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Learners leading learning

How can students effectively develop their own learning pathway through questioning? Read about PYP students who wanted more ownership of their learning: to design their own inquiry. This is a case study of how one year 6 class applied a questioning process to lead their own learning.

In year 6, feedback from our students indicated that what they wanted most was more ownership of their learning and the chance to learn about their own areas of interest.

So when we began a new unit, inquiring into the idea that A nation’s story has many perspectives, we decided to create opportunities for the students to move beyond being engaged in their learning to being empowered learners. Students would design their own line of inquiry, beginning with questions generated throughout the guided inquiry that began the unit.

We scaffolded the process of designing questions to guide this inquiry by using our own interpretation of the Question Formulation Technique. We stood in a circle; students stated their question to the group and then they wrote their question on a post-it note and placed it in the middle of the circle. If the students made a statement rather than a question, they were respectfully asked to re-phrase it before writing. Some students struggled with the exact wording of their question. They had an idea or a wondering and the group was able to make suggestions about the wording of the question until the student was satisfied. Because the students were sharing with the group before writing, we avoided double-ups of ideas but still, with a large group of lively students who were full of ideas, it did not take long to build up an overwhelming number of questions.

Next, how were we to organize these questions? Olivia, one of our students, said “I can see a lot of questions about the Gold Rush so maybe we could put them together.” Other students identified categories and collected questions that they thought matched. As they categorized, students discussed questions that did not seem to be connected with the central idea and grouped these together. When we reached a stalemate in this categorizing task, students were invited to check where their questions had ended up and whether they were happy with that place for them.

Following this, students were asked to identify an area of interest for their own inquiry and describe it as a line of inquiry in the format beginning with “An inquiry into…” They justified their proposed inquiry by stating its connection to our related concepts nation’s story and perspective. They shared their line of inquiry with their teacher so that they achieved clarity.

Finally, our students formulated questions that specifically matched their lines of inquiry and would guide them in their particular area of research. They organized these questions around the key concepts.

We challenged our students to think about what different kinds of research their questions would require, such as factual, conceptual or debatable. This process led to valuable discussion around the category for each question, developing students’ understanding of questions.

When we had completed the inquiries, we surveyed the students. Here are some of their responses:

  • I think it is better when we choose our own learning because when I choose, I always do something I really enjoy and I feel that I work at it better when I am doing something I like.
  • You become more interested and involved in your learning.
  • You grow as a learner and you have the opportunity to grow your learning the way you want.
  • You also can choose a path that can challenge in your own ways.
  • You can be creative, have an open mind about the tasks and design your own questions and work how you learn best.


Rothstein, D., & Santana, S. (2011) Make Just One Chance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Zonca, B. (2017) Student-led development of lines of inquiry, SharingPYP blog


Karen Campbell is a year 6 homeroom teacher at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield, Australia. Prior to this, she worked in international schools in Singapore and China, leading and teaching the IB PYP. She has a broad range of experience across all primary grades and in several leadership roles in both local and international schools. Developing creative and critical thinking skills is at the core of her teaching practice. She is focused on authentically incorporating students’ questions in the inquiry process and on facilitating the development of thinking skills that will enable students to be lifelong learners. She tweets @KarenE_Campbell.