Inquiry: To What End?

In activities, inquiry, thinking on April 27, 2014 at 9:16 pm

This was originally supposed to be a simple reply to Aviva Dunsiger’s blog post. I soon realized it would have been too short and thus I could have been easily misunderstood.
It all started with my question: “How do these projects enable deeper thinking?”, question that I asked after seeing her students’ work. Briefly the sequence of activities was the following:
1. Students brainstormed questions to guide their research on natural phenomena.
2. In groups of 2-3 they would write a poem using onomatopoeia and personification in the context of their natural phenomenon.
3. Last, they would create artwork that showed the natural phenomenon they researched about.
At first glance, this is an interesting and engaging chain of activities. Yet, to me, the over-arching question was missing. To what end? What was the understanding the teacher wanted the students to have? How does each of the three activities help build a central powerful idea about natural phenomena?
I realized then that we adhere to different instruction theories: project-based vs. concept-driven learning. On the surface, many can mistake one for the other, especially since both use inquiry as a vehicle to construct understanding.
It is, if you wish, the distinction that Carl Bereiter made when he talked about shallow vs. deep constructivism:
The shallowest forms engage students in tasks and activities in which ideas have no overt presence but are entirely implicit. Students describe the activities they are engaged in (e.g., planting seeds, measuring shadows) and show little awareness of the underlying principles that these tasks are to convey.
Unfortunately, much of what is currently promoted and practiced under the label of “project-based learning” does not fit this definition but instead represents the traditional “project” or research report dressed up in modern technology.

When some project-based engagements *do* have a set of questions (formulated either by the teacher or by the students) another element undermines them – the insistent focus on the outcome:

The original question “drives” a process that is directed toward the production of a concrete artifact—a report, a performance, a model, a letter to the city council, or whatever. This provides closure for the project but, unfortunately, it also gives closure to the advancement of knowledge. In some instances, pursuit of the “driving question” gets completely derailed as students’ attention focuses on producing the “authentic artifact”.

Moreover, because the focus becomes on the artifact (i.e. building a tornado model), the time spent on tangential activities (cutting, gluing, coloring etc.) increases, leaving little room for thinking deeply about the topic.

As Grant Wiggins mentioned in his book Understanding by Design:
“In the absence of overarching questions, students are left with rhetorical questions in a march through coverage or activities.”

So what do I mean by “thinking deeply” about a topic? I mean engaging students in constructing big ideas from the facts they learn – research is critical but not enough. It is a means to a greater picture. Facts should provide the basis for even more interesting questions and provocations that would help not only solidify the knowledge gained, but also build a frame of understanding with tools that are relevant to the discipline.
Incidentally, my 2nd graders (and second-language learners) were engaged in a somewhat similar inquiry on natural phenomena. We did not spend time on hands-on activities except when they were important (i.e. measuring air pressure, temperature, conducting experiments etc.), but kept inquiring deeper into the topic. Question stems enabled them to add to their initial rather closed questions (i.e. How many countries experience drought?)

What would happen if…?
In what ways….?
Does….always happen when….?
If……then why….?
Is it possible to…?
Does it matter if….?
Why is that….?
Why is….important?
What effect does…..have on….?
How would….change if…..?
How important is….for…?
How different….would be if….?
Who can…?
What is the relationship between….and …?
When does….?
Should we….?
Could we…?

They soon realized that in order to understand weather phenomena they needed even more knowledge: about the Earth’s tilt, atmosphere, climate vs. weather etc. Throughout their inquiry I, too:

– kept posing questions to challenge their thinking (i.e.”Is it always true? How do you know?”)

PicMonkey Collage

– used anticipation guides (see example above) and diagnostic questions to check misconceptions (side note – if you didn’t know, even Harvard graduates when interviewed had no clue that it is the Earth’s tilt that influences season formation not its rotation around the Sun)

PicMonkey Collage2





– conducted discipline-based experiments (see above- experiment for air currents)










– used experts to discuss extreme natural phenomena (above – Mr. David Karnoscak, tornado-chaser) etc.


All these bits and pieces led the students to deepen knowledge about natural phenomena, to ask increasingly refined questions, and build the “big picture”. You can see from the complexity of their concept map that they could deal with the main concepts I wanted to guide them to: Causation and Connection. They could notice cause-effect relationships between extreme natural phenomena and wider contexts – economy, transportation, health-and safety, communication and so forth. Moreover, they could understand the connections between say transportation (i.e. when a tornado damages roads) and health/safety (i.e. emergency vehicles do not reach the destination in time).

