Student-led development of lines of inquiry

Benjamin Zonca, grade 4 teacher, Auburn South Primary School, Australia

An investigation into student-led development of personal lines of inquiry.

Learner agency as terminology is increasingly thrown around in educational discourse as the 21st century continues to roll through. But I wonder: Is it simply something we talk about doing – that we think about doing – that we think we are doing… but aren’t?

In no way am I suggesting that learner agency does not exist in classrooms – it absolutely does. I simply mean to point out the thought process that I went through when I realized that I was short-changing students on authentic choice across units of inquiry.

In light of my thinking, student development of lines of inquiry was the logical starting point for our grade 4 team.

Our students needed a sound understanding of the underlying principles of the unit of inquiry before personal development of lines of inquiry would be effective. Therefore, we bade our time until it felt right – until students were starting to really brim with rich wonderings about the central idea.

To leverage these wonderings, we employed a go-to tool from Rothstein and Santana (2011),  Question Formulation Technique (QFT). Defined by simplicity, we used this tool with modifications that helped to draw depth out of student questions and align them to the unit of inquiry. Questions are framed by a QFocus; a statement that provides only a general direction, which in this case was the central idea:

Indigenous people’s connection to place and country is changed through exploration and settlement.

Our simple modification is the inclusion of the key concept posed as questions; How is it changing (change)? How is it connected to other things (connection)? What are the major points of view (perspective)? We hoped that students had an embedded understanding of these concepts, having been exposed to them over the years, and that these lines of thinking enhance the questions asked.

The ‘rules’ of the QFT are:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it was stated.
  4. Change any statements into questions.

The questioning begins and the classroom buzzes. We do scaffold if necessary and provide students who are stuck with a questioning matrix (Weiderhold, 1991) that gives a kick to confidence that many students require.

Inevitably, the buzz slows, sheets are filled with questions, and the time is right to move on. At this point we do not expect sheets brimming with brilliant questions; instead, we expect that most will be discarded, but that is just the nature of a good inquiry (isn’t that how we began?). But here is where the significance of the process is drawn out; the analysis of questions in an attempt to tease out the ones that would lead to the ‘strongest’ inquiry. Our students used the following points to discuss questions:

  • Which do we think are the easiest to answer?
  • Which questions are “Googleable”?
  • Which questions are “non-Googleable”?
  • Which will be the hardest to answer? Why?
  • Which questions are you most excited by?

(Murdoch, 2015)

Each group discussed these prompts and starred their top 3 – the questions they thought would drive an inquiry – and then passed their ‘strongest’ questions around to the next group. The process starts again, but this time the goal was to identify the single question from that sheet that they thought would drive the strongest inquiry (this should not be taken lightly and students are often passionate about ‘their’ questions, so justification of choices is necessary).

At this point we had 5 student questions that are transferred onto sentence strips – two steps left. The first step is a quick mapping of questions against the key concepts to reinforce their significance within the context of the unit of inquiry. The second step, and most important of all, is for students take the time to choose their line of inquiry that will be explored collaboratively in the coming weeks.

This process sounds extensive, but it really is not. Instead, it is something that students love to do and something that teachers make available if they want to see students engaged completely in units of inquiry.

References:
Murdoch. K. (2015). The Power of Inquiry. Melbourne, VIC: Seastar Education
Rothstein, D., & Santana, S. (2011) Make Just One Chance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Wiederhold, C. (1995). Cooperative Learning and Higher Level Thinking: The Q-Matrix with Question Manipulatives. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning

Benjamin Zonca is a grade 4 teacher at Auburn South Primary School (ASPS) in Hawthorn East, Victoria. ASPS has been an accredited PYP school for almost a decade and continues to seek innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Benjamin holds a bachelor’s degree from Monash University and is on the edge of gaining a master’s degree from the University of Melbourne. You can follow him on Twitter @benjaminzonca1.

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