Spark Curiosity and Ask Questions for Inquiry Learning: Step 1 of the Searching for ANSWERS Inquiry Process

The first step in the inquiry learning process is to spark student curiosity and guide them to generate their own questions.

Grades K-12 20 min Resource by:
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Students are inherently curious, and studies affirm that curiosity and asking questions lead to better learning. Inquiry skills are also in high demand, and fostering curiosity supports equity as well as social and emotional learning. Cultivating curiosity through inquiry empowers and engages students, and this is especially important during hybrid or remote learning.

The Searching for ANSWERS Inquiry Process can guide you and your students through this journey. This article will focus on the first step in that process: Ask Questions.

ANSWERS Research Process Step 1, ask questions

Asking questions can solve problems, create new things, help us understand and dig deeper, connect us with others, take us to new places, give us a voice, and change the world.

Warren Berger, author of Beautiful Questions in the Classroom: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry

The goal of this step is for students to develop their inquiry or research question. This is the question that the students will research and answer, and this question will drive their inquiry process. It will eventually evolve into the student’s hypothesis or thesis.

Leverage the KWL strategy

Questions stem from curiosity. Even at a very young age, we ask questions to close the gap between what we know (K) and what we wonder (W). Learning (L) is what occurs as we gain understanding, knowledge, and skills while answering the question or solving the problem. The highly effective KWL strategy is often used to help students in the process of closing this gap, and it can also be leveraged during the inquiry learning process.

In the Ask Questions step, you will first guide students in “defining the problem, task, or situation” by activating their prior knowledge (K). You will then help them to “identify and pose the essential question” by generating questions that they are wondering (W). Students will fill the gaps between these by learning (L) the ANSWERS to their question. You can use this Ask Questions template to help lead them through this stage of the inquiry process. Feel free to make a copy and modify as needed for your learners.

Empower Students in the Process

As you design the inquiry learning experience, consider how you can empower your students. The degree of voice and choice that you provide will be determined by the age of your students and their experience with the inquiry process. During their initial experiences with inquiry learning, you will want to provide them with more guidance, structure, and scaffolding. However, as they gain experience, skills, and confidence, it will be important to release the responsibility for the learning over to the students by empowering them with more voice and choice in their inquiry, where they may pick what they will learn, how they will learn it, and with whom and how they will share their learning. The more student-centered that you can make the experience, the more that they will be intrinsically motivated to engage in the learning.

In his book, Inquiry Mindset: Nurturing the Dreams, Wonders, and Curiosities of Our Youngest Learners, educator Trevor MacKenzie describes four types of student inquiry that range from very structured, teacher-driven inquiry to free inquiry that is completely student-driven. He compares these types of inquiry to learning how to swim: you start in the shallow end with lots of support and work your way to the deep end with the goal of becoming a strong, independent swimmer who can swim in any type of water. As you design the learning, consider the experience and needs of your students and how you can provide the scaffolding necessary to help them become strong, independent inquiry learners who are successful in school…and in life.

4 Steps to Empowering Students to Ask Questions

One way that you can empower your students during inquiry learning is by cultivating their voice in asking questions and by giving them a choice in what they will research. You may use the following strategies and digital tools to empower your students to Ask Questions.

To start the journey of inquiry learning, you should first pique your students’ interests and spark their questions. This spark should be something that activates their prior knowledge as well as something that is intriguing and thought-provoking.

The manner in which you pique your students’ interests will be driven by your learning objectives as well as your own creativity and passion for your subject. Some common examples include sharing a statement, quote, picture, video, comic, political cartoon, experiment, object/artifact, joke, music, map, primary document, story, etc. Another common strategy is to use a question; however, this can actually defeat the spark, as students are then focused on finding “right answers” rather than exploring their curiosity and questions.

Here are some popular resources that you can use to get ideas for sparking student curiosity.

