The 7 Letter Word That Causes Extreme Reactions: INQUIRY!

Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people are just waiting until we get back to the “good old days” of spelling tests, worksheets, and math drills. Over this past week alone, both through online conversations, emails, and face-to-face discussions, I have heard it all when it comes to inquiry. This definitely seems to be one word that brings out the passion in people: be it positive or negative.

I used to think that I taught through inquiry, until two summers ago when I read Natural Curiosity and Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In Action. Then I realized what inquiry really was and what it could be, and I looked at how to embrace this philosophy as a Grade 5 teacher. It was a very interesting year, full of lots of new learning for me and for my students.

Now this year, I’ve moved schools, changed grades (going back to primary and teaching Grade 1), and am still believing in the benefits of inquiry. A couple of days ago, my previous vice principal, Kristi, tweeted me with this blog post request.


This is something that I’ve actually been thinking about this week, and so ask, and you shall receive. 🙂 Here are my thoughts:

  • In primary, students largely haven’t become as accustomed to worksheets and textbooks as they may have in junior, so they are more easily open to new ways of finding out information and sharing learning. 
  • The Full-Day Kindergarten Program often provides students with lots of opportunities to question and wonder (on topics that interest them), so many primary students continue to share these natural wonders in the classroom. (They don’t seem to need much encouragement to do so.) In junior grades, students seem more accustomed to the teacher doing the questioning, and it can take a while to help them redevelop these skills. Continuing to develop deeper, richer questions is something that I think both primary and junior students need to work on. The Q-Chart is one resource that can be used in all grades to do so.
  • Overall, junior students are more independent readers and writers than primary students — often giving them easier access to a wide variety of content, and allowing them to easily record their new learning. In primary, I think the teacher has to do a little more work to help track down content at the students’ reading/comprehension levels and/or looking at audio or video options. (That being said, often junior teachers have a couple of students in the class that struggle in reading or writing. They may need to help access content for these students, and audio or video options and simpler texts are all good possibilities.) Showing primary students how to record their thinking using pictures, letter-sounds, and a few familiar words is important. With this modelling though, students can “write down” their learning in a way that’s developmentally appropriate for them.
  • Junior students usually have more background information about topics — especially curriculum-related ones. This often allows them to dig deeper with their questions and their thinking. In primary, it’s essential to provide students with lots of background information so that they can further revise their questions and wonders. Related objects, simple reading materials, audio recordings, and videos can all help students learn more so that they can inquire more. Junior students still need to read lots to dig deeper, but I found that normally their starting point is further ahead (this may be different for each class though).
  • The expectations, including the overall ones, often become more complex in junior grades. This makes it harder to connect all topics of interest. The primary expectations — especially those from Kindergarten and Grade 1 — are far more open-ended in all subject areas, so even students’ general interest questions can often connect to them. This gives more options for inquiry questions that relate to student interests, while also (importantly/essentially) connecting to curriculum expectations.
  • Primary and junior students often seem to share their learning in different ways. While many older students will write about what they learned (at least to some extent), many young primary students seem to struggle more with writing. They are just developing these skills. They often use The Arts, building and creating, and oral discussions to share their learning. I think that this may change throughout the year, as my young students learn to write more. They’re already getting more excited about writing, and I hope to see this impact on how they share their learning.
  • In both primary and junior, it’s important to document student learning and share it with others (parents being one of these key players). In junior, I found it easy from early on to have students involved in this documentation. They would often compose tweets sharing their learning or add captions to photographs that I took. In Grade 1, right now, this is more of a shared writing or interactive writing activity. I am definitely doing more of the documentation, but students are starting to orally discuss their learning (which is definitely a part of this documentation). Since so much is oral right now, I find myself recording more podcasts, as this is an easy way for students to play a bigger role in documentation: I press “record” and they talk. I showed them the other day how to record their own podcasts, so I’m hoping this will be the start of more student documentation. As I write this blog post, I wonder about the use of a screencasting app. Students could insert a photograph of their work, and discuss their learning using Educreations or ScreenChomp. I may need to try this next week.
  • The types of small group mini-lessons and direct teaching are often different in primary and junior grades. Right now, in Grade 1, my mini-lessons are often focused on writing skills: helping students segment words by letter-sounds and using familiar words in the classroom to assist them with the actual writing process. In the junior grades, my mini-lessons were often related to expanding on ideas and sharing more of their thinking based on what they read or heard. These mini-lessons are sure to change throughout the year and would obviously be different in different classrooms, based on student needs. It’s important to remember that inquiry does not mean no direct instruction. It’s how this instruction happens that matters. The more conversations I have with people, the more I think that this is a key misunderstanding that often makes people “hate inquiry.”

