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How To Ease Students Into Independent Inquiry Projects

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This sketch representing how a teacher can gradually remove scaffolds to give learners more independence is featured in Inquiry Mindsets. (Courtesy Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt)

The excerpt below is from the book “Inquiry Mindsets: Nurturing the Dreams, Wonders, and Curiosities of Our Youngest Learners,” by Trevor MacKenzie with Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt, published by EdTechTeam Press.

By Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt

When I (Trevor) first adopted an inquiry approach in my classroom, I discovered that when students explore a topic they are truly passionate about, amazing things happen: engagement increases, attendance and work ethic improve, twenty-first-century skills are acquired, classroom energy and collaboration are fostered, and my assessment of student understanding becomes more clear and accurate.

One early experience with a student in inquiry convinced me I was on to something. His name was Chris.

Chris was a shy, introverted student in my senior-level English class. Throughout the course I saw Chris raise his hand during a class discussion only once, and it was to ask permission to use the washroom. He didn't like sharing, and he certainly didn’t come across as a confident student. But when it came time to explore a passion in the form of a free inquiry project, Chris showed me a side of him that I didn't know existed.


Chris was an avid reader of fantasy novels and a dedicated artist. For his free inquiry project, Chris researched the essential question how can symbolism deepen the reader’s understanding of theme in a fantasy novel series? Chris decided to demonstrate his understanding in the form of a collection of paintings he would create and present in a gallery walk with our class. His plan for this presentation was thorough. He would complete twelve paintings for the four novels he explored. He would write an artist statement introducing his audience to the aim and scope of his collection. Each painting would be accompanied by a short written description of how Chris discovered symbolism in his reading and how symbolism was represented in each particular painting. He would then lead his classmates through a question-and-answer period to conclude the gallery walk.

When Chris’s presentation day came, we were all amazed by his talents. First, Chris spoke confidently about his collection. He knew his stuff, and he clearly loved sharing his research. Chris spoke more during his presentation than he had during the entire rest of the course. Speaking about something he was genuinely interested in and passionate about made all the difference in Chris’s confidence. Second, his artwork was enchanting. To say he was a “good artist” would be an understatement. Each painting was unique in its portrayal of symbolism, yet together the collection possessed powerful synergies from piece to piece. The class was enthralled with his presentation.

Acrylic on canvas portraying hope and dreams as symbols in a fantasy genre series. (Courtesy of Chris)

During the Q&A portion of the gallery walk, one student asked Chris how he had become such a strong artist. Chris’s answer blew us all away. He shared that throughout his primary years in school, he didn’t speak. From kindergarten through grades one and two, Chris didn’t say a single word in school. Instead, he drew in his notebooks. He scribbled and sketched for three straight years rather than print or talk. Early in grade three, Chris underwent some testing with a school counsellor, and it was discovered that he was dyslexic. Chris’s drawing was a coping mechanism in his world of uncertainty. Because he didn’t understand what was happening in class, he tried to make sense of it through drawing. Now, years later, it was these early and frustrating years in school that formed the talent we were witnessing in class. Chris’s honesty was an incredibly moving experience for us all.

It was stories like Chris' that convinced me that I needed to explore more opportunities to provide students with free inquiry projects in class. I was certain that this would yield similar powerful experiences for other learners. However, the very next year some of my students felt overwhelmed and underprepared for this personalized approach to learning. They were anxious in free inquiry, and on reflection, I felt I was to blame. I had forced them into the deep end of the inquiry pool without helping them acquire the necessary skills and understandings to be successful with this increased agency over learning. This is where the Types of Student Inquiry come into play.

The Types of Student Inquiry is a scaffolded approach to inquiry in the classroom, gradually increasing student agency over learning while providing learners with the necessary skills, knowledge, and
understanding to be successful in their inquiry.

Introducing the Types of Student Inquiry early in the year is important. In the coming months, we break down how these will shape our learning and subsequent time. Inquiry is most successful when strongly scaffolded; therefore, we create an inquiry scope and sequence for the entire year. Simply put, we begin in a Structured Inquiry model, transition to a Controlled Inquiry, continue to a Guided Inquiry and, if all goes well, conclude with a Free Inquiry. Since these types reflect four large units of study, all framed by an essential question with elements of inquiry evident throughout, we organize our school year into these quarters and spend equal time in each type of inquiry.