  • Wonderopolis is a highly recognized and awarded inquiry learning site that is “a place where natural curiosity and imagination lead to exploration and discovery in learners of all ages.”
  • Smithsonian Learning Lab is a collection of millions of digital images, recordings, texts, and videos in history, art and culture, and the sciences.
  • The mission of TED-Ed is “to spark and celebrate the ideas of teachers and students around the world.” You can search their collection of videos and lessons by subject.
  • The U.S. National Archives provides a collection of government records, which include excellent resources for teaching students how to view and analyze primary sources.
  • PhET offers simulations that can be used by students to experiment and test out their ideas virtually.
  • For more ideas, leverage your professional learning network (PLN). Reach out to your colleagues in your district and on social media platforms like Twitter. What ideas do they have for sparking student curiosity for the standards that you are teaching?

During your “spark” experience, help students to define the problem, task, or situation.

New learning is built upon previous knowledge or experiences, so the “spark” should activate students’ memories. The goal is to connect what they are reading, listening, viewing, or observing with their current knowledge and experiences. You will first guide them through identifying what they already know (K). In the process of identifying what they already know, they will be able to better recognize things that are not familiar. This gap of knowledge will spark their curiosity and lead to questions that will be generated in the next step below. You will also get an idea of their current level of understanding and possible misconceptions that they might have.

Identify What They Already Know (K)

There are many strategies and digital tools that you can use to help students activate and share their prior knowledge. Here are some suggestions to get you started as well as help spark some of your own ideas.

  • Students can start by independently filling in the top table on the Ask Questions template to answer Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How about the topic.
  • If the spark is a digital image or text, students can annotate and mark up what they already know. They can create and follow a legend for marking the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How and also use a tool like Kami for annotations.
  • The spark can be inserted or embedded in your Learning Management System discussion, where students can share what they already know. As they discuss, one person’s response might jog a memory for another student.
  • You can use the “starbursting” strategy for students to collaboratively share and record what they know. To form the star, place the “spark” in the center of the star, with each of the key questions forming six points of the star. You can insert this star onto a digital whiteboard like Google Jamboard, a collaborative document made with Google Drawings (Tips) or Google Slides, or a page in their Microsoft OneNote or Google Sites (Tips) eBinder for students to add their notes around the star.

Here is a Google Drawings version that you can copy and modify as needed.

As students work on identifying what they already know, this process will most likely spark questions. Encourage them to jot these questions down, as they are important to the process, but they should wait to share them (…that will be coming next). For this step, the goal is to stay focused on identifying what they already know.

When we generate the essential question, we know that it will be aligned to our learning objective. Because of that, we may choose to provide this for our students. However, it is more powerful for students to generate their own questions. When they “own the question,” they will then be more likely to “own the learning.” By owning the question, students will feel more empowered and be more engaged in the learning process needed to answer the question or solve the problem. While it means giving up some control, we can both empower students and ensure that their questions align to the learning objectives by guiding them through the following process for generating their own questions.

We nurture children’s curiosity and other life-long learning skills when we encourage them to identify and seek answers to questions that pique their interests.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation

Identify What They Wonder (W)

The Right Question Institute, the creator of the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), offers a great model for how to guide students in generating their own questions. Using this model as inspiration, here are some strategies and digital tools that you can use to help your students generate their own questions.

Brainstorm Questions

The first step is to encourage divergent thinking and brainstorm as many questions as possible related to the topic, problem, task, or situation. In this stage, the focus is to generate a large quantity of questions.