While there are definitely differences in inquiry teaching in primary versus junior, I certainly see benefits to inquiry in all grades. After reflecting on my first week back at school though, I believe that we really need to somehow develop a shared understanding of what inquiry is and what it is not. I’ve seen first-hand that inquiry results in the improvement of students’ collaboration skills, thinking skills, and overall independence, while also allowing for more small group instruction: leading to the development of greater reading, writing, and math skills. After last year in junior and even after just one week back in primary, I can tell you that inquiry has helped me improve in “assessment for learning”: meeting students where they’re at and planning ahead to lead to greater student success. How do you support inquiry in the classroom? What differences and/or similarities do you see between inquiry in the primary and junior grades? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!


24 thoughts on “The 7 Letter Word That Causes Extreme Reactions: INQUIRY!

  1. Thanks Aviva. I figured you were probably already thinking about this, but your thoughts are really valid and valuable. I started thinking about this because I was a bit disheartened to see – usually in Jnr and Intermediate grades – that what was being called “inquiry” was really just a re-named research project. As you have pointed out, as early primary students have more limited independent reading and writing skills, it is far more difficult to go directly to the straight up research project. Inquiry deserves to be so much more rich, Multi faceted, less in-the-box than that. So my own musing is how do you get teachers to recognize this difference and embrace true inquiry? I don’t know all the answers to this, but I think exposing them to the depth of thought and learning our Ks and 1s can experience without a research project may be a good starting point. Any other ideas to gently encourage and redirect the inquiry challenged? As a footnote, I should say that I’ve also seen some really great inquiries conducted in jnr, int, and senior classes, but there is always room for more.
    Thanks for indulging me. I hope as the year goes on, you note other ways inquiry is working for you. This, too, I think, is a tool to educate and engage the inquiry-wary.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kristi! To be honest with you, I think that I saw inquiry more as a research project until I made a choice to actually read about what it is and how to make it work. Natural Curiosity, Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In Action, A Place For Wonder, and Why Are School Buses Always Yellow, were fantastic reads that each gave me a better understanding of inquiry. I know that PD time is so limited in schools, but a book club using one of these books might help people better understand it. I think that the last book on this list is particularly helpful because it gives educators a range of ways to make inquiry work in the classroom. I wonder if inquiry is often replaced with a research project in older grades because this is what teachers know. A research project is also way more teacher-directed than an inquiry, and I wonder if this “teacher direction” also brings with it some safety for educators. It’s hard to let go and give students more control. It’s hard to have so many different options of what students might be doing and how they might be doing it. As you go up in the grades, and the students can do even more on their own (and have the reading and writing skills to support their decisions), the range of options seems to further increase. How do you assess and evaluate all of these different options? While I didn’t realize this to start, I definitely realize now that a good understanding of assessment and evaluation is crucial if you are going to have these rich inquiries.

      As you go up in the grades, there is also more complex curriculum expectations (or so it seems), and I often found myself last year having to consult the expectations (even in class while with a group) to help me bring things back with my follow-up questions and wonders. While I haven’t taught Grade 1 in a couple of years now, I know those expectations and I know them well, and somehow, it seems easier for me to bring things back without having to constantly consult the document again. I wonder if others feel the same way.

      I also think that people can get held up on what students are going to experience “the next year,” so for example, teachers might want to engage in true inquiry, but worry because, “are they preparing students for what’s coming next?” I think that there needs to be a mind shift that if we do what’s best, then this can lead to changes in other years as well. How we get to this shift is hard though. I’m not sure. I’d say that if, as a staff, people can sit and discuss what they’ve tried, how it connects to inquiry, and how they might move forward, that could help, but when do we do this? I think that getting educators that are using inquiry into each of the discussions groups would help. This comes back to the idea of “building capacity.”

