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Encourage your students to plan the unit of inquiry

Lyn Bird

Dr Lyn Bird, Principal at Selwyn House School in Christchurch, New Zealand

This article shows how to plan a unit of inquiry from the student perspective facilitating the same process that teachers undertake.

“It is not enough to simply listen to student voice. Educators have an ethical imperative to do something with students, and that is why meaningful student involvement is vital to school improvement.”

~ Fletcher, 2003 ~

Teachers spend many hours planning units of inquiry in order to help their students learn new knowledge and to develop new skills and attitudes. Some teachers collaboratively develop the unit before ascertaining student prior knowledge. Some teachers develop a skeleton unit plan and finish the rest of the unit plan informed by student prior knowledge, questions and interests. A few teachers carry out a true form of democratic inquiry and co-construct the unit with their students.

Fraser (2000, p.35) comments:

…teachers are in fact planning the units in advance, and consulting with the students only on a few minor details. The core elements, activities and direction of the units, as decided by the teacher, remain unchanged.

For a number of years I have facilitated a “kid’s curriculum group” designed to gather student voice around curriculum design and learning programmes. Originally the students offered ideas around topics for study, defined key competencies and surveyed the school for opinions on specific issues.

When considering effective pedagogy we know the power of incorporating student voice at all levels of learning, we know gathering prior knowledge is a very important first step and we know student choice is a powerful engagement tool. I soon realized that when students’ ideas and feedback are actioned, their engagement is stronger. Therefore I decided to increase their voice and ideas in unit of inquiry planning to ensure a greater degree of ownership and engagement.

With these points in mind I decided to plan a unit of inquiry from the student perspective facilitating the same process that teachers undertake.

Individually, from their own cultural perspective, our year 8 student leaders unpacked the transdisciplinary theme (Sharing the planet) and central idea (everyone has rights …) and then shared their understandings to form a shared meaning. This process included their family and cultural perspective and allowed prior knowledge to be captured. It was interesting how each student viewed the term “refugee” and how each had their own “lens” through which they approached the central idea.

Starting with a shared language aided the students in selecting the key concepts to be emphasized and to develop possible lines of inquiry. They formulated a variety of “big” questions to provoke and stimulate discussion such as “what rights and responsibilities do refugees have compared to us?” “A war can start small but impact a huge amount of people” and “what is the difference between rights, responsibilities and power?”

Planning learning experiences promoted great excitement and was a highly motivating part of the planning. We were astounded at the ease with which the year 8 students generated the activities and their natural inclusion of a wide variety in order to suit individuals, groups and learning styles.

Transdisciplinary links were developed naturally as the inquiry was focused on a real-world problem (refugees) and brought relevance both locally and internationally. The culminating activity was replicating a day in a refugee camp. This involved a great deal of planning and the development of financial, thinking, communication and research skills but more importantly enabled them to be risk-takers, open-minded, reflective, caring learners.

Planning possible assessment tasks was relatively straight forward as they reflected on the learning activities and the skills, values and knowledge to be developed. They planned a number of individual and group activities that would culminate in a comprehensive portfolio of artifacts as proof of their achievement and learning journey. They also included co-constructed rubrics and role-play.

From this exercise we learned 3 main points:

  1. Start with what they know.

I have worked with groups of students for many years facilitating the planning of units of inquiry using the same steps and approach as teachers use. Teachers are astonished when they receive the planning and often choose to use the plan with minor modifications. Why? Because the planning is authentic, starts from “what the students know” and engagement is instant.

  1. Students know how they like to learn best.

Students have the capability to design the learning activities and are very aware which skills they need to develop. Senior students have had many years of learning through exposure to many different types of inquiry learning activities and they know best which ones engage and suit the learning need. Planning assessment activities and an understanding of the learning journey leads to self-direction and metacognition.

  1. Students feel empowered when they carry out the planning and engagement is assured.

Students I have worked with feel proud that they have developed the unit and are very excited to begin learning. Incorporating student voice and choice to such a degree encourages student agency and ownership of their learning.

Click here to see the unit of inquiry planned entirely by a group of year 8 girls at Selwyn House School.

I am sure they would love to get your feedback.

Dr Lyn Bird is principal at Selwyn House School in Christchurch, New Zealand. She has been principal of both private and state schools from small country to large urban schools. Her PhD thesis focused on developing self regulated learning skills in young students and she is passionate about self directed learning and personalization of learning. Visit her blog at

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16 Responses to Encourage your students to plan the unit of inquiry

  1. Jennifer Lindsay 24 May 2016 at 4:21 pm #

    This is so awesome. When saying year 8 students, are those students ages 12-13? I really like the idea of having student leaders meet a couple of weeks before starting a new unit and getting their input to guide the unit. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Smita 2 July 2016 at 10:40 am #

    This is really good … students taking an active part in the unit planning process … student centric learning ..

  3. Smita Varrier 2 July 2016 at 10:44 am #

    This is really good … students taking an active part in the unit planning process … student centric learning .. need of the hour

  4. Yuniarti Santosa 6 July 2016 at 6:37 am #

    This is very inspiring, Lyn. Thank you for sharing this. I have tried similar approach to my 2nd graders by letting them develop either the central idea or the lines of inquiry of their units. It takes a while for them (as they are quite young) to understand how developing the LoI connects to the key concepts. After unpacking the CI (and discuss how this connects to the transdiciplinary theme), I let them record their questions/wonderings about the unit. Then, they were asked to match their questions to the key concepts. Once, the LoI were generated, they feel so proud and excited about the unit. ‘We got to create the LoI!’ Throughout the inquiry process into the unit, the students were able to identify the connection between learning experiences (which we plan together) to the LoI. I think through this process, the students are slowly introduced to the process of how to develop a unit (as they are going to do this for the PYP exhibition).

  5. John Nairn 20 August 2016 at 9:43 am #

    Thank you for sharing this Dr Lyn, the students at the heart of it all……………learner empowerment to the max……..wonderful.

  6. Juliana 30 August 2016 at 11:19 am #

    #mtpyph Amazing process on how students can plan an unit of inquiry! Thank you for sharing!

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