WHICH inquiry strategies to use - role of questions

It all starts with questions

At the heart of an inquiry approach to teaching and learning is the art of asking good questions. It has been said that "the true art of teaching is to ask the right questions." The question that arouses curiosity and engages the learner. Which good questions have you created today? Which good questions have been asked today?

"Viewing each new topic as a question or problem to be investigated is more appealing and creates intrinsic motivation for the many. We all like to play detective." (Eyre, D., High performance learning, 2016:25)

Inquiry is like a bridge, inviting us to ask new questions, see with different perspectives and create new ideas: "The bridge will only take you halfway there, to those mysterious lands you long to see. Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fair, and moonlit woods where unicorns run free. So come and walk awhile with me and share the twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known. But this bridge will only take you halfway there. The last few steps you have to take alone." (Shel Silverstein)

  • Essential questions are great questions. What makes a question an essential question?
  • An introduction to the art of asking questions: ping pong or basketball.
  • Blooming Questions is an introduction to Bloom's Taxonomy, a framework for forming questions that lead to deep learning.
  • Socratic Questions is a tool to develop the inquiring mind.
  • Harkness discussion is introduced as a strategy to encourage student-led inquiry.

Opening Reflection

Use the See, Hear, Feel protocol to consider what inquiry looks like, sounds like and feels like.

Consider who is leading the learning and where it is taking place. What does evidence of inquiry look like?

WHY: It all starts with questions

Before launching into how we construct inquiry-based learning let's compare two extracts from the film Mona Lisa Smile. As you watch compare and contrast. Ask what this has to do with learning and the role of inquiry.

"Questioning is to thinking as yeast is to bread-making. Unleavened bread is flat, hard and unyielding. Unleavened thinking is uninspired. Questioning ... acts as leaven to transform matter into meaning." (McKenzie,J., Learning to Question, to Wonder, to Learn, 2005)

Questions activate thinking. Kath Murdoch argues that "the quality of students' thinking is linked to the kind of questions teachers asked - and how they ask them." If students learn to ask quality questions they will become better at problem-solving, reflecting, planning and thinking critically.

Inquiry-based learning uses questions to frame learning. But there are many different types of questions, some of which lead to greater learner agency than others.

A useful introduction to different types of questions can be found here where reference is made to five types of questions:

  • Factual - calls for straight forward answers to factual questions and involves low level cognitive and affective skills
  • Convergent - answers to such questions have a finite number of possible answers and may involve a range of cognitive and affective skills (e.g. comprehension and inference, analysis)
  • Divergent - allows students to explore a range of possible answers and often require students to analyze, synthesize or evaluate
  • Evaluative - asks students to make judgements and may require high levels of cognitive and affective assessment
  • Provocative - these questions entice students to search for answers, are highly motivational for learning and call for complex and divergent answers.


  • When would you ask each type of question? How and why should you ask each type?
  • Consider using a 'question quadrant' to extend the use of higher order questions you use. One example can be found by clicking here.
  • Do you inquire as you teach? Read Kath Murdoch's justwonderingblog in which she likens the role of the teacher to that of the researcher, always inquiring and asking questions about her students' learning: "Like an archeologist at work, I need to use questions as probes. Teaching becomes the art of helping students make their learning ‘visible’ and this, in turn, allows me to plan, adjust and of course give more constructive and useful feedback." Click here. In the blog she provides an interesting list of questions and prompts which enable her to make her students' thinking visible.

BIG questions

Learning engagement: My question is bigger

This is a fun activity to use with colleagues to start discussions about Big Questions.

In groups:

  • Think of a big question about a specifically chosen topic.
  • As a group consider if there is a bigger question you could ask about the topic. I.e. the bigger question subsumes the smaller one.
  • Keep asking until you can go no further.
  • Groups to share findings (using flip chart paper) and come up with the biggest question.
  • Use post-it notes to then work out all the supplementary questions and the conceptual understandings that they explore.