Scaffolding is critical to our inquiry journey. Too often teachers enter the inquiry pool in the deep end, heading straight to Free Inquiry, as I had done with Chris. We can’t blame them; the essential questions students ask and the demonstrations of learning students create are incredibly meaningful and resonate with their audience. But beginning your adoption of inquiry by diving right into Free Inquiry could result in overwhelmed and underprepared inquiry students. In our experience, without flipping control in the classroom, empowering student learning, and scaffolding with the Types of Student Inquiry, students will not feel as confident, supported, or empowered through our inquiry journey.

Provocations are images, videos, or artifacts that are used to engage learners in inquiry. (Courtesy of Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt)

The Types of Student Inquiry help equip our students to feel confident in their inquiry journey. They ensure students are connected to their learning, certain of how to explore their passions, interests, and curiosities, and comfortable with their role. The Types of Student Inquiry continue the gradual release of control of our learning that we started at the beginning of the course.


Structured: Students follow the lead of the teacher as the entire class engages in one inquiry together. On the Structured end of the inquiry pool, the teacher has complete control of the essential question, the resources students will use to create understanding, specific learning evidence students will use to document their learning, and the performance task students will complete as a demonstration of their understanding.

Controlled: The teacher chooses topics and identifies the resources students will use to answer the questions. In the Controlled section of the inquiry pool, the teacher provides several essential questions for students to unpack. Students deepen their understanding through several resources the teacher has predetermined to provide valuable context and rich meaning to the essential questions. Students demonstrate their learning by a common performance task.

Guided: The teacher chooses topics and questions, and students design the product or solution. In the Guided section of the inquiry pool, the teacher further empowers student agency by providing a single (or selection of) essential questions for students to study, and the learner selects where to search for answers and how they will demonstrate understanding.

Students choose their topics without reference to any prescribed outcome. In the deep end—Free inquiry—with the support and facilitation of the teacher, students construct their own essential question, research a wide array of resources, customize their learning evidence, and design their own performance task.

A common misconception of inquiry is that elementary learners will not be successful in Free Inquiry. We understand our colleagues' hesitancy to tackle thirty students working on thirty different essential questions. In this scenario, students are potentially seeking information from different resources and planning to demonstrate their learning in a unique fashion. We’re often asked, "How can they be successful with this much independence?"

By the time we get to the Free Inquiry unit, we have spent considerable time unpacking inquiry, deepening our understanding of essential questions, and cultivating an inquiry mindset. We reflect on the design of each unit of learning and each Type of Student Inquiry. In doing so, we slowly add the powerful skills needed to be successful in Free Inquiry. Students have:

• experienced a wide range of resources in a variety of
• used a variety of tools to capture their learning (what we
call Learning Evidence)
• demonstrated their learning in a number of ways

By the time we enter the Free Inquiry end of the inquiry pool, learners are more accustomed to their role as inquirers. They can identify their learning needs and how to harness the potential of inquiry in the classroom. The inquiry mindset they acquire helps curb the perceived risks of Free Inquiry in the younger grades. Additionally, the design of the course, by way of the Types of Student Inquiry, is scaffolded to support this final unit of Free Inquiry.

We love the Types of Student Inquiry framework because it provides us with a number of advantages to best prepare our learners for success in the inquiry classroom while simultaneously fostering a learning community to deepen understanding and nurture student agency.

Trevor MacKenzie is an award winning English teacher at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, BC, Canada, who believes that it is a magical time to be an educator. Trevor is so the author of Dive into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice.

Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt is a French Immersion Kindergarten teacher in the Greater Victoria School District, BC, Canada. She is passionate about empowering learners to ask deep questions that are connected to their interests and passions. Rebecca is a graduate student at the Vancouver Island University, a thoughtful sketchnote artist and an enthusiastic blogger in the education community.


Published with consent of EdTechTeam Press. Under copyright law this can not be transmitted or shared in any form other than this website.

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