Today I worked with a teacher planning a unit and I realized that the idea that we need to kick start the inquiry process on Day 1 of a unit isn’t obvious to every teacher. The following post wrote itself as I walked her through the process of making inquiry the foundation of all that she does moving forward.

Whether you are a veteran teacher who has taught each of your units multiple times, or you are a novice teacher wanting your students to be more involved in their learning, adding inquiry processes to your teaching habits will help your students go deeper with their learning.

Michael McDowell (@mmcdowell13 on Twitter) in his book Rigorous PBL by Design emphasizes that inquiry not only helps on a daily basis with student knowledge but can help identify student performance. He recommends that teachers continually find answers, from their students, on these 4 questions: (1) Where am I going in my learning? (2) Where am I now in my learning? (3) What next steps am I going to take in my learning? And, (4) How do I improve my learning and that of others?

As I became a  New Tech Network (NTN) teacher, 10 years ago, I was instructed to gather a similar list of information using the structure “Knows and Need To Knows”(KNTK List). The list was displayed in a two column table with all of the things the students already knew that could help them learn on the left, and all of the things the students needed to learn to be successful, on the right. Since McDowell was intimately involved in the NTN for years it makes sense that his four questions have a range similar to the extremes of “Knows” on one end (Where am I now in my learning) to “Need to knows” (What next steps…and…How do I improve…).

For the last 6 years I have been a National Faculty (NF) member with the Buck Institute for Education ( BIE and the NTN were intertwined for years and their philosophies were very much the same. And so, as I began with BIE, we trained teachers to use the Knows and Need to Knows (KNTK List) format for helping students see where they were in their learning and where they would be going in the learning process.

As I worked on perfecting my own inquiry practice I ran across a book that would, forever, change how I approached inquiry. It is called Make Just One Change  by the Right Question Institute (@rightquestion on Twitter). This book teaches you the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). In this technique students are asked to brainstorm a list of their personal questions about a topic that is being introduced. They then get together in groups and refine their questions creating a list of 3 questions that are their most important questions as a group. Finally the class creates a list of questions based upon the 3 questions from each group. This list is now the Class List of pertinent questions.

Ironically, within a few months of reading the book, BIE announced that the NF would be replacing the KNTK List with the QFT process in the PBL 101 trainings. Needless to say I was ecstatic with this change.

The three processes mentioned are at three levels of comfort for the teacher in the inquiry process, in my opinion. If you are new to an emphasis on inquiry then start simple and start creating a KNTK List. On the first day of a unit give the class an overview of what needs to be completed in the unit or give them a challenge or some product that must be completed by the end of the unit. Then have them generate a list of all of the things they already know how to do and that they will need in the unit to be successful. This is their “Knows.” Then have them brainstorm things that they will need to know to be successful. This list will complete the KNTK List.

If you are more comfortable with your teaching then it is worth your while to get a copy of the QFT book so that you can see the QFT explained in its entirety. As in the paragraph above, you start with something that stimulates the inquiry process. The students, individually, write a list of questions that come to mind from this prompt. After a set time, the students get together in groups and share their questions. The groups select three questions that represent the group as a whole and, finally, the groups share out the questions making a Class List of questions.

The Four Questions, described by McDowell, is the next level and requires you to assess the students on the questions each day so that you are able to enhance the overall learning in the classroom. This is the where I am heading with my own inquiry process in my classroom. It takes some work but with the guidance in his book, you can make the changes necessary to help yourself become a more effective teacher and to help your students make better connections with their learning.

There is still one key element to successfully having an inquiry based classroom. No matter which process you use it is imperative that you make time each day to explore the KNTK List, Class List of Questions, or the documentation for each student through McDowell’s approach. Every day you need to make this a part of your classroom routine. Most successful teachers I know use the last 5 to 10 minutes to interact with the lists so that the students can do one (or both) of two things: Line through or check items that have been addressed satisfactorily AND add items not already on the list that have come up in discussion during class. These lists are fluid and give the class a visual of their learning.

It isn’t too early to become a better teacher and improving questioning and inquiry will help you improve and will increase the depth of knowledge attained by your students.

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