      The other issue comes with the fact that often you need many, many, many attempts to truly understand how inquiry can work well in the classroom. It’s a lot of trial and error. It requires constant reflection. It requires constant change. In the junior and intermediate grades, parents have also gotten used to a certain way of teaching and learning, and this is a shift. Parents need to be involved in these inquiry discussions. Teachers need to be okay with the changes, and okay with expressing why these changes are good ones. The resources that I mentioned near the beginning talk a lot about how teaching “thinking skills,” which comes through inquiry, actually leads to better results on standardized tests. It’s not about teaching to the test. It’s about teaching students how to think. Maybe seeing these facts in print and hearing about the experiences of people that have truly embraced inquiry in the classroom will help other teachers understand why these changes are worth it!

      From my discussions this week, I think that another huge issue is the word “play” in the Full Day Kindergarten Program Document. I so wish that this word could be replaced with inquiry instead. People make assumptions about the word play, and if junior and intermediate teachers are associating inquiry with play, then I wonder if this is tainting their viewpoints of what to do and how to make inquiry work in the classroom. And that’s when you come back to the research project. If people are on Twitter or reading blog posts and can see what inquiry can really look like in different grades, then maybe they can also start to think about what this rich learning can look like in their classrooms. Maybe sharing some of these blog posts and tweets through email with other teachers will help.

      I have no doubt that I’ll be reflecting more on inquiry this year: what I’ve done, what I’ve changed, and where I want to go from here. Please keep encouraging me with a friendly tweet reminder or two, 🙂 as reflecting through blogging often helps me make sense of my own learning. I’d love to know any additional thoughts you have, or any thoughts that other teachers have as well. I do believe that the FDK philosophy and inquiry learning are worth bringing up in the grades, but how do we do so, and how do we come to this shared understanding of what “inquiry” and “play-based” really means?

      Thanks for always pushing my thinking with some good hard questions! 🙂


      • I agree that we do need to arrive at a common understanding of the words “play’based”, “emerging curriculum” and “following the child” as it relates to FDL, especially as we are moving on to K-2. To me this speaks more to student voice and choice supporting a child centred approach to learning and teaching.
        The teaching of those discreet skills of math and literacy can’t be ignored as it puts many of our most vulnerable learners at risk. The FDL curriculum does speak to explicit instruction of these in the front matter of the document.

        • Thanks for the comment, Fatima! I totally agree with you. I think that sometimes this front matter is forgetten if people hear the words “play-based” & get held up on this. There is so much value in inquiry: questioning, discovering, & sharing new learning. Other academic skills cannot be forgotten though, & sometimes these do require direct instruction. I wonder how all people would feel about inquiry if we had a better shared understanding. In this case, I wonder how much misconceptions impact on perceptions.


  2. Exactly Kristi!
    The more we try to treat ‘inquiry’ as a ‘thing of process’ , the more chance people will misinterpret it as a new word for ‘research’.

    Inquiry Stance: to remain in a state of wonder/uncertainty no matter the subject or grade.

    • I totally agree with you here, but how do we get teachers of all grades to see the value in this? When previous experiences may make them more used to something that follows a process, how do we get show that inquiry does not? I’d be curious to know what people think!


  3. Aviva, I couldn’t agree with you more on every statement that you made. I find that in primary I am having more mini-lessons at the beginning if my inquiry process then in junior. I found that junior students because of their schemas where able to start on their own, whereas primaries need more talk, or jumping points first. This has been the biggest shift for me. Thanks for writing this. Great points.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan! While I definitely used provocations and oral discussion times in both primary and junior, I do find that primary students tend to need this for longer and cannot move quite as quickly into the independent piece. Maybe independence looks different in different grades too. While my Grade 5’s could go and work quietly in their follow-up, my Grade 1’s need to continue this talking time for longer. It’s like these discussions help them as they continue to formulate and refine their ideas. This sounds as though it might have a link to oral language development. I’m curious to see if/how this changes as the year goes on.


      • I agree. I often do a lot more discussions with my primaries whereas junior would be near the end when we are sharing our findings or something interesting came up. I also found with junior the talk would happen as I conferences with them. I think a lot does depend on oral development but also on independent skills as they grow. Like you mentioned, junior have a lot more experiences then primary (on the whole). I often have to give these experiences to the primaries. For example our adaptation provocations in science I realized the students were having a hard time because they have never seen these birds in action. They knew of them but had neve seen them, so first I had to show them videos and then work on the provocations. In junior most would have been able to draw on past experiences or ask peers questions for help.

