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Four Models for Place-Based Inquiry

"Children must be taught how to think, not what to think" This quote does a good job of illustrating the difference in how thinking is taught in a traditional classroom vs. a project-based classroom like the one that we continually describe here. A project-based classroom is one where the emphasis is not put on the content, or the "what", but the process which teaches the students "how" to think and learn on their own.


Place-based learning, which can be done remotely, relies on centering the focus of the thinking around a place that can be investigated. The content is required in order to unlock the importance and inner-workings of the location, and in the method for doing so is inquiry.


But what does "inquiry" actually look like and how does it function in the classroom on a day-to-day basis? If you were going to teach students an inquiry process that they could use to learn about the world around them, how would you do this?


What follows are four models for inquiry that you can use to help students develop their own methodologies for inquiry. Depending on the situation and the focus of the learning one might be better than the other, but all of them focus on practical, student-centered learning.


Method #1 - Question Formulation

Use student generated questions to break down larger, more complex questions or challenges into smaller, answerable ones.


This method is an adaption of the Question Formulation Technique pioneered by The Right Question Institute. It is particularly effective if you have students that don’t understand how to ask and answer “good questions” that are open-ended or if you think you need to give students a slower, more controlled start.

The QFT usually begins following your entry event in response to some sort of input, so it works best with gallery walks, movies, images, etc. Students focus just on this source of input and nothing else, helping to compartmentalize their thinking and provide a clear path forward later on.

Students individually analyze the selected input and write down any questions they have regarding it. The entire point is to generate questions, not stop and answer them.

At the end of the question portion, you’ll ask your students to get into groups (three or four per group) and have them share out and then sort the questions they have generated.

There are two types of questions that you should look for when gathering and posting the classes’ need to knows;

Getting students to understand that some questions will be easy to answer while others will be more difficult helps them begin to understand which questions the can tackle themselves vs. which questions it is good to get support to answer. After the sort, have students share out their “top three” questions so you can gauge what the big “need to knows” are.

Finally, work with the students to reflect on the experience and plan what they could do to answer the questions. What additional resources might be necessary? What questions do they feel like need to be answered first? Which questions will require the teacher’s expertise?

Method #2 - Inquiry Cycles

While searching for answers to the Anchor Question or NTK List, students find answers, share and reflect on what they have found, and formulate new questions in a transparent manner.


We want our students to learn through inquiry because, ultimately, it is the process by which we educate ourselves in “the real world” when a knowledgable expert is not available. Inquiry, in its pure form, it also an independent activity, and allowing students time to independently is at the heart of this next model. If your students are used to working on their own or are familiar with project work and your open to “loosing up the reigns” a little, then the following model is for you.

South Dakota is home to many famous landmarks and monuments, such as Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument, and the Deadwood. It is also home to Jewel Cave Nat’l Monument, the third longest cave in the world covered in calcite spar crystals which resemble precious stones and give the cave its name.

The cave is also home to a visitor center organized around an inquiry model that is perfect for researching and investigating landmark focused projects called Inquiry Cycles.

This process begins with either the entry event or some sort of input followed by the Anchor Question. The input is usually larger than the one given out in other inquiry activities, something that students will spend time unpacking or that required additional research to fully understand. Students share what they know and questions in response to both the input and the Anchor Question.

They then are given free time to explore on their own for the answers to these questions. This process can be scaffolded if students are new to self-directed research, or completely open if they are already familiar.

As students gather information, they check in with each other periodically, comparing notes and building answers to the questions. They may also complete activities, worksheets, quizzes or other more traditional tools you may already have on hand to demonstrate their growing understanding.

Eventually, students should share what they have uncovered with the larger group in the form of project mile markers, or major assessment points. These periodic presentations to their classmates allow them to check their progress against other groups, discuss their answers, but most importantly produce more questions that send the students back into their next cycle.

Sometimes these questions come from the teacher who can uses them as a way to guide the next phase of the project, but they can also come from outside experts or even individual self-reflection.

Method #3 - Facilitated Exploration

This in-person method of exploration takes advantage of outside resources and allows for a gradual release on the part of the teacher and student.


This approach to inquiry is not always possible as it relies on an actual visit to the site of the landmark or in place of that detailed visuals or virtual tours. But if you can swing a trip to the monument, landmark, or accompanying museum, then this is the inquiry model you’ll want to focus on using.

This model emphasizes a “gradual release” form of inquiry where teachers begin in their normal role as expert in the room and slowly turn over more and more control to students. This is important because if you are going off campus, you’ll want some time to orientate your students to both the location and the expectations you have for them during this “field work” experience, but you also want them to have time to freely explore on their own. At the conclusion of the inquiry sequence students have gained some background knowledge and have a list of questions to guide their later learning.

The process consists of five phases;

Preloading - teacher provides foundational background knowledge and context needed for exploration. This could include mini-lessons, vocabulary, group readings, or activities that helps students to understand the background of the site or landmark they will eventually visit.

Modeling - teacher demonstrate how exploration works by leading the students as a class at the beginning of the visit. The teacher shows the students not just how to observe and infer to generate questions, but how to conduct themselves at the site. IF virtual, the teacher provides students with a single, high-quality visual resources and demonstrates how to use observations to make inferences and gain information.

Guided - students work in pairs or small groups to continue analyzing resources and artifacts. They list their questions and possible answers as they continue. The teacher moves between groups offering suggestions and guiding. At the end of this phase the teacher pulls the group back together and outlines next steps.

Open - students are “on their own” They work in groups of their choosing and access resources they deem appropriate or look for new ones, keeping careful record of their questions and possible answers (see-think-wonder works very well here)

Reflection - teacher calls class back together and debriefs. Students get into groups and share questions, synthesizing what they have discovered and then sharing out their observations. The classes questions are captured by teacher.

Method #4 - Inquiry Sprints

This inquiry process is short, to the point, and a great way to make sure that students enter a project with the same background knowledge.


One common challenge regarding student-led inquiry is that a lot of time is wasted when students lose focus and end up off-task. If you have students with shorter attention spans, or if you’re unsure of what prior knowledge your students have at the beginning of a project with an Inquiry Sprint might be a good way to begin. The process is similar to the QFT, but unlike the QFT it included a research step where students will gather and share resources to “jump start” their independent research.

Inquiry sprints begin with a form of input such as an artifact or “focus” object just like the QFT. Ask the students to spend a few minutes (3-4 at most) analyzing the artifact, writing down their observations, and noting any questions that come from these observations. This part can take the form of something as simple as a t-chart but should be done without any aides, meaning no partners or internet help. This is chance for individual students to mark where they are beginning this process from.

Following this short input activity students share their questions to create a class list. They then spend about ten minutes engaged in independent research looking for not just answers to the questions, but additional questions as well. Students should keep track of the questions they have answered, the resources they found that provided those answers, and any new questions they have or were not able to answer in the ten minutes. This is best done electronically since writing down links can be very time consuming. At the end of this sprint, have the class share out their findings, either individually or in groups, but make sure that this synthesis is in a shareable format (posters or Google Docs work well for this step)

At the conclusion of this step you should have your students reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to do, and what their next steps are to guide their path forward.

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