An Inquiry into Inquiry

By Jessie Meeks

For quite awhile now, I’ve been heartbroken by research that finds that students ask fewer questions the longer they spend in school (Engel, 2013). One of my own students proved this to be true when she said, “We’re so used to answering questions that it might be hard to ask any of our own.” Sadly, schools seem to be squelching our students’ innate curiosity into nonexistence!

As it turns out, though, curiosity makes a huge difference to students’ retention of learning and motivation to learn. As Wendy L. Ostroff pointed out in Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms (2016), when we’re curious about something, we not only remember the information about which we’re curious, but we also remember unrelated information that we simultaneously encounter. It’s no wonder that curious students score higher on standardized tests (Goodwin, 2014). And question asking actually makes students more motivated to learn. When faced with curiosity, we feel a drive “to answer the questions tickling our mind” (Harvey & Daniels, 2015, p. 11), which provides us with “espresso shots of intrinsic motivation to learn” (Goodwin, 2014, pg. 73). Inspired by the power of curiosity and question asking, I undertook an action research project into student inquiry. The work my third grade students did with me last year led to five important shifts in my classroom that help honor students’ questions.

Shift 1: A question rich environment

To develop a more “question rich” environment, I started by placing a Wonder Wall (Daniels, 2017) in our room and gave students a chance to explore their wonders for a half hour every day. On a Wonder Wall, students can post any questions that they have about the world (Why are pigs pink?) or about our content (How old are metamorphic rocks?) From these wonders, students might choose a question they would like to explore more in depth, such as the student who decided to answer the question she had posted about what skin is. And, boy, did the opportunity to answer their own interesting questions give the kids that espresso shot of motivation! I had a waiting list for presentations that went on for weeks, and every Wednesday I inwardly celebrated how excited kids were to share and to view research presentations on everything from the closest relatives to dinosaurs to what blacksmiths do.

Having structures in our classroom that honored students’ questions felt like a great starting place. I knew I wanted to take that work further, though. Student inquiry seems almost natural in a subject like science, but what if you could do inquiry in a subject like reading? Then you would be able to do inquiry anywhere! So my students’ curiosity became a driving force in our Reading Workshop and led to some more dramatic shifts.


Shift 2: Student questions drive the Reading Workshop

We began each reading unit with a session for students to ask questions about the unit’s driving idea. My coach and I crafted these questions based on the unit’s essential learnings. We started our first unit of the year with the question “What’s my role as a member of our reading community?”

There are several research-based ways for structuring question-generating sessions for students. After some trial and error, which included trying the Question Formulation Technique out of Harvard’s School of Education, I landed on a procedure adapted from John Barell’s Developing More Curious Minds (2005). He suggests starting an inquiry with a KWHLAQ chart like the one shown below.

In addition to the pieces of your typical KWL chart, our class discussed how kids would find the answers, how they would apply the learning, and what lingering questions they had (not shown on the example above). These last three pieces created the third and fourth shifts that happened in our classroom.

Shift 3: Authentically demonstrating the learning

Knowing that their learning was going to be shared and would matter to someone else helped my students generate enthusiasm for the work that we did together. Throughout the year they chose many interesting ways to demonstrate their learning. By October they had already written and performed plays for the second graders about how to be a productive member of a reading community. They made websites to recommend similar-themed books and advertised the websites to other students through the use of QR codes. And to share what they knew about literary theories and to continue to explore how others think and write about literature, they crafted and sent an email to Peter H. Reynolds (to which he kindly replied within 12 hours!).

Shift 4: Students drive the content of mini lessons

As the year started, I was a bit terrified when my students said they wanted to find the answers to their questions in ways that went beyond the thoroughly planned Lucy Calkins mini lessons I normally taught. Pushing my worries aside, we researched videos, discussed answers to students’ interview questions for adult readers, traded strategies with fourth grade readers, and researched ourselves as readers.


Each time I used student suggestions for our lessons, I connected the work to the questions the kids had asked and the suggestions they had given. For example, when students needed a lesson about adding craft to nonfiction writing, I made sure they knew we were answering E.G.’s question. When we watched a video to investigate how nonfiction reading should sound in our head and, therefore, how we should write it, I let K.H. know her idea inspired the lesson. Soon, modifying the Units of Study in response to my students’ ideas would go to a whole new level.

Shift 5: Problem-based lessons

My stance toward lessons was evolving. This evolution started simply, with my language. I stopped introducing my teaching point with “Today I want to teach you…;” instead, I introduced our learning goal with “Today, let’s investigate…”

Then, using inspiration from Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading (2017), I began to flip some typical I-Do-We-Do-You-Do mini lessons on their head. Instead, during the lessons kids discovered which reading strategies worked best, and I noticed and named what they were doing. For a couple of lessons, I even tried out a math-inspired, problem-based approach (Sussman, 2017). Groups of students worked to answer the question: Where do mystery authors hide clues? Each group presented their answers so that we could build a collaborative understanding of how hidden clues work in the mystery genre. The best part? These groups were able to name all of the key understandings that I would have taught them, but they did it collaboratively and in a way that tapped into their sense of curiosity.

Curious About the Outcome

To progress monitor my students’ growth as curious people, I developed a curiosity assessment and learning progression. Using a See Think Wonder format, students looked at a picture from National Geographic and wrote about what they observed, what ideas they had about the unfamiliar image, and what questions they had related to it. I then scored their work using the progression (see below). By the end of the year, every single student either stayed at the higher levels or had gone up to the next level on the progression. Incredibly, only one student in one area (Brainstorm ideas & solutions) stayed at the Not Really Curious level!


The “soft” data felt even more satisfying. Parents shared with me that their kids were excited about their work at school and were asking interesting questions at home (Why do people speak different languages? Who made up words?). I saw the same in class. Many, many days brought joyful celebrations of the powerful work and deep thinking kids were doing. But above all, I had a sense that more students owned their learning, and the blank stare no longer had a place in our room.

Jessie Meeks is a third-grade teacher at Maple Grove Elementary in Golden, Colorado. She has a board member of JCIRA and a member of the 2019 CCIRA Conference Committee. Jessie started teaching while she was earning her Masters of Arts in English at the University of Maine. She started working at Maple Grove in 2007, while going to school to earn a Masters in Elementary Education. Teaching literacy is one of her passions.

Barell, J. (2005). Developing more curious minds. Heatherton, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Daniels, H. (2017). The curious classroom: 10 structures for teaching with student-directed inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Engel, S. (2013). The case for curiosity. Educational Leadership,70(5), 36-40.

Goodwin, B. (2014). Research says curiosity is fleeting, but teachable. Educational Leadership,72(1), 73-74.1

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2015). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles for curiosity, engagement, and understanding. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ostroff, W. L. (2016). Cultivating curiosity in K-12 classrooms. ASCD.

Sussman, D. (2017). Reading, writing,… and arithmetic? Educational Leadership,75(2), 76-80.

Vinton, V. (2017). Dynamic teaching for deeper reading: Shifting to a problem-based approach. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.




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One thought on “An Inquiry into Inquiry”

  1. I love the “question-rich” environment idea! Speaking of essential questions, when I had my students do Passion Projects, I had them come up with their own inquiry Essential Questions, such as “How can I become a professional snowboarder”, “What do I need to start my own pet-sitting business”, “What do I need to do to improve my breaststroke in swimming?”. The students then had to do inquiry research, as well as interview experts, to find some answers to their questions. An inquiry approach is so important in teaching!


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