“Their Minds Must Be Improved to a Certain Degree”: A Learning Cycles Approach to Inquiry, pp. 3 of 5


Even the youngest children already engage in inquiry; their incessant “why” questions reveal that the motivation to inquire is fully present. And their persistent experimentation with all manner of things shows that not only the motivation but the actual activity of inquiry—doing inquiry—is already a part of their everyday life. Teachers, then, don’t need to teach inquiry so much as they need to help children become more skillful inquirers. They can do this by (a) engaging them in inquiry often, both as part of daily classroom life and as a way of learning humanities and social studies subject matter, and (b) scaffolding their inquiry so that they learn to more skillfully form hypotheses and seek and use evidence to find out whether they are true.

The general inquiry procedure is this: The teacher engages students’ interest in the problem for study and then has the children pose hypotheses about it. Next the teacher designs learning cycles in which students gather information (evidence) and compare it to these hypotheses. As they do the comparisons, the children learn, between cycles, to discard, add, and revise hypotheses as the facts require. Eventually, they draw conclusions (claims), and the teacher may have them develop full arguments: claims, support, and logical reasoning. Let’s look at the process step-by-step.

  1. The teacher engages students in a problem related to a curriculum objective. This is accomplished using a few photos, a newspaper headline, a film, a compelling story, or some other interest-building technique. The problem is usually decided by the teacher, because he or she is trying to address a key curriculum objective or standard; but students also can be involved in deciding on the problem.

    Problem Curriculum Topic
    Why did the Titanic tragedy occur? Transportation; Industrial Revolution
    Why is there poverty in rich nations? Comparative economic systems; social class
    Who benefits from advertising? Media literacy; production and consumption
  2. The teacher elicits hypotheses (reasonable guesses) from students about the problem and records them on the whiteboard or paper taped to the wall. A teacher might say to students, “We know that the Titanic hit an iceberg, but why do you think this great ‘unsinkable’ ship did that?” He or she draws hypotheses from the students and writes them in large print on paper taped to the wall.
  3. Students gather information (evidence, data) through textbook reading, oral reports by classmates, fieldwork, guest speakers, interviews and surveys, the Internet, paintings, teacher read-alouds lectures, and the like. This data gathering can take anywhere from a day to a few weeks, depending on the amount of data available and the number of learning cycles in which the teacher wants (and can afford, time-wise) students to engage. Each cycle requires data-gathering and analysis.
  4. Students organize and interpret the information and draw conclusions. The most efficient way to do this is to organize the information around the hypotheses. That is, students evaluate the hypotheses using the information that has been gathered and draw conclusions as to which hypotheses are most or least supported by the evidence. As with any scientific study, there will be disputes among the researchers. This is good! Challenging one another’s claims and conclusions is absolutely central to the activities called “history” and “science.” At this point, students can be directed to make graphic organizers featuring the two hypotheses they believe are best supported by the evidence.
  5. The claims are published—they are made public. Whether in the classroom newsletter, a report to the school principal or town mayor, or a presentation to younger students, the results of inquiry are always shared. The audience members can then accept or reject the conclusions presented based on their own interpretation of the evidence. This is how knowledge is constructed, corrected, and reconstructed over time.

Related Teaching Materials

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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