One of the techniques we looked at when we explored how to develop an inquiry-based approach to learning and teaching was to consider the big questions that frame each subject discipline. These are sometimes referred to as the 'essential questions'. In their book Essential Questions McTighe and Wiggins describe essential as having the following defining characteristics. They:

  • are open-ended - i.e. they do not have a single or final answer to them;
  • are thought-provoking and engaging - they often spark debate;
  • call for higher-order thinking - e.g. analysis, evaluation;
  • points towards important and transferable ideas - often involving a number of academic disciplines;
  • spark further inquiry;
  • require support and justification - and not just a straight-forward answer;
  • recur over time.

Click here to access a useful summary of the key ideas in their book.

Click HERE for a summary of what counts as a 'big idea'

Click here to access their website where a random selection of essential questions are posted daily, in addition to having access to other online videos and resources.

Ophea provide many good teaching tools. One of them is a template for students to use in framing questions. It can be found HERE (see below for a copy)

Quilt of quotes

Use the Quotes that speak to me protocol to explore some quotes about questioning. The quotes are all used by Berger in A More Beautiful Question.If you wish to explore his book more go to his website by clicking here.

The quotes

"Questioning is the ability to organize our thinking around what wo don't know." (The Right Question Institute)

"Questions enlarge our conception of what is possible [and] enrich our intellectual imagination." (Bertrand Russell, British Philosopher)

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."  (Albert Einstein)

"The poster child for questioning in the tech world is Steve Jobs." (Warren Berger)

"Throughout the years in business, I found something, which is I always ask why we're doing things the way we're doing things." (Steve Jobs)

"How do I create something out of nothing? I think it is by questioning." (Writer, Amy Tan)

"Why does questioning seem to be at the root of so much creation, and if that is true why don't we pay more attention to it?" (Warren Berger)

"Children enter school as question marks and they leave as periods."(Neil Postman)

HOW: The art of asking questions

How much time do you allow students to answer questions you have fired at them? Research on this subject suggests that on average teachers are not good at allowing sufficient time for students to think through their potential responses. In fact research informs us that thinking time is often less than one second!

In this video Dylan Wiliam asks teachers to change a ping pong approach to questioning into a basketball approach:

What’s more important: questions or answers? What do we give priority to in our classrooms?

Thinking is driven by questions. “Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field — for example, Physics or Biology — the field would never have been developed in the first place…Furthermore, every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously as the driving force in a process of thinking… Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought…only students who have questions are really thinking and learning. Moreover, the quality of the questions students ask determines the quality of the thinking they are doing.” (The Critical Thinking Community website).

In his article for edutopia John McCarthy suggests four strategies for fostering student questions:

Discussion starters

  • Discuss: “only students who have questions are really thinking and learning”.
  • Should we assess students by asking them to list all the questions they have had about a subject and all the subsequent questions the original question generated, and to explain their significance?
  • What is the relation between subject content and subject questions?
  • Identify, using marker pens, which of these questions you think will ignite curiosity in students.

Questions ... questions ... questions

THIS ARTICLE, ‘What is the purpose of a question?’ starts by exploring two of the most common functions of a question: to assess knowledge (evaluative) or cause thinking (rhetorical). It then distinguishes between a good question and a bad question.

Characteristics Of A Bad Question

  1. the purpose of the question is unclear or it doesn’t achieve that purpose (e.g., the question isn’t aligned to a learning objective)
  2. The question ‘centers itself’ and/or distracts from the content
  3. An abnormally high % of students miss the question
  4. Students ‘perform/respond poorly’ to the question
  5. The question seems to ‘halt’ or radically slow the learning/inquiry process
  6. Successfully ‘answering’ the question doesn’t yield much more than having ‘gotten the question right.’
  7. The wording of the question is confusing or unnecessarily complex
  8. The question doesn’t agitate students intellectually or move them emotionally

Characteristics Of A Good Question

  1. The question achieves a clear purpose
  2. The question illuminates the nuance of existing knowledge
  3. The question encourages understanding and transfer, not ‘success and performance’; it leads to extended and/or deeper thinking
  4. The question lends itself well to its own refinement and improvement, or better questions altogether
  5. The question (more often) comes from the student, not the teacher
  6. The question causes positive emotion
  7. The question requires students to synthesize multiple perspectives or interpret and unify multiple sources of information to create a quality response
  8. The question can be answered in multiple ways

A WEBSITE WORTH LOOKING AT: Conversations Worldwide – a curation of questions.

