Guided Inquiry

Learn how to use the "Guided Inquiry" process as an engaging way to introduce a new topic and promote higher-level thinking with students.

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Ashley Hill is a high school biology and chemistry teacher at Fullerton Union High School in Fullerton, and also a teacher leader with the California Science Project.


Hi, I’m Ashley Hill and I’m a teacher leader with the California Science Project. I teach high school biology and chemistry at Fullerton Union High School in Fullerton, California, and today I’m going to talk about Guided Inquiry. It’s a process of getting the kids to ask questions about content, and it can be used by a student teacher who might not be familiar with the content they’re teaching, a substitute who’s in the classroom for a day, or even a teacher who’s subbing in another teacher’s content area.

Guided inquiry is a way to get students to start asking questions about a new topic that you’re going to be covering in class. I have students that come from a ton of different classes and a ton of different schools, so I have no idea what their background knowledge is. So when I use guided inquiry, it’s to kind of gauge what the kids know, but also see what they’re curious about.

And I’ve used it everywhere from college prep level classes, honors level classes to remedial classes. For example, I’m going to start this next week with my honors chemistry, asking them about nuclear chemistry. I’ll start the class by showing them an infographic that simply says that nuclear power is green energy, and from there I’m going to ask them what they think of that. I don’t want them to come up with questions like, “what is nuclear energy?” I want them to ask more in depth higher level questions that might help them understand what nuclear energy is. I usually do this by passing out three post-it notes per student and making them write down three questions each. You can also use scraps of paper or just have them record it in their notebook.

Once I’ve given them about five to 10 minutes to come up with their own questions, I then have them turn to a partner and discuss their questions either with a partner or in a small group, usually no more than four students.

Once the four students have discussed their questions, I have them compare their questions and rank them like from top question down, and if they have overlapping questions the post-it notes are really nice because they can stick those post-it notes together for overlapping questions.

Once the groups have ranked their questions, I have them share out their top two or three questions with the whole class. This can be done in many ways. Sometimes you just take the post-it notes and they stick them up on a piece of poster paper. Sometimes we write them on the board. If you have tech, you can use something like a padlet or a jam board to share them out with a class.

We then, as a class, go over all the questions. Some of the groups have similar questions so like on a jam board, we would put those together. If it’s on post-it notes, we would just put those post notes together. If I see questions that are really great, I’ll point them out and be like, “this is where we should focus. This is a really good question. I think this is gonna take us in the right direction.” if I see one that’s maybe misleading, I’ll say, “let’s save this one for later, I think we’re gonna cover this in a later topic.” Not to throw that question out, but just say, “hey, we’re gonna get to this later” so that it’s not a focus. And then we have a series of questions that kind of go with our overarching theme of the unit and the kids can then start to develop and research on those topic questions.

It’s a great process. I’ve used it with English learners, where I have them partner up with somebody. Sometimes you have some Special Ed kids that aren’t going to write three questions, but if they partner with another kid they can come up with those questions. If you need to, you can use words like “evidence” or “what would my claim be” to help them prepare for CER.

I love using this technique in classes because it gets the kids to start questioning at a higher level, and when they question at a higher level, they can then begin to critically think at a higher level. I like my students to use evidence and use analysis when they’re starting to do science. They have to use it in their claims, when they start to write a CER for the class. So when you can get kids to ask high level questions, they start coming up with very high level answers.

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