This article gives an overview of an instructional framework that takes students through the four components of inquiry: engage, explore, explain, and extend. The author describes the central aspects of each inquiry phase, the types of questions students might consider, assessments that check readiness to progress to the next level, and what reflective teacher practice might look like at each phase.
Engaging the learner through a hook, mind capture, or perturbation does effectively initiate the learning process, but engaging students in inquiry-based learning is more involved than just considering student motivation. The engage phase of inquiry includes all of the following aspects: (1) probing prior knowledge; (2) identifying alternatives or misconceptions; (3) providing motivation and interest-inducing stimuli; and (4) developing scientific questioning (fundamental to both science and math classes).
Teacher intentionality is critical for determining the degree that each aspect is emphasized in a given lesson. For instance, if the lesson or unit is inherently highly motivating, then you might best spend your time focusing on revealing students' prior knowledge or misconceptions.
Effective questioning is critical during all phases of inquiry-based learning. Effective questions to guide teacher facilitation during the four aspects of the engage phase include the following:
What do you know about _____?
What have you seen like this?
What have you heard about _____ that you aren't sure is true?
What would you like to investigate regarding _____?
Formative assessments can provide content-rich scenarios to check your students' understanding and help decide when to move on in the unit. Formative assessments for the engage phase might include a discrepant event (i.e., a surprising or startling science demonstration that powerfully piques students' curiosity), a pre-test to gauge misconceptions, formative probes (Keeley, Eberle, & Farrin, 2005), or KWHL charts (van Zee, Iwasyk, Kurose, Simpson, & Wild, 2001). A KWHL chart is a graphic organizer that facilitates learning by having students answer the following questions:
What do I know?
What do I want to know?
How do I find out?
What have I learned?
The more commonly known KWL chart leaves out a fundamental step for science and mathematics education that asks students to articulate how the investigation and learning will take place—for example, designing a procedure in science or a solution path in mathematics. When teachers reflect on what has occurred during the engage stage, they gain valuable information that informs their decisions for the next steps of instructional practice. For instance, by asking yourself, what did my students' prior knowledge tell me about their readiness to learn?, you are challenged to address specific student needs before plowing through more material.
Once you and your class have successfully navigated the engage stage, you can lead students into the explore phase. Note, however, that sometimes you might omit the engage stage. For instance, if a previous lesson in the unit uncovered the students' prior knowledge, or if the goals of the engage and explore phases can be collapsed into one instructional activity, then you may begin a lesson with the explore phase. The key aspects that define the explore phase include actively involving students in one or more of the following activities: predicting, designing, testing, collecting, and reasoning (Achieve, 2012; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; National Research Council, 2012).
Effective questions that help guide students through the explore phase include the following:
What if …?
How can you best study this question or problem?
What happens when …?
What information do you need to collect?
Why did you choose your method to study the question or problem?
Formative assessments can be contextualized into knowledge- or process-centered domains that focus on the individual, small groups, or whole class. Furthermore, formative assessment and reflective practice become meaningfully intertwined when individual responses are united with small- and large-group discussions. A common example is the think-pair-share learning strategy (Lyman, 1981).
Often teachers limit themselves to a fairly passive observational role when assessing student progress during explore. Although it may be beneficial to let students wade in the muck at times, you may want to assume a more active role by providing guided prompts to encourage individuals or groups to think more deeply about the investigation at hand. For instance, you could ask groups of students to describe the procedure that they intend to follow, and then have them tell you how this approach will help answer the study question. Doing so encourages students to slow down and think about how they interact with the content and what their thought processes are.
Reflective practice during the explore phase may begin by reviewing individual student entries in science or math journals or by considering students' proficiency in responding to their completion of the H portion of the KWHL chart ("How do I effectively study this question or problem?"). For example, if you learn that data collection seems problematic for your science class, then you might initiate a brief discussion with small groups that focuses on how to gather data in meaningful ways.
During the explore phase, process skills are emphasized as students grapple with ideas. During the explain phase, content becomes central while the process skills are used to support higher-order thinking such as interpreting, justifying, and analyzing. In this explore-before-explain model, students from diverse backgrounds and abilities now