Inquiry Strategies

Below are a series of strategies for developing inquiry-based learning. If working with a whole faculty you could delegate these strategies to different groups to explore and feedback in plenary to the whole group. A good article on inquiry models is Inquiry Learning Models, Sole.

As an activator activity (some might call it a motivator activity) ask staff to generate inquiry questions on a given topic.This activity gets people into the habit of framing their own learning.

Example: Learning

Here are the top questions generated by a group of IB Coordinators to start a discussion on learning. You can imagine how such an activity could be used to start a discussion in the staffroom, with staff framing their own research questions.

  • How do we know they are learning?
  • What does effective learning look like?
  • How do we make teaching and learning joyful?
  • What makes learning content meaningful?

Inquiry Strategy 1: Blooming Questions

Bloom's taxonomy is a helpful framework to encourage higher-order thinking. It is especially helpful when planning inquiry-based work to structure performance tasks and higher-order questions that are related to exploring concepts.

Exploring Bloom's Taxonomy

How do the questions we ask move pupils and staff through the framework from knowledge to synthesis? Which prefixes do I use most? How do I make my thinking visible to pupils and staff so that it becomes part of their critical apparatus toolkit?

Why is it important to ask a range of questions, and especially the higher order questions? Consider this from the point of view of pupils and staff. Do we encourage pupils and colleagues to think critically, analytically?

  • Click here for an introduction to Bloom's taxonomy
  • Click here to access command terms used in IB
  • Click here to access apps using Bloom's Taxonomy

Dig deeper

@Leading Learner has a really helpful blog on how Bloom's updated taxonomy can be applied. Click here to access it.

Inquiry-Based Learning: Developing Student-Driven Questions presents the case study of how Wildwood IB World Magnet School ignites learning based on student questions.

Inquiry Strategy 2: Socratic Questions

Activity 5: Think Piece

Use the  Think Piece protocol to carry out a focused reading of The role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching and learning. It can be accessed here.

  • Allow individuals appropriate time (3-10 minutes) to read the think piece in silence. A facilitator is the time keeper.
  • Each individual has the opportunity to say what resonated with them. Other participants listen. This is not the opportunity for discussion but to listen to each other.
  • As a group summarize the key points that have been raised ready to feedback to the facilitator or whole group.

Activity 6: Using the Socratic Method

Click here to access The Socratic Questioning Technique paper produced by INTEL. This paper provides you with an overview of the different classifications of questions:

  • Clarifying Thinking
  • Challenging Assumptions
  • Using Evidence in Arguments
  • Exploring Alternative Perspectives
  • Considering the Consequences
  • Questioning the Question

In his blog James Bowman provides a clear infographic on The 6 Types Of Socratic Questions (see right). Click HERE to access it.

Dig deeper

Edutopia - Socratic Seminars - building a culture of student led discussion: a guide to designing a Socratic seminar.

Question Audit Map - a very helpful place mat tool which can be used as a checklist of ideas.

Inquiry Strategy 3: Harkness / Spider Wed Discussions

A Harkness / Spider Web discussion is a student led inquiry activity. The name Harkness refers to the fact that this method of student led inquiry was first developed by Alexis Wiggins at Harkness School. The name ‘Spider Web Discussion’ is an acronym describing the specific aspects of the discussion:

S = synergetic – referring to the collaborative nature of group inquiry into a subject, as well as the nature of the group assessment.

P = Process – there is a protocol or process which should be followed and practiced.

I = independent, which refers to the way that students work independently. Teacher steps back and observes what a teacher can do. It is about students discovering things together with the teacher facilitating nicely placed questions.

D = developed – referring to the sustained nature of the discussion, albeit with a clear aim in mind.

E = exploration – the way students explore ideas and questions through discussion

R = rubric – referring to the rubric against which students can assess themselves, as well as the teacher.

These inquiries help to nurture students as collaborators in learning, communicators and self-evaluators. Students see that the teacher values their ideas, it empowers them.

