In today’s world, we have access to more information than ever before. We can get millions of responses to a Google search in about a tenth of a second. We can ask artificial intelligence (AI), like a chatbot, for solutions and immediately get a well-written answer to our question. We can even instantly connect with experts across the globe through videoconferencing. In this world where information is so readily accessible, the skills of being curious and asking good questions have become even more important.
At its core, inquiry is about asking questions that move a learner to action, and this skill is becoming increasingly central to success in our information-rich world. We need our students to be able to identify problems, formulate good questions, and then seek out answers that can help them answer those questions and solve those problems. When students engage in the inquiry process, they are uncovering understanding, thinking critically at the highest levels, problem-solving, and engaging in thinking, learning, and discussion that can inspire innovation. Most educators would agree that this is at the core of what we want for our students.
When it comes to integrating AI into the inquiry process, it will likely take various forms across different grade levels. Older students who are able to access generative AI tools, like Open AI’s ChatGPT, might actively engage in these strategies themselves. Students who are too young to use AI tools, however, will need the teacher to model or facilitate these strategies as a whole class.
The following are 10 ways that teachers might integrate AI tools into the inquiry process.
Students need a basis upon which to ask their questions, so they need background information. They can, of course, gain this through traditional research methods. Now, they can also use generative AI chatbots, like ChatGPT, Google Bard, Anthropic’s Claude, or Microsoft Copilot, to assist with this process. The main difference in using a chatbot over a search engine is that the chatbot will provide a summary of available content rather than a list of websites and resources to review. The advantage of this is that it’s faster and already synthesized. The disadvantage is that there may be inaccurate information provided by the chatbot. Of course, websites can also be wrong, so a combination of approaches may be the best way to go.
While we want our students to be the primary drivers of generating questions during the inquiry process, AI can be a nice brainstorm partner. For instance, once students have gathered background information and gained a foundation of understanding about a situation, they should then be encouraged to generate their own questions. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is one approach that can work well. Whichever way you choose to proceed, it’s important that students generate and voice their own questions. Once they’ve done that, you can bring in an AI tool to go deeper. You can have students paste their questions into a chatbot and then ask for additional questions that they hadn’t included, or students could have the AI brainstorm possible questions about a situation or topic. Students can then compare the AI list to their own. This process provides an opportunity to expand the student question base and potentially broaden perspectives.
In many ways, using an AI chatbot is all about creating the right questions. Generating the best prompt or question to ask the AI is called prompt engineering. By gaining experience engineering prompts for an AI chatbot and coming up with new, iterative versions of a prompt to get better results, students are practicing the art of asking questions. And they are getting new insights about their topic at the same time. It’s a win-win situation. It can also be beneficial to discuss this metacognitive process with students, share discoveries, and intentionally call it out during the learning process.
While questions are key, answers are eventually important, too. Coming up with answers oftentimes includes some degree of research. Students can ask an AI chatbot for topics to research related to a question that they write and then submit to the chatbot. They can also ask the chatbot to generate a list of possible subtopics that break a bigger problem into more manageable parts. Using AI for the actual research may be less effective unless you are using a chatbot that cites its answers and allows the students to check for accuracy. Another related tool that can be helpful during the research process is Merlin, a Chrome extension. Merlin automatically gives a narrative summary alongside results in search engines like Google. It can also be used to summarize a website or ask a question about that website, which can speed up or enhance the research process.
Before using AI to gather information and research, students can use AI to help develop a research plan. Students might ask a chatbot for the best ways to gather information to answer their questions. If students are conducting primary research, they could have the AI help them generate a set of interview or survey questions aligned to their research goals.
Many chatbots allow students to upload PDF documents and then ask questions about the content of those documents. Other tools, like Google’s NotebookLM (Tips), allow users to upload Google Docs or paste in large amounts of content. If you need your content in the form of a PDF, tools like the Google Chrome add-on PrintFriendly allow users to quickly convert webpage content into PDF formats that can then be uploaded into one of these AI tools. Once the documents are uploaded, students can ask the AI to provide a summary of the main points included in the resource. This is an efficient way to survey large amounts of data in a short time. Once concepts are identified that require more exploration, students can then dig deeper. They can even dig further into existing uploads by asking pointed questions about content within that resource. It’s an efficient way to survey large amounts of content for potential usefulness.
AI can be really helpful in assisting students with identifying blind spots in their thinking or research. Students can upload either a summary of their ideas, a copy of their notes, or a rough draft of a paper into an AI chatbot and directly ask the AI to identify blind spots. They might ask something like, “What key ideas am I not noticing?” or “What gaps exist in my current research and brainstorming?” The AI will likely return ideas that will prompt the student to gather additional information and refine their original messaging. Like with all things AI, the students will need to process these results to determine if they agree with the AI outputs. This can be a challenging and beneficial thinking exercise.
Once students have gathered data though the inquiry process, they can use AI to help them analyze that data. AI is exceptionally good at finding connections and patterns among data points within one or more resources. Students can enter the source content directly by pasting it into a chatbot, or they can often upload a compatible file type. Tools like Anthropic’s Claude (Tips) allow users to upload large amounts of data, including up to five PDFs at once for analysis. Students can then ask the chatbots questions about the content they’ve uploaded. If the AI returns something that seems interesting or promising, the students can dig deeper or ask follow-up questions. It’s a great way for students to discover new connections, dig deeper, and inspire new ideas.
While we want students to do much of the hard work discovering new connections and relationships among different resources, AI can be an invaluable aid in this process. Because they’re able to instantly connect similar content across multiple sources, AI tools can speed up the process of synthesizing ideas and making new connections. Students might enter in a list of their own discoveries or ideas and ask the AI for an analysis of their findings, including an identification of connections between and among those thoughts.
When students have formed a hypothesis or believe that they have reached some preliminary conclusions to their inquiry, they can use generative AI as a sounding board or virtual debate partner. Students can submit a summary of their findings or maybe an entire position paper to the AI and ask it to find flaws in their reasoning. They could also ask the AI to engage in a debate with them about a designated topic, perhaps the thesis of their paper. This could lead to a back-and-forth discussion with the AI chatbot that can help strengthen or deepen student understanding of the topic.