Inquiry classrooms are magical places; creative, student-driven, and dynamic. But when it’s only the lesson you see unfolding, you’re missing half the show. For years, I’ve focused my coaching work on the pedagogy of inquiry, trying to demystify what inquiry looks like in real classrooms.
While it’s not as fun perhaps to write (or read) about what happens at the planning table, we cannot pretend that the magic of inquiry-classrooms just happens, well, magically. Planning for inquiry reminds me of the proverb: A river needs banks to flow. I see my lesson planning as creating the proverbial ‘banks.’ These banks provide the space and order necessary to encourage the freefall of ideas, divergent questions, and cognitive dissonance to take place.
In fact, I’ve found that lesson planning is the most creative part of my job. I’ve learned to embrace rather than dread it using this simple 5-Step Inquiry Lesson Plan.
Step 1: Connect with and question the content as a person, not as a teacher
Take off your teacher hat for a moment. How can you strengthen emotional bonds with and between your students within the context of this lesson? How can you share your own curiosity, doubts, and personality with students using the lesson as a vehicle? If the content isn’t important, fascinating, and/or relevant to you, it’s unlikely your students will find an emotional connection to it either.
- What questions still perplex and fascinate you?
- What relevant stories can you tell relating to the content?
- Are there metaphors that might be helpful to students?
- Do you remember the first time you learned this yourself?
- Are there websites that explore these questions and ideas in greater detail?
Here’s how I might approach the first step for an upcoming lesson. Let’s say I’m teaching Shakespeare’s Macbeth and we’re on Act IV, Scene I. You may remember this scene by its opening line: “Round about the cauldron go…” or it’s repeated chorus: “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” It’s an entire scene where witches create a complicated spell; full of challenging vocabulary and foreshadowing.
|My emotional connection to the content:
This scene is bursting with gross, descriptive words—a recipe for disaster! It reminds me of potions class from the Harry Potter series. My husband is a former chef and he always talks about the importance of getting the right ingredients. The process involved here reminds me of him in the kitchen; so incredibly detailed and painstakingly precise.
My lingering questions and wonders relating to the content:
Resources that will provide reliable and diverse perspectives on the content:
This ‘emotional brain dump’ was fun and took me no more than five minutes to accomplish. To get the students to connect with one another, I’ll ask them to share their favorite dishes and analyze the ingredients that go into them (thinking about the role of ingredients in making a dish or a charm so special and memorable).
Step 2: Get clear on the goals and assessments
This is usually where we start when lesson planning: our objectives. Think about what you want students to get out of your lesson, and how you might measure these goals (even imperfectly). What mix of formative assessments will you use? Are there authentic assessments (products, performances or presentations) that you can use to motivate them individually or in teams? What do you want students to know (content), be able to do (skills), and/or believe (dispositions) by the end of this lesson or unit?
Again, using the Shakespeare example, I might choose the following mix of content and skill-related objectives for my lesson. I try not to list more than five main objectives so that I can stay focused (less is more). I also really try to make sure I balance the knowledge, skills (especially communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration) and dispositions (patience, empathy, growth mindset) when listing out my objectives.
|What will students know, do, and believe?
(Knowledge, Skills, Dispositions)
|How will we know we’ve achieved this?
|Understand the scene’s meaning (knowledge)||Ingredient Analysis and Questions group presentation; listening in on conversations|
|Take risks with ideas; communicate clearly
|Observations and student reflection survey|
|Back up conjectures with evidence (either from text, experience, or websites) CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.1
|Ingredient Analysis (source citations)|
|Gain confidence and interest in tackling challenging texts like this one (dispositions)||Student reflection survey|
Step 3: Design the lesson and plot questions
Once I have a sense of the why and how, I am ready to create the ‘flow.’ This is where traditional lesson planning comes in. What’s your hook or anticipatory set? How much time do you think you’ll need to provide instruction before releasing students? Will assignments be rigorous enough, but not completely out of reach? Will students be grouped together, when and how? How will students be held accountable for their work?
As you go through the lesson sequencing, you’ll want to simultaneously think about the driving questions for this lesson (in the event that students don’t raise these questions on their own during the lesson), as well as ‘pivot questions’ that you can use to transition students to new activities or discussions. These questions are the ones you want students to really take time to think about. I often transfer these onto notecards and post them on the wall during a lesson and take them down as we address them. Students now alert me if there are questions still up on the wall.
