Modeling Inquiry

In general, I like to classify classroom inquiry activities into three general categories: Independent, Guided, and Modeled.

Independent Inquiry

I have blogged fairly extensively about Independent Inquiry and created a wiki dedicated to supporting interest-driven learning in the classroom. Independent inquiry should be totally independent, in my opinion, not limited to ‘schoolwork’ or ‘homework’, due date free, and without any regulation by authority figures beyond common sense and safety.

Guided Inquiry

Guided Inquiry is what is mostly practiced in schools and provides the richest opportunities to balance autonomy with predetermined curriculum. Differentiation is inherent as learners require varying levels of guidance in various situations. The guided inquiry environment is fluid, productive, and engaging.

Socrates Teaching Perikles (Nicolas Guibal, 1780) CC SA

Modeled Inquiry

Finally, Modeled Inquiry most resembles classical, Socratic education. The teacher has a clear sense of the goal and direction of the learning, and crafts small tasks, like dialogs, in which students participate in order to emphasize learning of the inquiry process.

In my class’ current unit of inquiry, I planned a modeled inquiry into ‘the role of technology in scientific understanding’ and its effects on people’s lives. Feel free to visit the planning document which contains links to the resources we utilized along the way.

Tuning in

Following a standard cycle, I began the inquiry by thinking aloud about ‘science’, ‘technology’, and ‘people’s lives’. I modeled the types of questions that I would typically use to provoke inquiry, and then let myself be provoked. Playing both Socrates and Plato felt strange, but it proved to be an efficient way to make inquiry thinking visible.

My contrived wondering led to a current technology topic: 3D printing. I started my research with a simple Google Search which led to an uncountable number of websites, videos, images, etc. We explore freely, although there were a few resources which I had planned to use in order to drive the inquiry efficiently.

We also watched several informative videos, including Leaders Of The 3D Printing Revolution, which proved to be very stimulating for discussion and led authentically to the primary provocation for the unit:

Will 3D printing change the world?’

After some time to explore independently, the students wrote reflective blog posts to summarize their impressions and identify areas of particular interest to them.

Finding out

Exploring 3D printing led to many areas of interest including fashion accessory design and printed food. However, I wanted to emphasize the importance of gaining background knowledge to inform inquiry. By researching the history of printing, I discovered a wonderful video perfectly suited to this unit, Print Transforming Knowledge.

I also introduced Shapeways, a marketplace for 3D printed products to learn about how people are already using 3D printing to create innovative designs, products, inventions, and works of art.

Sorting Out

Next, it was time to report back about our understandings and especially to draw connections between what we had explored and our curiosities. In my case, I was particularly interested in using 3D printers for medical purposes. In keeping with the intent of this inquiry, I spoke much more than I normally would and felt very awkward doing so. However, using my style of reporting as a model, students communicated more eloquently than they had in previous similar activities, so I sensed that my efforts were successful.

Going Further

To model getting deeper into the inquiry, I introduced Tinkercad, a 3D design application and planned a field trip to a local 3D printing studio, CUBE. I’m excited to see if any students take action to create a design and submit it to be printed!


This experience has taught me that modeled inquiry should be a part of every unit. In this case, we spent about one hour per day for a week, which is significantly more than I had ever dedicated to modeled inquiry before, preferring to guide students when needed but designing units to emphasize independence.

In the future, I think it will be best utilized in the form of mini-lessons embedded in a unit, or even as stand-alone research skills lessons to support more independent inquiry.

 Seeing the value of carefully modeling targeted inquiry skills proved to me that, while children are natural inquirers, they benefit greatly from exposure to a variety of strategies and resources. I am excited to see how they apply and transfer what they have learned in future inquiries!

from Symphony of Ideas

About Bart Miller

Father, Teacher, Composer, Philosopher
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2 Responses to Modeling Inquiry

  1. Bart,

    Thank you for this excellent breakdown of how you organise your classroom for Inquiry. I thinkthis kind of post is so useful for teachers new to inquiry learning as well as experienced practitioners who are always keen to see how others “do” it! And thank you also for sharing your planning document. As it happens our grade 5s have a new unit, about scientific thinking. I will share your doc with my teaching partners as it will surely help spark off some ideas as we continue to plan!



    • Bart Miller says:

      Thank you, Lindy. To reflect on practice in this way is very helpful to me, and to have feedback from others like yourself is even better. Thankful to be part of this collaboration!


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