        • That makes a lot of sense, Jonathan! Definitely their schema is different because the students are younger. I wonder though if some of these videos/pictures could be the provocations. What if they matched with some of your other provocations? Then students might be able to draw more of the connections on their own and through their discussions with their peers. I think of the times this past week that I’ve put a photograph or video on an iPad or computer in the classroom. Students discussed these along with other provocations and started to create meaning on our topic. Would this work?


          • Yes I think I should have done this first but I of course assumed that they would know what these birds did. This is what I love about inquiry, we make mistakes move on and learn, even the teacher. It also helped when we went to the zoo and they saw the animals in real life. I am going to do these provocations with them again and see what happens. Thanks for the help.

          • That’s wonderful, Jonathan! I bet the zoo trip helped a lot. I know some teachers that sometimes do these trips as the initial “provocation” for the topic: giving the students the schema/background knowledge, so that they can inquire more on their own. I wonder if something like this might work well in future years. It’s an interesting idea.


  4. I think that teachers do go to the research project as it is what they know. It also allows some choice while still being easy to assess all projects in the same way. I thought I was introducing some inquiry last year. My then 10 year old asked me some questions and said, “Sorry, that is not inquiry Mom.” He had an amazing teacher that was doing it right. It made me think and change some of what I was doing. I like the idea of a book club. Staff members who are more experienced could also offer teacher mini lessons if they had the time. I would personally like to see workshops or clubs that explain inquiry but also discuss assessment. I think that is the part that scares many teachers away from true inquiry

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather! You make a very valid point here. I think that this assessment/evaluation piece is crucial, and may help teachers feel less scared about all of the different sharing options. (There can definitely be lots of them!) Having a chance to view some other classrooms in action would be wonderful too. Sometimes people need to see what inquiry can look like to truly understand it. I think that the Book Club idea has a lot of potential as well. Maybe some interested teachers at the school will suggest this one. I know that we had a teacher running a Book Club last year, and it was a great way for people to dialogue on the topic of inquiry and do some professional reading as well.

      I’d say that it’s great when teachers recognize that what they’re doing may be a research project vs. a true inquiry. But my question would be, how are people changing this? What do they decide to do next? Admitting mistakes and learning from them were definitely large parts of my inquiry learning with my class last year, and it’s sure to be large parts this year too.


    • Heather I think you are right but I found that when I changed my views on assessment then that is when inquiry became easier. We often few assessment as a quantitative measurement but think of it as a qualitative. Observations, checklists and co created success criteria is way more powerful then a mark. I also found when I stopped viewing the small expectations as something that had to be done and focused on big ideas it became easier too. And as it turned out I always met those small expectations within the big ideas.

      • I totally agree with you, Jonathan! As for marks, I know that we need to give them on report cards, but even this evaluation part becomes easier with the use of the overall expectations and the achievement chart (at the front of the curriculum document). Students may be sharing their learning in different ways, but they’re still meeting the overall expectations. If these are what we’re evaluating, it won’t be a problem how many different ways they do so. My previous VP, Kristi, also showed me how we don’t need to create culminating tasks for evaluation. Even as students share their learning with the class, in small groups, or through conferences, we can evaluate this process of learning. Last year, we did many self-evaluations as well, and then I evaluated students on the same rubric, so that parents could see how the marks and thoughts aligned. Inquiry isn’t easy, but it’s so worth it!


        • It is definitely a change in mindset. With the focus on TLCPs there was a definite push to have a culminating task ready to go at the beginning. Maybe this is why it is scary for teachers- we are not sure where exactly we are going after hearing for years that we need to begin with the end in mind. Jonathan – the focus on big ideas is a good one. I was part of a math book club last year where we had to move away from the expectation checklist and work on big ideas and grouping expectations that make sense instead of going strand by strand. A lot to think about. I have the kindle edition of inquiry circles, just have not had time to finish it. I will have to make some time in the next little bit

          • Heather, that book is definitely worth finishing if you have a chance. As for “beginning with the end in mind,” I think that you still can. The end though is just the knowledge that comes from the overall expectations, not the specific task. Knowing what you want students to understand is the key to the initial planning. How students share their understanding is what will change. This is kind of how I look at it, but I would be curious to hear what others have to say about this.


