I’ve taken a deep deep dive into inquiry-based learning this year with my Year 7, 8 and 9 Science classes. Although I’ve used it in the past, I’ve never gone to the extent of actually planning entire units around a single fertile question1, a phrased used to describe a question of inquiry that drives an entire unit of learning. Now, I will be the first to admit that Science is by far one of the easiest subjects to use inquiry-based learning as Science is by nature inquisitive. So then I suppose that trying my hand at full-on inquiry-based learning in my Science subject would be a great benefit to helping me grow as a teacher.
I will use the remainder of this blog post to describe the process and what I have discovered so far. It should be known that I am still developing a plan that maximizes learning within my classroom, so anyone attempting to adapt this method themselves takes it upon themselves as a risk.
Introducing the topic & producing a fertile question
I start out by developing a unit plan moving backwards from the summative assessment. Cambridge makes this easy as they publish schemes of works for their Key Stage 3 Science stages2. I use the outcomes as a basis for what the students should be learning in the unit and spread it out among the amount of time (this semester, my units have had a gracious four weeks each).
After I look through the schemes of work provided by Cambridge deciding which suggestions of theirs I will adapt and which I will throw out, I go hunting for more resources that will be of interest to my students and relevant to the unit. BBC Bitesize has some cool videos (you need a VPN to the UK in order to stream) and also some images to use in slides. I also go rummaging through the prep room at my school to see what equipment they use and what materials I should go buy, if any.
After I’ve gathered my materials list and am familiar with the required outcomes as stipulated by Cambridge, the fertile question makes its interest. For the first two units, since I was unfamiliar to this process and so were my students, I came up with the fertile question myself – a question that is open-ended enough to not be quickly answered, yet relevant enough to the students’ environment that they actually care about answering it. For the most recent unit I’ve put together, the students were able to produce their own question of inquiry.
Developing the fertile question
In order to get the students to fully develop their own unit inquiry, I introduced the unit topic to my students through a presentation. This included a picture that stimulated some discussion. I then used Padlet to have them write their questions and do some research. For this, I gave an entire lesson for them to search about the topic. They could find anything they wanted, from pictures and videos to wiki and news articles. Anything went in this process.
At the end, we went through the stuff on the Padlet as a class and we identified the questions that had been asked. I then worked with the class to ‘open up’ some of these questions further to produce possible fertile questions. After a vote, a final fertile question was developed.
Answering the fertile question through a summative project
Because I hate formal examinations, I require students to prove what they’ve learned in answering the unit’s fertile question through a summative project. At first, the students were strangled to this process and the projects were horrible. But they are slowly coming along and the students are opening up in creativity and in courage to put forth their own ideas without being judged. I don’t have many requirements for the projects, only that they must answer the fertile question, either directly or indirectly, and they also must use the unit material and what they’ve learned in order to provide support for their answer. I normally throw out some suggestions, such as a poster or video, and leave the actual look and feel completely up to them.
There are still a few aspects to this process that I am critical about and further development will be necessary. Firstly, it is unclear as to whether they are actually learning as a result of this process or are they still learning from the lectures themselves. In order to do this, I would need match up the assessments with each of the learning outcomes provided by Cambridge and right now I am finding no spare time to do so. Assessments, as of right now, are evaluated by myself in adapting where to go and what to review.
Secondly, I would love to make this process much more inter-disciplinary and connect to their other subjects a lot more. Thirdly, I’d like to try to ‘flip’ the class more in that I am doing much less of standing at the front and much more involved in the project process with the students.
I have a long way to go, but I hope that this process will improve the actual learning done in the classroom and help students explore what they know (and what they don’t) in a much more meaningful way.
- Knight, Oliver and Benson, David. Creating Outstanding Classrooms: A Whole School Approach. Routledge, 2013.