directed     Consultant, Delegator

Examples: Internship, dissertation, individual work or self-directed study group.

Theories of Teaching and Learning: The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model, G.Grow. from Barbara Stokes; Four Stages Of A  Self-Directed Learning Model

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The Benefits Of Competency-Based Assessment



The Benefits Of Competency-Based Assessment

contributed by David Garrick, Dean of Graduate School of Education, UCDS College for School Culture

The general idea behind a competency-based assessment is that it provides students and families with specific feedback about student performance that can lead to a clearer understanding of progress and skills gained over time.

As Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the UCDS College for School Culture, I’ve gained a unique perspective on the possibilities that competency-based assessment can provide. Students who attend University Child Development School (UCDS) in Seattle don’t earn A’s, B’s, or F’s. Instead, student assessments are communicated through our own set of competency-based continua for various subjects.

These continua, paired with narrative communication with students and families, make up the school’s framework for assessment, based on skill progressions. I’ve seen the benefits first-hand in Pre-K through elementary classrooms, and also in training at the graduate level.  

By providing specific information about the academic and social skills students exhibit, schools provide detailed and actionable information. This empowers students in their learning and educators in their teaching practices. Here’s a general overview of the benefits of competency-based assessment.

Building Competency-Based Assessments: The Benefits

1. Improved clarity & transparency

Greater clarity allows teachers and families to identify areas of strength and areas where students may need additional support. In all cases, these assessments provide teachers with detailed knowledge about student progress that can be used to build individualized goals and educational plans.

In addition to evaluating proficiency in these domains, teachers should regularly share comprehensive feedback individual student accomplishments and struggles. For example, UCDS teachers provide narrative commentary to families where they focus on how a student engages within each domain, as well as notable accomplishments and struggles.

Focusing on comprehensive feedback brings clarity to the learner, and clarity to the family about what’s happening in the classroom. Letter grades don’t show the full picture (suggesting alternatives to letter grades), and a competency-based model is better equipped to provide students, families and future schools with clear information about each student’s social and academic progress.


2. More seamless personalization of learning

Through Competency-Based Learning, educators have a better chance to provide a deeper view into each student’s learning attitudes and strategies and can provide resources that best support individual needs. This type of information is key to understanding the unique modes, strategies, and coaching to which each student responds best. This is the foundation of personalized learning.

3. It helps shift towards a culture of assessment

To successfully adopt competency-based strategies, teachers and administrators must first reevaluate assessment. While traditional forms of assessment (i.e., exams and quizzes) are valuable when placing students on a general scale of progress, they don’t show the whole picture. Making changes to assessment can be daunting for some educators, especially those who have been using traditional assessment practices throughout their career. It can also be a shift for parents to evaluate their student’s performance without a grade.

It’s important that teachers pursue resources and professional development that introduce different methods of assessing student progress, and why they hold value. As every teacher knows, the learning never stops – and by staying on top of current trends, curriculum can be adapted to meet every students’ needs.

4. Students better understand their own learning profile

Through comprehensive, competency-based assessment methods, teachers can help students to reach college and career readiness with greater self-knowledge about their learning approaches and needs. Working from a continuum of skills ensures that every student is being challenged in a way that is appropriate to what they want and need to learn and that educators can give individualized support as needed to help them move forward.

Removing the stress of being placed on a tiered grading scale shifts the focus back to learning, while building the confidence to make mistakes. Students take ownership of their learning. They feel empowered when mastering a skill and learn to identify what’s next.


For teachers, competency-based assessment brings depth and value to curriculum. With the focus shifted away from letters and percentages, students become more involved in long-term progress and are more apt to become engaged and take risks while learning.

Ranking students based on undefined competencies and then using that rank to determine their future prospects and contributions is a practice best left to past eras. Competency-based assessment provides more detailed information that promotes better-targeted teaching and learning for all parties involved.  

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5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious



Causing curiosity in students boils down to knowing that student.

5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious

by Terry Heick

Understanding where curiosity comes from is the holy grail of education.

Education, of course, is different than learning but both depend on curiosity.

Education implies a formal, systematic, and strategic intent to cause learning. In this case, content to be learned is identified, learning experiences are planned, learning results are assessed, and data from said assessments play some role in the planning of new learning experiences. Learning strategies are applied, and snapshots of understanding are taken as frequently as possible.

This approach is clinical and more than a smidgeon scientific. It arrests emotion and spontaneity in pursuit of planning and precision, a logical trade in the eyes of science.

