Inquiry-Based Learning in the Science Classroom

These middle school students are doing what could be very important work for the community while learning about the standards required for their course. The teacher does an awesome job of giving pieces to investigate to different groups and then bringing the students together to synthesize the findings to help them draw their conclusions.

Notice that the teachers says “it may last one class period or a series of class periods.” He’s not talking units here. He’s demonstrating every day work driven by inquiry. Our nature center is perfect for these types of inquiry lessons.

This video is 3 minutes well spent.


What did you do this summer?

Writing? Yeah.

It’s a common teacher question for students as they return to class after three months away. It makes for an easy prompt to get kids writing right off the bat. Correct? But if inquiry is such an important piece of where we are headed as a school district with our instruction, how do we make this fit?

Keeping in mind we want them to write and enjoy what they are writing about, what if we reworked the questions just a little bit to help us get to know our students a bit better? We can be the inquiring mind modeling appropriate questioning.  This great post from Jenny Froehle challenges us to do just that. Consider the examples below but take the time to read the entire blog post and the rest of her list.

Not “What did you DO this summer?” but “What did you LEARN or LEARN TO DO this summer?”

Not “What do you like?” but “What do you want to know more about?”

Not “What is your learning style?” but “Where and whom do you learn from?”

Not “What worries or upsets you?” but “What do you do when you’re faced with a really interesting or tough-to-solve problem?”

Not “What do you want me to know about you?” but “What do you want the world to know and think about you?” Now and in the future.

Five Keys to Rigorous PBL

Since you’ve gone through PBL training, you know it’s about more than just projects. You also know that if you plan to just lecture and hand out worksheets, students will disengage from the content you’re trying to share with them. They just aren’t interested in listening to someone go on for 45 minutes about (insert TEKS standards here). And since they are the ultimate decision makers in whether they engage their brains in the learning process or not, our goal is to find ways to make them WANT to learn. Make it personal, if you will.

What you will find, though, is they will surprise you with a higher level of success when presented with a challenging, engaging, and empowering opportunity that ties to the standards they are expected to master. Take a look at Edutopia’s video discussing the “Five Keys to Rigorous PBL” and consider ways to rethink your classroom learning environment.

Remember the Five Keys:

1. Real-World Connection

2. Core to Learning

3. Structured Collaboration

4. Student Driven

5. Multifaceted Assessment

PBL, Physics, Basketball, and Inquiring Minds

Sometimes, you just have to break down the “game” or problem of whatever you’re attempting to do into smaller chunks to improve. Take basketball, for instance. It’s a game of science; physics, to be exact. One school decided to overcome poor free throw shooting by creating a PBL unit that has their physics classes studying the players and using their inquiry skills to identify problem areas and improve best practices. The great video below from Dripping Springs High School in Texas shows the highlights of the process.

(NOTE: video not mobile friendly due to Flash)


Genius Hour


Photo Credit Flikr User: mrsdkrebs

One way to implement inquiry driven work is to let the students drive the inquiry. You heard about voice and choice when you had your PBL training. Genius Hour is a great way to let the students have voice AND choice on projects of their own interests.

Chris Kesler, an educator from outside of Houston, defines Genius Hour as:

… a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.  It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.

Chris’s Genius Hour blog gives you direction and answers your questions such as:

Making Time for Genius Hour

Approaching Your Administration About Genius Hour

Genius Hour Project Introductions

Setting Genius Hour Expectations

The Google tools you and your students have access to make this such an easy program to implement and document the progress. Use Google Docs for notes (with you facilitating in the Comments section), Sheets or Docs for data collection, Draw for prototypes, Presentation or YouTube for publication of their work to their blogs, Hangouts for working with experts, and the list goes on. The best thing is that you don’t have to be an expert on any of it.  You’re just the guiding, inspiring force behind their work.

Still have questions about Genius Hour? Check out Chris’s explanation in this video below.

Still not convinced? Watch some interviews of teachers implementing the program or check out some of the dozens of teacher blogs and Twitter accounts of those using Genius Hour to teach their kids. Or, if you prefer paper, grab a copy of the book “Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success.”

Maybe you’re still reading and the thought running through your head is, “This is fine and all, but how do I make them include the subject I teach in their work?” Well, that’s not always the point of it. If you want to make the Genius Hour by modifying Google’s ideology (the time can be used provided it has the potential to advance the company) to fit your class, then set those goals from the onset. But be willing to be flexible in the content the students select. By giving them freedom, even if the topic is a stretch, they gain trust in you because you are trusting them to make the learning meaningful. They will see you buying into them and their learning/needs, and they will buy into you as someone who cares about what they think. In the end, that might be the biggest payoff from the entire process. And to me, that’s money in the bank.

Oh, and if you think this is just some new fad that’s going to come and go, you’re wrong. WOISD has had employees doing this since before there was a Google doing 20% time. Peggy Raines and Linda McKinney were doing this when I would substitute in their classrooms back in the early 90’s. They called it P.R.O.B.E.: Personal Research On Basically Everything. It was stellar.

Re-Engaging the Disengaged Learner

Photo Credit: Flickr User edsuom

Photo Credit: Flickr User edsuom

Jeff Delp, a junior high principal, has a great blog post over at the Molehills out of Mountains blog on five strategies that can be used to re-engage those learners who have checked out on us. Below is the quick list, but be sure to click the link and read the entire post where he gives some reasoning and ideas behind each.

(1) Make it Personal – take time to visit with students and learn about their personal interests.

(2) Search for Celebrations – be constantly vigilant for celebration moments.

(3) Give Every Student the Opportunity to Succeed – it is unfortunate, but some of our students have not tasted success for so long that they have lost hope–no longer possessing the self-confidence, or will, to invest in what they see as a wasted effort.

(4) Reflect on class assignments and homework – in spite of our best intentions, we frequently set our students up for failure by burying them in assignments that do not serve a clear purpose, or that students have little chance of completing.

(5) Try something different – if things don’t seem to be working, do something different.

He’s concludes with:

There is no easy answer to the issue of disengaged students. No magic bullet. No single program or strategy that will be a definitive “fix” for every student. As professionals, we must meet this challenge head on, maintain a positive attitude, and search for ways to instill confidence and hope in all of our students. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Inquiry begins with the right question(s)

There are lots of ways to teach questioning strategies, but to find an engaging method to practice those skills is a little more of a challenge. Sure, they can practice with the kids in their class, but at some point, that becomes monotonous. Why not use the technology you have on any device and reach outside to a global audience willing to help you with those skills? Mystery Skype is one way to do that. Check out the video below of how some elementary kids practice their questioning skills. This can be adjusted to all ages, and I am always ready to help connect you with someone around the world to get you started with your first experience with this. For this and other ideas on using Skype with your kids, check out Skype in Education.