Activity 7: Spider Web Discussions

Watch this ninth grade class involved in a Harkness discussion:

Access Alex Wigins' Wiki where you can find resources to develop your own Harkness discussions. Click here.

How do we assess inquiry-based learning?

Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation & Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010), suggests we bear in mind the following concepts when planning assessment in an inquiry-based approach:

  • Planning: Assessment should be planned at the same time as instruction, and it should be integrated seamlessly into the learning cycle. Planned assessment should be used to inform instruction, guide next steps, and help both educators and students monitor progress towards achieving learning goals.
  • Criteria: Established criteria for assessment and evaluation should be shared with students or co-constructed with students prior to learning. Students’ work should be referenced for assessment and evaluation purposes to established criteria, rather than by comparison with work done by other students.
  • Ongoing Assessment: Assessments should be ongoing throughout the learning cycle, varied in nature, and administered over a period of time. Students should be provided with multiple opportunities to demonstrate the full range of their learning throughout the class/course.

Three areas can be assessed in an inquiry-based approach: skills, content and dispositions

SKILLS: Assessing the skills of inquiry, for example:

  • formulating a rich question
  • identifying multiple sources of information representing different perspectives
  • analyzing the quality and reliability of sources
  • formulating a position
  • communicating and defending a position
  • reflecting upon their learning

A sample template for assessing skills can be found HERE.

CONTENT: Assessing the knowledge and understanding that has been acquired through inquiry.

DISPOSITIONS: Inquiry involves dispositions such as curiosity, flexibility, empathy, perseverance, skepticism, assessed through talking to students.

Ophea provide some great teaching tools. HERE is a planning template for teachers with assessment built in.

Reflection: The effective inquiry teacher

Our focus has been on how we develop student agency and engagement through promoting an inquiry-based approach to learning and teaching. We have so far focused on how questions can be an essential stimulus to developing such an approach.

Use the following thought piece to reflect on the role of the teacher in leading an effective inquiry classroom.

Kath Murdoch distills 10 practices of the effective inquiry teacher:

  1. Don’t do the thinking for students – instead scaffold and prompt students’ thinking.
  2. Teach students about thinking – provide them with toolkit to think critically, creatively and reflectively.
  3. Actively provoke curiosity and wonderment.
  4. Involve students’ voice in making decisions about learning.
  5. Help students make connections between what is known to them and what is new as they investigate.
  6. Provide students with research tools which enable them to inquire.
  7. Give students the big picture context and purpose for their learning.
  8. Give students time and skills for reflection.
  9. Make learning transparent and explicit.
  10. Focus on process (as well as content) of learning.

Resource Bank

Click on the following links to find a wealth of resources to provoke inquiry.

Wonderopolis. Click here. Each day they post an intriguing question that encourages students to wonder and they answer it in a variety of ways.

Stumbleupon. Click here. This is a social network that takes you on a journey through webpages on subjects you say you are interested in.

Curiosity.com. Click here. A media company that "covers intriguing topics in visual, short form, mobile friendly experiences."

Literacy Shed. Click here. Resources to use in primary years using literature (many videos) to provoke inquiry.

Thunk: A Thunk is a 'beguilingly simple-looking question about everyday things that stops you in your tracks and helps you start to look at the world in a whole new light'. They are designed to make you think and make your brain hurt.

School in the Cloud: Big Questions

Impact School Improvement Ltd. provides excellent visuals. For example, go to their website to find Questioning for Progress.

Research into Inquiry-Based Teaching

There are a number of key people who have carried out a lot of work on inquiry-based teaching and learning. The following sites are helpful starting points:

Reflection on our own professional inquiry

  • Where do you inquire into the craft of teaching and learning? Do you read a specific blog, educational journal or Twitter feed?
  • What are you currently reading about teaching and learning? Why are you reading it? What thoughts and questions are you having as a result of your reading?
  • As a reflection consider the ten questions which Justin Tarte suggests each teacher should ask of their own work. Click here to access his blog piece. Which of his questions engages your curiosity? Consider how these questions can promote your own professional inquiry. As a leadership team develop strategies to use as advice to help your teachers address these inquiries.

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