“Their Minds Must Be Improved to a Certain Degree”: A Learning Cycles Approach to Inquiry, pp. 4 of 5

Example: What Caused the Titanic Tragedy?

The teacher shows students the headline in the local newspaper dated April 15, 1912. It reads, “‘Unsinkable’ Greyhound Sinking Off Newfoundland.” She tells her students that the headline is referring to the sinking of the luxury ocean liner, the Titanic. Due to the popular 1997 film by James Cameron, who later made Avatar, some students bubble with recognition. She asks them why they think such ocean liners were called “greyhounds” and why the present tense, “sinking,” was used. Then she shows them a 10-minute film clip from the Cameron film of the Titanic tragedy and another from the earlier (1958) film A Night to Remember, or from one of the several documentaries now available. This accomplishes Step 1—engaging their interest in the inquiry. Then she has students hypothesize about the causes of the tragedy. She develops the inquiry’s focus question: “Why did the Titanic tragedy occur? We know it hit an iceberg, but why?”

What follows is the lesson plan she used. Notice that she provides the information to students rather than having them conduct research themselves. Why? She wants to familiarize them with the basic inquiry process, using a highly motivating topic. In the next unit, she will help them to use the inquiry process again, following the same five-part plan, but they will do Internet and library research. With this scaffold, they gradually build their inquiry skills throughout the year. Again, inquiry is not only an instructional method, cut a curriculum objective.

Note also that in this lesson plan the teacher provides information a little bit at a time—in chunks, or data sets. This is crucially important. This way, children can be helped to evaluate their hypotheses and draw tentative conclusions after each data set. This is the quasi-repetitive learning cycles approach. And it is authentic—it is what scientists and historians do. It is a vivid way to give children a memorable experience of the power of data, a little at a time, for they see hypotheses vanish from the whiteboard, and others added, as each new chunk of data is considered.


Students who have developed their inquiry abilities are able to draw conclusions based on evidence and judge whether conclusions drawn by others are supported by evidence. This is the essence of inquiry. When they learn to inquire skillfully, students learn to explore historical (and other social) problems by making an educated guess about the problem and then searching for evidence that would justify one conclusion over another. More specifically, they learn to hypothesize, search for evidence, evaluate the quality of evidence, use this evidence to test their hypotheses, draw conclusions, and evaluate the strength of conclusions. For this reason, the inquiry process is exalted as the highest form of higher-order thinking or critical thinking. Students learn that evidence varies in its credibility and that there are usually competing accounts and perspectives on any one event. Their teacher is forever pestering them with the questions “How do you know that’s true?” and “Do your sources agree?” And, “If not, how did you decide?” Gradually, thanks to such teachers, students ask these questions themselves. They develop a healthy respect for facts, a steadfast aversion to jumping to conclusions, and an eagerness to spot prejudices and root them out.

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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