Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Inquiry Based Learning - A Follow-up to Dive Into Inquiry

*Feel free to copy and modify any documents in this post. A special thanks to Trevor MacKenzie, author of Dive Into Inquiry. See his website and follow him on Twitter.

Demonstration of Learning Display
Click here for a 30s video of the display
I’ve done inquiry projects in the past, but never as focused. For the last quarter of this past school year I chose to have my Grade 8 Social Studies classes work on a carefully planned inquiry project, rather than the usual essay that had been done in past years. (students have had plenty of experience writing in Social Studies and in other subject areas) More importantly, I felt it was time for them to have more freedom to choose a topic of interest, within the school’s curriculum. Feel free to skip down to the examples of student work. Another focus of emphasis was the authentic audience, producing work that was intended for an audience outside of parents and their teacher. (and hopefully generating more passionate and higher quality work) I was inspired by Trevor MacKenzie’s Dive Into Inquiry and the clearly laid out approach. I modified it to suit our timeline and needs. As the kids weren’t completely free to choose their topic, as it had to be Japanese history, this was a guided inquiry project. Students are required to use printed copies of this document to take handwritten notes, to help them learn to write key ideas in their own words. (aside from direct quotes) These qualify as part of their investigation grade, along with a bibliography.

The Approach
After I had a general plan in mind I began with a conversation, which sprouted wonderful support from our MS-HS librarian / media centre head. We decided to review the research process: how we explore and determine a topic, employing keywords and related terminology in our search, where to seek initial information to determine whether we have enough resources, where we would focus our research, and developing a strong research question. Through this I developed this Guided Inquiry Task Planning Document. After explaining the assignment to students, emphasizing that it was a 3-month commitment, we meandered down to the library and I let our librarian / media specialist take the reigns for the period. Students knew she was there to support them throughout the process. I usually give students an assessment description sheet, but felt that the planning document and rubric were sufficient. (see how I use Google Classroom to manage paperless assessments and rubrics)

See the Inquiry Project Rubric. (based on MYP style markbands) To differentiate, which was a suggestion from one of our learning support teachers, I created a checklist to help some students (and parents) focus on the key requirements of the task. See the Inquiry Project Rubric (Checklist Version). Needless to say, these students also had other modifications such as extra time to work, and more frequent check-ins form me.

Idea Generation for Demonstrations of Learning
An important step was to generate ideas for what MacKenzie refers to as “demonstrations of learning”. I love that term and now use it. I initially wrote some of my own ideas for the final presentation, but looked at a number of websites and created a document for review. We did go over the document, with me highlighting some of the more engaging ideas. The freedom to choose how they would present their learning culminated in ideas I NEVER would have considered myself. A case in point is this Paper Scroll Story on Saigo Takamori, the real “last samurai”. The student even created a prototype with an Oreo box! (see the image below)

Artist Katsuhika Hokusai Timeline
See the Inquiry Project Ideas document.

Unfortunately, due to a sudden trip overseas the students and I couldn’t plan and prepare, together, an “Inquiry Exhibition” at the school. However, I did have a morning before leaving and put together a display in the Middle School area. I wanted the students to see that their work would be presented to a wider audience. The school community was encouraged to stop by and learn a little Japanese history, and parents were given a document with links to each and every assignment. See a video of the display.

Here are some of the projects.

A museum brochure on Murasaki Shikibu, Japan’s first woman novelist, who may have written created the world’s first novel (pdf)

A museum brochure on Masako Hojo, woman samurai (pdf)

So what did they learn?
Paper Scroll Story Prototype
Beyond research and synthesis, you can see that many of the students have learned about the esthetics of a presentation - text and font colours and styles, colour contrasts, rule of thirds, narrative skills, and audio/video. Morevover, many of them employed storytelling concepts. There is always room for improvement, but for a group of 13-14 years olds they are doing very well, and learning a wide range of skills! (research, analysis, synthesis, oral and visual communication, and decision making to name a few)

What would I do differently?

Saigo Takamori and Masako Hojo Museum Brochures
I think I would more emphatically encourage students to choose topics that are not directly studied in the class. (or perhaps even require it) Many of the topic choices were based on course content, albeit with much deeper research. In the least, students had choice and were most likely interested in the topics. Additionally, I would encourage students to think more about what would be interesting to an audience. There were several screencasts of Google Slides, Keynote, or PowerPoint. This isn’t so innovative. One could argue that using an online comic app to create a presentation is also lacking creativity, but it is much more engaging than a slideshow.  


  1. This is really cool. I will spend more time taking a look at a few projects, but I loved the Ieyasu Tokugawa one! Always a bigger fan of Tsunayoshi Tokugawa for his love of dogs and subsequent animal rights!
    Anyway! Love the post, agree with your reflection, but you must start somewhere! Looking forward to the next post where we see a little more of their passions shine through!
    Great work Nate!

  2. Cheers Lee! I have an senior student doing an internal assessment on Tsunayoshi and the animal protection edict. If you've got any suggestions or sources we'd love to hear from you. Flip me an email!

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