  5. Dear Aviva:

    Your blog continues to inspire and illuminate current issues in education. First of all, thanks for introducing me to the writings of Stuart Shankar. I have read and am attempting to implement strategies in Calm, Alert and Learning. Further reading in this area would be appreciated.
    Your last blog entry is the topic of conversation in staff rooms throughout Ontario. When Liz Sandals mentioned this week, that she wanted “play” (i agree that inquiry is a much better term) in Grade 1+, it rippled through the halls of many primary wings. When the poor math results on the EQAO assessment for this year were released, it gave further fire to the critics of inquiry based learning/ problem solving approaches to education.
    I have been teaching a long time and feel that we could be on the verge of a tipping point in Ontario schools. However, developing the momentum for that tip might take time. I believe that as you say established teachers are resistent to changing the ways they were taught and the way they have been teaching for years. I confess through ignorance I have done the same. However there are voices like yours that are heralding something new and exciting. Inquiry based learning is either a tipping point or a swing of the pendulum in a new direction. I remember when whole language instruction was the next big thing. I never hear those words anymore. In my board, improved mental health of students and staff is a big priority. When that ends, something else will replace it. My hope is that inquiry based learning will not fade gently like other trends in education have. I feel this because we definitely need to teach kids how to think and not to regurgitate.
    I think many teachers look: at the exhaustive curriculum, declining support in special education and just the fact that it is surely easier to teach the “old” way and stick with used practices. I suggest that we need a greater opportunity for collaboration in education. Teachers and boards are in isolation. I never understood why every board has to develop their own goals and resources or even worse different teachers doing it on their own. Why can’t all administrators and teachers in the province work toward common goals using common resources (and I don’t mean textbooks)? It would be great if the province decided that all school must start using inquiry based learning and then give all administrations the same materials to use through a series of workshops on the topic.
    Thanks again for the blog and keep suggesting good books to read.

    • Thanks for the comment and the kind words, Herman! I know that Liz Sandals’ words about bringing the play-based program up to Grades 1 and 2 will continue to lead to passionate conversations in staff rooms and hallways. While people are critical of this program, and are using the poor math results as one of their criticisms, the Grade 3’s and 6’s that completed EQAO would not have been involved in FDK yet. Maybe the math results are poor because people aren’t embracing inquiry. Maybe we need to develop more thinking skills in our students to gain better results.

      I totally understand how people feel overwhelmed with student needs and curriculum expectations, but inquiry would help with both of these issues. Inquiry allows for a deeper, richer learning of expectations, and better thinking from all students. It also provides more small group instruction, leading to more opportunities for teacher support for all students. Furthermore, it provides an entry point for all students, making “planning and teaching for all” a real possibility in the classroom.

      I get what you’re saying about developing an inquiry resource, but I think that this is so difficult to do. Inquiry is really a mindset. It’s a way of teaching and learning that shifts so much of what we’re use to. I don’t know how you put that together in a resource. I do think that opportunities to read about inquiry, discuss inquiry, and see inquiry in action would be helpful. It would also create that “shared understanding” that I do believe is so important. From my conversations with others, it’s clear that many people believe that inquiry does not involve direct instruction, and this isn’t the case at all. It’s how the direction instruction happens that changes.

      Thank you for adding to this great conversation! It’s the kind of conversation that I think we — as educators — need to have! Getting administrators, students, and parents involved in this conversation is important too. Inquiry is a change for everyone.


  6. We sure have a lot to learn with the inquiry process and how it might differ with junior and primary students from provoking to searching and sharing the thinking.
    Looking forward to see how it will compare with you from junior to primary. For sure inquiry has many direct instructions as needs are arrised based on students needs. Many skills and strategies will surface during the process as students explore and discover those needs and co-construct criteria of the how and why to the process.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rola! You make a great point here. I think that the key is that these mini-lessons should result from student needs. Direct instruction is definitely an important component of inquiry, but how it looks and if it’s full class or small group, will again vary based on students. Another reason that I love inquiry so much is that it really is “about the kids.”


    • Thanks Rola! I really appreciate your kind words. I love learning from other educators — whether online or in person — & I think that all of them have helped shape so many of my ideas & practices. Thanks for being one of these educators!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *