Unsplash Brandon Green

Teaching our students to be better inquirers, in my mind, is one of the most important tasks we have on our educator’s plate. Through better inquiry students should build agency and learn to endure in the face of difficult tasks. There are many ways we can build this ability in our classrooms and the overarching process I lean on is a project-based teaching approach.

Whether you are a project-based practitioner or not, another skill that has come to the fore is the idea of metacognition or helping our students understand when and how they are thinking about a task. Two books that quickly come to mind are “The Power of Making Thinking Visible” by Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church and “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics” by Peter Liljedahl. If I were starting out on my teacher journey I would buy both books and I would read (and implement) the first three chapters of Liljedahl’s book and I would adopt 3 or 4 of the thinking routines from the visible thinking book. Then, in subsequent years I would add components from each book while refining my techniques.

If you are not ready to go big then I suggest a process that is taught in business and engineering schools and in many other areas where they teach problem solving techniques. This is the “5 Why’s Process.” As the name implies we teach our students to ask “Why?” five (or more) times to get to the bottom of an issue. A funny thing happens once you start using this process, students might not want to stop at five and 6 to 10 might feel like a better number. The specific number is not really that important but I have found that we should not do less than 5 questions.

To explain the process it might be better to show an example. We really can do this in just about any content area but I’ll use an example from a project that might be grounded in science, ELA, math, social studies, art, technology, or any other topic you want to view it from. Let’s say that your students want to look at plastics in drinking water because they heard that the water they are drinking at home has micro-plastics in it. Their initial question is “Why is there plastic in our drinking water?” Each group is told to use the 5 Why’s Process to come up with questions to explore.

Group 1 comes up with the following questions and quick answers to each: (a) Q: Why is there plastic and where did it come from? A: We don’t know but probably from discarded trash. (b) Q: Why do people just throw their trash out instead of recycling it? A: It’s too hard to figure out what can be recycled. (c) Q: Why don’t people know more about recycling? A: It really isn’t explained very well or often enough for it to sink in. (d) Why isn’t there better recycling information campaigns? A: It costs too much to do a broad campaign that reaches everyone. (e) Why isn’t there a way to reduce the costs of creating recycling information campaigns? A: We don’t know.

Group 2 comes up with the following questions and quick answers to each: (a) Q: Why do they now know that there is plastic in the water? A: They must use microscopic detectors. (b) Q: Why don’t the filters catch all of the plastics? A: The plastics must be very small. (c) Q: Why don’t they make a better filter? A: It must be very expensive to build the filters. (d) Q: Why hasn’t anyone created an inexpensive filter for water purification? A: It might not be possible (e) Q: Why isn’t there someone exploring inexpensive materials for filters? A: We don’t know.

Group 3 comes up with the following questions and quick answers: (a) Q: Why are we just now finding out about this? A: They must be testing the water in a new way that detects the plastic. (b) Q: Why didn’t they use these detection processes earlier? A: It must be new technology. (c) (Q) Why did it take so long to come up with the process? A: It’s probably expensive or a newer style of filter. (d) Why would they want to use a different filter style if they didn’t know about the plastic? A: They must have found the plastic in the water and then developed the filter to test for it. (e) Q: Why don’t they create a filter that can block the plastics from getting through? A: It must be tricky to filter very small things and still let the water flow through.


When you look at these three groups you see that one group focused on recycling and eliminating the plastic that ends up in the water. The other two groups got more into creating filters to keep the plastic out of the drinking water. So will you want the class to focus on stopping the plastics from getting into the water or will you focus on keeping the plastics out of your water glass? This will all come down to the focus of the unit/project and the content areas involved. For example, if you are an ELA teacher and your focus is on persuasive writing techniques then there is no reason why you couldn’t let the groups explore things in both directions so that they are knowledgeable as they make PSA’s and letters to their elected officials. If you are a science teacher and you want your students to explore filtration techniques then you go that way and you allow groups to mention ways to keep plastic out of the waterways in their presentations.

Either way you go, the next step should be to determine what is the root cause of the plastics problem. You would do that by listing all of the questions/answers created by each group. When you allow the class to look at all of the Q’s and A’s, most students will see that the main problem is that plastics are breaking down and are mixing in the water. Since the micro-plastics aren’t being stopped by current filtering systems, then the plastics must be smaller than the openings in the filters we use. If we want to make the water safer to drink, then we need to get rid of the micro-plastics. That fact needs to be a main emphasis of presentations, letters, PSA’s, etc. It is my belief that when students understand the root problem then they will have a better understanding of all of the various aspects of the problem.

When would you use this process? I would use this whenever you want the students to really go deep with a topic. This might be at the beginning of a unit or a project. Or it might just be the beginning of a section within a unit. And we get even more bang for the buck if we combine this with the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) [see my post “I’ve Got A Lot of Questions…“.]

I find that we need to encourage our students to question everything. Just because I tell them something is true, they shouldn’t just assume it is true. They should ask me to verify my statement with facts and/or data showing that what I said is, in fact, true. If I am held to a higher level with my statements then I will provide my students with more concrete examples and facts that will help my students be better members of society. And, as students present information to me, they know I will expect them to be able to verify everything that they tell me is true.

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