2013-12-02 14.23.17









Even during the research phase they used concepts (i.e. Function) to guide their learning alongside questions.
Moreover, due to the idea of “pattern” that they noticed the students used mathematics during this inquiry. They were “weather reporters” and reported to class the daily weather – we graphed our observations, analyzed them and discussed any emergent patterns. This daily activity also enabled them to constantly use discipline-specific vocabulary (“humidity”, “temperature”, “air pressure” etc.), and this language component is critical to reinforce knowledge (I also took videos of the kids presenting and embedded them on the class blog – it is an assessment tool for oral language for me as a teacher, a way to show parents how their children are doing in oral communication, and a way for class community to share learning).

PicMonkey Collage4











If you are against cumulative knowledge, we might need to argue over that.
To give a simple example from this inquiry into weather, I will quote two of my 2nd graders (I take anecdotal records many a time so the dialogue below is accurate). We were discussing about our concept map above. All of a sudden…

Kid 1:“Wait! When we inquired earlier into states of matter, I learned that the colder it is the closer the molecules are.”
Kid 2: “So what?”
Kid 1: “Well, I think the rail tracks can shrink when it is too cold. Like, you know, when you have really really low temperatures.” (he turns to me) “Am I right?”
As you can imagine I could only smile and nod.
Kid 1 (proudly): “That means the trains will go slower.”
Kid 2 (somewhat enlightened): “And how is that connected to our map?”
Kid 1: “Can’t you see? Transportation is affected. So people might get less food or fuel or whatever the train carries – that means their daily life is harder.”
This kind of conversations remind me how right I am for students to have knowledge. The more, the better connections they can make. The deeper the understanding. The bigger the picture.
And I keep being in awe at the knowledge they can manipualte at 7 – from how air pressure works to magnetism, lightning and whatnot.
DO NOT underestimate them.

As you can notice, the differences between these two types of constructivist approaches are minimal on the surface but large underneath. I prefer concept-driven learning because it allows for deep understanding and it minimizes the interference of low-level activities (as mentioned, gluing and all). There is always a trade-off – a loss and a gain- in any instructional approach, and that makes me think twice before I plan. Remember: TO WHAT END?

*NOTE 2:

Every time I plan I have in mind 3 questions. What should students:

KNOW (facts, terminology etc.)

DO (take-notes, write a recipe, conduct an experiment etc.)

UNDERSTAND (I use different ways to assess understanding since learning and performance are not the same thing – learning journals, conceptual grids, reflection papers etc.)



Learning to Work Creatively With Knowledge, Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia

Knowledge Building,  Encyclopedia of Education,Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C., Second Edition, New York

Learning versus Performance, Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork

  1. Cristina, as always, I’m totally in awe of what you do, and I thank you so much for writing this post and sharing your thinking and research to give me an even deeper understanding.

    I’m not sure that doing the “art piece” was a low-level activity per se, although I do understand what you’re saying here. I used curriculum expectations to guide this activity, and the conversations that happened throughout were linked to these expectations. I have a number of students that have autism, various learning disabilities, and really struggle with the Language component of this kind of Science unit. The Arts provides the visuals for them. They Arts allows them to connect more with the content, and The Arts helps build understanding for them. Many of these students are using the correct terminology now, and I think that making the connections to the visuals, helped.

    Your post raises (again) so many questions that I have when it comes to inquiry:

    1) How do you balance the time that’s needed for this “deep thinking” with the demands of meeting various curriculum expectations/topics in a given time? Do you always tie things back to the curriculum expectations, or do you find yourself going outside of these expectations? How do you decide what the best approach is?

    2) How do you balance anecdotal feedback and marks (something I need to balance because of our reporting system)?

    3) How do you modify/scaffold this learning for students with various learning disabilities and/or autism?

    I’d so welcome any suggestions that you have! I’m in the process of planning our final Science unit on Energy Conservation, and your post is making me think about a slightly different approach (at least in some areas). I love your anticipation guides and causation and connection model, and I’m thinking about how I can do something similar. Thank you for giving me new things to consider! I’m off to do some more planning now. 🙂


  2. Dear Aviva,

    Thank you for the positive feedback. I was quite unsure how you will receive this post – as you can see it is not criticism but an explanation of what *I* think works best. Having worked in IB schools for nearly 14 years now I am convinced that it is one of the best models of education (at least, within the context of international schools).

    Now let me answer your questions.

    1. “Deep thinking” is not a separate part of the learning throughout the day. Deep thinking occurs in any subject, grammar included. It might sound an impossibility but the way you view and plan for teaching can turn most activities into opportunities for questioning and thinking. Everything that we do is guided by 8 concepts (Form – What is it like?, Function- How does it work?, Connection – How is it connected to other things?, Change – How does it change? etc.). Think of the “dullest” subject – grammar and apply any of these questions to, say, a part of speech: nouns. You will realize that they *work* extremely well – i.e. nouns are connected to adjectives, they “change” their category of number etc.

