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What is inquiry?

Inquiry in Action

At its root, inquiry is asking questions and seeking answers. When you design a lesson using inquiry, you start with one or more driving questions. The quality of the inquiry that follows depends on the quality of the questions that you ask.

Scenario: If you ask "Why do mammals have fur?" you may get a superficial answer—to stay warm. You can push the inquiry further by asking a better question: "What uses does fur have aside from staying warm?" Now students will have to do some thinking to realize that fur also protects skin from sunburn. It also provides patterns that help to camouflage animals such as tigers and zebras. Wolves raise their hackles and cats puff their tails to look bigger and more menacing. Sea otters and seals have fur that is oily and protects the animal from water and salt. If you ask, "What is the strangest use of fur that you can discover?" students will now search for unique information. For example, the yeti lobster has claws covered with white hairs, which provide a home for bacteria that may detoxify the volcanic waters where it lives. But perhaps the strangest use is the "fur" on people's heads, which is styled in thousands of fashions as an expression of personality.

Better Questions for Better Answers

By asking better questions, you drive students to discover, and they move from banal facts to amazing and engaging facts. Instead of asking a question that has one correct answer printed in a teacher's guide, you are asking a question that has many, many correct answers. You are inspiring students to go further, think more deeply, explore their world, and find novelty. You also are putting them in charge of their learning. You're not handing them information that they don't want. They are grabbing information for themselves.

Scenario: How about another driving question? "What strategies do animals use to keep themselves warm?" The answers to that question will lead students far afield, with explorations of many types of strategies such as fur, feathers, incubation, hibernation, migration, building nests, creating dens, using marsupial pouches, sunning themselves, invading human habitations. The question also leads to the differences between mammals and reptiles and amphibians and insects. Students who search will discover extremophiles that live by volcanic vents at the bottom of the oceans or teem in the steaming pools of Yellowstone. Students can discover other animals that simply have given up on staying warm: the common wood frog freezes solid to survive the winter and then defrosts and hops away in the spring; microbes survive frozen in Antarctic ice for hundreds of thousands of years and then thaw to live again.

Great questions lead to great answers.