  • Since not all students may be familiar with brainstorming, share the protocols for that process. Students should record and share all questions without judgment or discussion. Encourage them to let one question spark another question. The goal is to generate as many questions as possible.
  • Avoid giving them example questions, as that might stifle their original thinking. Students can use the same six key questions to help generate questions about the topic, problem, task, or situation: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How?
  • To ensure equity of voice in the process, first give students quiet, think-and-ink time to generate their own brainstorm of questions. They can add their questions to the bulleted list on the Ask Questions template.
  • After they generate their own questions, have students share them to create an even larger pool of questions. They can use a brainstorming strategy, such as:
    • Rapid Ideation: Set a specific time limit for students to share as many questions as they can in a collaborative space
    • Round Robin: Students take turns sharing one novel question, while one person records the question. Everyone contributes “around the circle” until no new questions are generated.
  • Digital tools that would work well for capturing student questions include a Padlet (Tips), Google Meet Q&A board, Zoom chat, collaborative Google Doc, digital whiteboard like Google Jamboard (Tips), Microsoft Whiteboard (Tips), or (Tips). You could also use a survey, where students post and submit a question and repeat the survey until they run out of questions. These questions are then collected in a corresponding spreadsheet that you can post for everyone to see.

Select/Create a SMART Inquiry Question

The second step is to use convergent thinking and analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the brainstormed questions to select or create a quality question that will drive their inquiry. This inquiry question will ultimately lead to the hypothesis/thesis statement that they will research.

 Essential questions lead us to investigate the background of a problem. From there, we choose from various courses of action to create a solution. A good essential question will inspire a quest for knowledge and discovery.

Wabisabi Learning, The Essential Guide to Essential Questions

This process of selecting their final inquiry question is also an opportunity to develop student metacognition skills as they discuss the quality of the questions and share their rationale behind their choices. If this is a new experience for students, teach students how to evaluate the quality of a question by using criteria like SMART:

  • Specific
    • Is it clear and focused? Is it not too broad or too narrow in scope and complexity?
    • Is it open-ended? Is it not easily answered with a simple Google search?
  • Manageable
    • Is it something that you can answer or solve?
    • Is it possible to complete the inquiry within the time frame and with the resources available?
  • Appropriate
    • Does it relate to the learning objectives?
    • Does it spark interest for you and your audience?
  • Researchable
    • Are there enough materials and resources available to answer or solve it?
  • Thought-Provoking
    • Does it require deep exploration and critical thinking to find the answer or solution?

While the students work through the steps in the ANSWERS inquiry process, it is important to remind them that this process is not completely linear. They will weave back and forth between these steps and will continue to Ask Questions as they learn more. Encourage them to keep a curious mindset and Ask Questions throughout the entire process.

Students should question answers as often as they answer questions.

John Spencer, author of Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning

While inherently present in all of us, curiosity is something that must be cultivated so that students learn how to formulate effective questions that lead to answers and solutions. The following are some ways in which you can create and maintain a culture of curiosity in your classroom before, during, and after inquiry learning:

  • Whenever possible, have students generate the questions rather than giving them questions to answer.
  • Give students repeated opportunities to practice generating questions so that they can develop and refine their questioning skills. The stronger the question, the stronger the learning that will result from finding the answers.
  • Call out examples of great questions and point out why they are strong. Note: This should not be done during the brainstorming phase of question development.
  • Maintain rigor. Questions form in order to close gaps between what is known and unknown. Teaching challenging concepts is an opportunity for students to practice and refine their inquiry skills.
  • Foster growth mindset by developing your students’ stamina for learning challenges and by creating a classroom culture that expects and accepts that taking risks is a natural part of learning.
  • Develop relationships. Inquiry learning should involve risk, and students may feel vulnerable as they experience the temporary failures that are natural to the learning process. If they know and trust you and their peers, they will be more comfortable being vulnerable and taking those necessary risks.
  • Give students regular opportunities to share and find answers to their wonderings. For example, have students post their questions to a Padlet, add them to a Parking Lot discussion in the class learning management system, or submit them in survey form. Revisit these wonderings regularly and provide students with opportunities to independently or collaboratively explore and answer them. Consider giving Genius Hour time for students to dive deeply into these wonderings.
  • Empower your students by giving them voice and choice in what to explore, how to explore, and how to share the results of their explorations.
  • Model curiosity and your passion for learning by sharing aloud your wonders, your questions, and how you seek answers. Students will learn by your example. It is also good for students to see that we don’t know everything either, as well as our excitement to be lifelong learners.