    2. I do have students with minor learning disabilities. Plus, since we are second-language learners, they have different levels of language competence – for instance, I have a kid who just came 3 months ago. It might seem a daunting task to engage him since he barely could say “Good morning” in English. Yet, I differentiate for him – I use more technology so he can visualize and hear the language, I use his peers to help him etc. It is a lot of planning but it is worth it.

    3. I use anecdotal records most of the time. Another tool is the flipcamera – it is a great way for me to “listen” to what students are discussing, what ideas they struggle with etc. Also, pictures of the work in progress and finished – I can see the “learning walk”. I turn feedback into grades only when necessary – usually, towards the end of the semester when I have to complete the report cards. Until then…no grades. Just feedback and monitoring.

    4. Scaffolding is a complicated process. As I mentioned earlier, I use technology (to me it is more effective for two reasons:
    – time-wise it is less consuming (having a video or animation of a tornado beats making a 3D model of it)
    – it allows for visualization, listening etc. thus more ways to process information cognitively speaking.
    Aside from technology and peers, I use increasingly sophisticated graphic organizers, sentences stems etc. From simple to complicated but without undermining the students’ ability to do better. If you keep it simple *all* the time…that is what you get. Students love challenges and making progress: encourage both.

    Hoping I answered your questions as you expected, thank you again for the conversation.

    • Thanks for answering my questions here, Cristina! I think that I did a terrible job of wording my first question. I absolutely agree that thinking needs to be a part of everything. I guess that I’m just thinking about our huge curriculum document and the sheer number of expectations in it, and how can I give the students the time that they need for all of this discovery in the ways that you describe (and do it all within the year)? Do you always tie these inquiries back to the curriculum expectations, or do they often go beyond them?

      I would so love to see your classroom in action. I’m going to check out the link that you sent to maybe get a better feel of the school system itself. If I ever get the chance to go to Rome, I’ll definitely be contacting you (and I so hope that I can visit). 🙂

      Thanks for also sharing how you assess, evaluate, and modify for students with needs. We actually have some overlapping similarities in these areas. I think what I continue to experiment with the most is how to reach all of my learners, all the time. For my two students with autism and my couple of students with really significant learning needs, the amount of language in the videos is overwhelming for them. They can’t access all of this content, and they struggle with understanding what’s being shown. The visuals help, but the information shared becomes too much. Visual Arts has helped with this. I can then show them the video snippets (but without all of the auditory) or the visuals (pictures), and then they can experience the learning in their creations. On Friday, one of my students with autism actually used her painting to tell me how a flood works. This is the first time that’s she’s done this before, so for her, this visual arts component was huge!

      Right now, I’m experimenting with how I can keep some of these experiences (as I have seen success with them), but also push the thinking more with the use of the question stems and various graphic organizers. Thanks for inspiring me to try something new! I’m sure my students will benefit!


  3. […] brilliant post comes from Cristina Milos. It contains an outstanding example of causal […]

  4. Wow! I would love more detail of how this progressed. What questions did they come up with? Did they really have the background knowledge to know to conduct experiments on air currents (had they already studied this in Science). This seems very advanced for the age and I’m very curious about how it all came about in detail. I read this and think many of my 4th graders would struggle with this. My twin daughters are in grade 2 and I would love for them to be doing this, I love seeing the light and the globe (I did that with an older class several years ago but I directed it).

    I am struggling with creating a true inquiry for ancient civilizations. I don’t think our Social Studies curriculum “spirals” since it flip flops through time and would like to understand more about what spiralling means.

    I’d also love to see more of your graphic organizers (that you refer to in your response to Aviva).

    I’m thankful I discovered your blog via Heidi Siwak – and that I get to read about Aviva (I’m an Ontario teacher too and know Heidi and Aviva from conferences).

  5. […] all and you should know that I am a fervent promoter of knowledge, practice, quality teaching and learning, of research . The students had to read a lot, to write about their learning, to explain their […]

  6. Project-based v. concept-driven reminds me of how some cultures are time oriented (the wedding begins at 2:00pm and the reception promptly at 3:30) and other cultures are event oriented (the wedding starts when we get there). Two examples would be US culture and Dominican culture.

  7. […] need a good curriculum, teacher pedagogical knowledge, feedback and guidance all along -even in guided inquiry settings. The rest is just an ideal – beautiful, but not […]

  8. […] …learning will be valued above “doing school.” I used to think compliance was a tool for helping students learn respect, discipline, and cooperation. Now I know that it often ends up diminishing learning–not to mention that it’s less effective at instilling the above values than I thought anyway. I’ve also learned that activities and tasks can have the appearance of learning while actually being bereft of deeper, concept-based understanding. […]

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