Less is More: Teaching Inquiry before Research

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When I began incorporating inquiry into my instruction early in my career, I was excited by the possibilities. It was finally a way for students to personalize learning; I could hand over the role of the question-asker to the students and guide them as they found answers to topics in which they were invested.  For my honors students, this was a piece of cake (they’ll do whatever you tell them, after all).  As for my students who struggle, well… It wasn’t long before I heard the dreaded question.  If you’ve ever been intentional about using inquiry in instruction, you know which one:

But what if I don’t have a question about it?

Yeah, that one.  I’ll admit hearing this is like nails on a chalkboard.  What do you mean, you don’t have a question?! I think to myself.  How can you not?  There are so many issues wrapped up in this topic!  But if 7 years in the classroom have taught me anything, it’s that if something my students say annoys me, I need to pick it apart and examine it— because there’s probably something in that annoying response that can tell me A) about the students and what they need and/or B) what I’m not getting right in my instruction that is causing it.

If something my student says annoys me, I need to pick it apart and examine it -- because it will tell me something about what my students need or something I'm not getting right in my instruction..pngIn this case, I believe it was both.  When I got over my annoyance and really started thinking about it, I realized it’s really difficult for students to form questions who have never been given agency in their education.  In my experience, my students who struggle are the most likely to act up; therefore, they are the more likely to be assigned work rather than taught.  They have literally forgotten what it’s like to have childlike curiosity, and they need to be reminded.  So this year, before my seniors did any research— before a thesis statement was written, before a website was found, before an essential question was asked— I decided to remind them.

Starting With Sketch Notes

At NCTE 2017, I went to one of Penny Kittle’s sessions and learned aboutThree Miles”, Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 8.02.17 PMan episode of the This American Life podcast that explores the vast differences in education received by students at an elite private school and a less than ideal public school just three miles away.  I began second semester by playing the episode for students.  Instead of asking them to answer questions about the episode or do a fill-in-the-blank worksheet, I encouraged students to make sketches of big ideas and topics that stood out to them as they listened.

When we finished listening, I let the sketch notes guide the discussion.  I simply asked students what they drew, and a rich conversation followed.  For example, one student’s drawing of the size difference of the two schools sparked an exploration of how availability of resources can have a huge impact on student success.  Students were asking BIG questions like What would happen if some of the public school students in the podcast went to private schools? and How would things be different for us if we went to another school?  The best part?  I barely had to do any work at all.  Sure, I monitored to make sure nobody was talking over another person and asked a few questions here and there to promote further exploration, but I became less and less a presence as the conversation went on.  It seemed the less effort I made and the more responsibility I put on the students, the more curious they became.

Student Discussion Leaders

After I gave students practice with inquisitive thinking, I wanted to keep the ball rolling by using these skills to discuss topics that are important right now.  One of the things I sought to remedy with my research unit this year was for students to realize there are topics to be researched all around them; I wanted them to find an issue they were truly passionate about rather than select a topic from a list.  I selected seven topics that have been in the news within the last year (below) to serve as springboards for further exploration.  Each topic contains an accompanying video, article, or social media post.

Topic 1: The Black Bruins- Link to video here.

Topic 2: What is Privilege?- Link to video here.

Topic 3: Collin Kaepernick Nike Commercial- Link to video here. (I followed this up with Kwame Alexander’s poem “Take a Knee” and Taya Kyle’s response to the commercial posted on Facebook).

Topic 4: Brock Turner rape case- Link to article here.

Topic 5: Kavanaugh/Ford hearing- Link to video here.

Topic 6: Surviving Without a Smartphone- Link to video here.

Topic 7: School Violence- Link to Emma Gonzalez speech here.  (I also showed Kaitlin Bennett’s controversial tweet about guns on college campuses.)

When I sat down to plan how I would like to lead a discussion on each topic, I asked myself: Why am I the one doing this?  I played such a minimal role during the “Three Miles” discussion, and my students went above and beyond my expectations.  I also realized the act of planning for a discussion is inquisitive in nature; in order to pose questions to others about a topic, one must first understand and dig into the issues it contains. So the next day in class, I told the students they would be getting into groups, and each group would be responsible for leading a 35 minute discussion over one of the topics on the board.  I briefly introduced each topic and assigned topics to groups.  Each group was given two days in class to turn in a lesson plan which detailed how they planned to lead the discussion.  As they planned, I was blown away with the variety and creativity— there were snowball writings, small group discussions, large group discussions, activities involving movement, etc.  It’s amazing what an impact stepping off the stage and handing over a little bit of agency can have!

It was a big risk to completely hand over the reins to my students for seven days, and I’ll admit I was nervous.  A lot can go wrong— the discussion leaders may freeze up, the class may not participate, some students may not respectfully disagree.  What I found, however, was students were even more engaged in discussions when they were student led.  Without me as the buffer, students seemed to be very aware that they were the ones responsible for digging into the topics presented.  This was echoed when we reflected on the discussion leader activities; many of them expressed they were more comfortable sharing their opinions and asking questions about the topics because it no longer felt like a teacher was looking for a “correct” response.  Once again, doing less as a teacher produced more thinking from my students.

Research Question Stations

Now that my students had explored issues within the topics through student-led discussions, I wanted them to form questions about the texts that could be used for further research.  I explained how I defined a research question— a broad inquiry about a topic (not a single person or event) that can be answered in a variety of ways.  I then showed several examples using the “Three Mile” podcast.

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 8.02.28 PM.pngNext, I had students get back into their discussion leader groups.  Each group went to the station of the topic upon which they led a discussion.  The station contained a sign with the name of the topic and a blank sheet.  Each group had a few minutes to develop a research question together about the topic and write it on the sheet.  Groups then rotated to the next station.  They read the research question that was already there and added another to the list.  Once each group visited each station, there were seven potential research questions for each topic.  At the end of the day, I had a list from each of my three classes; I compiled this and created a Big List of Research Questions (attached), which students were able to use to select a topic of research for the unit


Two weeks is a huge chunk of instructional time to devote to anything, but now that my students are conducting research, I can safely say the inquiry unit was time well spent.  In previous years, students picked a topic, but oftentimes they didn’t know what to research within the topic.  This year, they dove right into the database with multiple angles in mind.  I didn’t force students to choose a research question off the Big List of Research Questions, and I noticed that even those who formed their own question had no problems finding a multitude of information related to their topics with little or no assistance.  I can’t help but attribute this to the time spent learning to examine and question topics before being dropped into a database.

The most important lesson I am taking away from this unit is less direct instruction truly yields more results when it comes to exploring an issue.  That’s why when I do an inquiry unit before research next year, I plan to back out even more.  While my students did become engaged in all of the topics I chose for the discussion leader assignment, I feel they would be even more invested if they chose the topics themselves.  I love Allison and Rebekah’s idea of having students blog about the independent digital reading they do outside of class.  I began this at the start of the semester and can’t help but notice it is a goldmine of potential topics for discussion.  Next year, I would like to start independent digital reading earlier in the year so students can access this goldmine and have agency in selecting the topics covered in class.

What are some ways that have gotten your students fired up and ready to research?  I’d love to chat about it on Twitter @pbrink 12 or Facebook!

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