Step 4: Check for questions, voice, and choice
After mapping out the lesson flow and the driving questions, I go back through it to check for two important things: opportunities for student questions and student choice.
Now, look back through each of your activities to make sure you’ve created time and opportunities for students to ask questions and make choices. Student voice (question-asking) and student choice are the bedrock of inquiry classrooms, so make sure you’re providing space and structure for these things. In my own lesson planning, I’d place an “X” next to activities that explicitly provide this. There is no rule around how much or how many opportunities you provide, although I’d strive for a 50/50 balance between teacher-directed/teacher talk-time and student-directed/student talk-time.
Again, using the Macbeth example, here is what my lesson plan might look like at this point:
|Activity / Timing||Driving Question(s)||Student Questions||Student Choice|
|Personal Story (10 mins.)||What are the most important ingredients in your favorite dish?
What do recipes have to do with this scene (connection)?
|Reading & Review (5 mins.)||What does this scene leave you feeling?
What questions does it raise for you?
|Group Task: Ingredient Analysis (15 mins.)||How easy, difficult, impossible, and/or immoral would it be to obtain each ingredient here today?||
|Small Group Choice (10 mins.)||1) What’s the most critical ingredient? Why?
2) How would you reverse the charm?
3) What ingredients may be missing?
|Whole Group Sharing (5 mins.)||Which words were confusing and how did you find their definitions?
Which choice question did you choose and what did you come up with?
|Closing (5 mins.)||What kind of ‘prep work’ for the charm needs to happen?
What questions linger? (share my own)
A Note about Unit Planning
While this plan is designed for a lesson, you can easily adapt it for an entire unit. Rather than plotting out the activities in minutes during Step 3, simply extend them into days.
Questions are the energy source inside inquiry classrooms. Even though I’ve written out driving questions, there should be questions peppered throughout the lesson; coming from me and hopefully the students. I like to share a short list of Great Questions with my students. These questions are great regardless of the content or grade level. They are divergent and encourage clear and critical thinking (and are also perfect for laminating onto desks). These questions are especially helpful when students are leading their own small groups and having discussions together.
|Tell me more…||How did you make that conclusion?|
|What do you think?||How did you get that result?|
|How do you know?||Can you build on what _____ said?|
|Can you summarize what _____ just said?||Who can add to that?|
|Can you put that in your own words?||What are some other possibilities?|
|Do you have anything to add?||Where do those ideas come from?|
|Do you all agree with _____?||Is _____ correct? How do you know?|
|What do you all think about that?||Why?|
Step 5: Rapidly reflect
This step is often ignored, but is a critical part of the inquiry cycle because it requires us as teachers to flex our reflective inquiry muscles! This step shouldn’t require a lot of time, and can always be completed with the students after a lesson or a unit—after all, they’re some of your best evaluators, having engaged in the lesson from start to finish. Set a timer for five minutes and answer two simple questions:
- What went especially well?
- What would I do differently next time?
Here is what I wrote after trying out the Macbeth lesson:
|What went well?
• Great engagement and discussions while sorting ingredients
• 20 minutes was perfect amount of time for group projects
|What would I change?
• Allow them to access websites to find definitions (reinforce source-citing)
• Groups no larger than 4 people, otherwise students can disengage
• Shorten favorite recipe-sharing time
Going through this process helps me reflect on perennial questions like: Did students pursue the anticipated line of inquiry? Did they latch onto a misconception and refuse to let it go? Was everyone is engaged; how do I know? Did students ask their own questions? Was it enough or too much student choice?
Successful inquiry classrooms may at times appear aimless and perhaps chaotic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Great inquiry lessons are actually some of the most carefully and thoughtfully planned learning events on the planet. Remember that a river needs banks to flow when thinking about guiding student inquiry. Be clear on why the river is flowing, where it’s going, and how it will get there. The Five-Step Inquiry Lesson Plan will allow you to keep your knees bent and not fall over.
To download a template of 5-Step Inquiry Lesson Plan, go to: https://www.inquirypartners.com/new-page-3 and click “Downloadable PDFs.”
 This lesson idea comes from Andrew Finley at West Seattle High School