Of course, very little about learning is scientific. While data, goals, assessment, and planning should all play a role in any system that purports to actually accomplish anything, learning and education are fundamentally different. The former is messy and personal, painful and fantastic. The latter attempts to assimilate the former—or at least streamline it as much as possible in the name of efficiency.

An analogy might help. (I love teaching with analogies.)

learning : education :: true love : dating service

True love may very well come from a dating service, and dating services do all they can to make it happen, but in the end—well, there’s a fair bit of hocus pocus at work behind it all.

Hubris & Education

Education is simultaneously the most noble and hubristic of all endeavors. There are two minds to every educator. This may all reek of sensationalism, but watch anyone at play, honing a craft, lost in a book, or engaged in a digital simulation and you’ll see a completely different person—one there physically, but far removed in spirit.

In a better place.

Causing this in a classroom is possible, but is as often the result of good fortune than good planning. The best substitutes that can masquerade as curiosity are dutiful compliance and engagement. Neither of these are curiosity, which has among its sources a strong sense of volition, accountability, and curiosity.

Here, let me try.

I want to show you what I can do.

I want to know.

And that last one—a sign of curiosity–is a bugger, one we’ve talked about before. Like the caffeine in coffee, the chords on a guitar, or the wet in water, genuine curiosity is not a thing, it’s the thing.

Not temporarily wanting to know, or being vaguely interested in an answer, but being able to put together past experience and knowledge like the millions of fibers on a network–only to be maddeningly stopped from branching further without understanding or knowing this one bit.

Like stopping an incredible movie right at the climax—that awful, crazy feeling inside would be unfulfilled curiosity—and it’d just kill you not to know. But where does it come from?

And can you consistently cause it in a learner?

If formal learning environments driven by outcomes-based systems have taught us nothing else, it’s that while we often can “cause” something to happen in learner, it is only by considerable effort, resources, and angst.


But we certainly can create ideal conditions where natural curiosity can begin to grow. What we do when it happens—and disrupts our planned lessons and tidy little units—is another story altogether.

5 Things That Make Students Curious

1. Revisit Old Questions

The simplest curiosities arise from old questions that were never fully answered, or that no attempt to answer was made.

Of course, any question worth its salt is never ‘fully answered’ any more than a good conversation is ever finished, but as we learn and reflect and grow, old answers can look positively awkward, as they are bound by old knowledge.

Strategy to actuate: Revisit old questions—through a journal prompt, Socrative discussion, QFT (Question Formulation Technique), or even a fishbowl discussion. And also revisit the thinking from the first go-round to see what has changed.

2. Model & Promote Ambition

Ambition precedes curiosity. Without wanting to advance in position, thinking, or design, curiosity is simply a biological and neurological reaction to stimulus. But ambition is what makes us human, and its fraternal twin is curiosity.

Strategy to actuate: Well thought-out mentoring, peer-to-peer modeling, Project-Based Learning and a genuine ‘need to know.’

3. Play

A learner at play is a signal that there is a comfortable mind focused on a fully-internalized goal.

It may or may not be the same goal as those given externally, but play is hypnotic and more efficient than the most well-planned instructional sequence. A learner playing and learning through play, nearly by definition, is curious about something, or otherwise they’re simply manipulating bits and pieces mindlessly.

Strategy to actuate: Game-Based Learning and learning games and simulations like Armadillo Run, Civilization VI, Bridge Constructor, and Age of Empires all empower the learner to play. Same with Challenge-Based learning and other forms of learning.

4. The Right Collaboration At The Right Time

Seeing what is possible modeled by peers is powerful stuff for learners. Some may not be initially curious about content, but seeing what peers accomplish can be a powerful actuator for curiosity. How did they do this? How might I do what they did in my own way? Which of these ideas I’m seeing are valuable to me—right here, right now–and which are not?

Strategy to actuate: Grouping is not necessarily collaboration. To actuate collaboration, and thus curiosity, students must have a genuine need for another resource, idea, perspective, or something else otherwise not immediately available to them. Cause them to need something, not simply to finish an assignment, but to achieve the goal they set for themselves.

5. Use Diverse & Unpredictable Content

Diverse content is likely the most accessible pathway to at least a modicum of curiosity from learners. New projects, new games, new novels, new poets, new things to think about.

Strategy to actuate: Invite the learners to understand the need for a resource or bit of content and have them source it. Instant diversity class-wide, and likely divergence from where you were going with it all. At worst you’ve got engaged learners, and a real shot at curiosity.

5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious

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