Saturday / June 22

Build Student Agency Through Concept-Based Inquiry

According to the World Economic Forum (2016), the top three skills required for work in 2020 are complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. The traditional model of schooling, where students take a passive role in their learning, does not encourage the engagement and rigor required to develop these skills. Instead, new forms of learning must emerge, where students experience high levels of agency and become increasingly independent and capable of directing their learning.

Concept-Based Inquiry, or the use of inquiry-based approaches to teach for conceptual understanding, embeds student agency into its design. With a strong focus on questioning, teachers and students alike engage in problem-solving, as they investigate and sort through information. With its aim to develop transferable conceptual understandings, Concept-Based Inquiry gives students ownership over their thinking. Here are three ways that we can inspire students to become empowered agents of their learning in the concept-based classroom:

1. Foster a Culture of Inquiry

Our words and actions show students what we value. If we spend the majority of our time speaking at students, they will unlikely feel we want them to share their opinions and thoughts. If we want to inspire the next generation of critical thinkers, we need to provide opportunities for students to discuss their ideas. And we need to create a culture of inquiry, where students take risks and openly share their thoughts with their peers. So, how do we do this?

  • We ask better questions. As facilitators of learning, we need to ask our students conceptual questions that get to the heart of what they are exploring. We may ask, “How might people determine the reliability of information?” or “What might motivate people to migrate despite its challenges?” Such questions require students go beyond one-word answers and provide reasons for their thinking, opening the door to authentic dialogue.
  • We carve out space for student voice. Avoid overplanning learning engagements! Purposefully leave the last 10 to 15 minutes for students to “talk out” their thinking as a community. Use reflective questions, such as “What was something surprising for you?” or “What would you like more time to think about?” And importantly, encourage all students to share their thoughts, even those hesitant to speak. This creates an equitable classroom where students feel respected and valued.

2. Let Students Own Their Understanding

Although teachers work backward from conceptual understandings in the planning process, it is vital we let students construct and express their own understandings! By exposing students to engaging case studies and posing a range of guiding questions, we build understanding from the ground up. This form of learning, called inductive learning, asks students to use evidence to back up their thinking. Not only is this a highly motivating form of learning, but also a way to develop reasoning within a Concept-Based Inquiry approach.

As we know, we often learn much more from individuals with thoughts that are different from our own. Asking students to articulate their own understanding allows us to highlight the diversity of thinking within our classrooms. When we give students the chance to express their understanding, they recognize their ability to be independent thinkers. They become empowered, critical citizens.

3. Provide Opportunities for Real-World Transfer

Conceptual understanding should not exist in a black box. It should be used to create ideas, test them out, and take positive action. Providing students with opportunities for real-world transfer allows them to see how their learning looks in context. This builds their agency, illuminating how their understanding can be used for a purpose.

Real-world transfer comes in many forms: students may discuss current events, take action in their community, or apply their thinking to projects. Engaging in projects that bring together learning from multiple subject areas prompts students to think in creative, integrated ways. Imagine students who apply mathematical understandings to an industrial design project to build shelters for the homeless. In addition to using their math learning, students would employ their interpersonal skills, reflect on stakeholder needs, and deepen their understanding of inequality. Viewing the world through multiple lenses helps our students make sense of complexity and become true problem-solvers.


World Economic Forum, 2016, “The Future of Jobs” accessed March 29th, 2018 at:

Written by

Carla Marschall is experienced in Pre-K to Grade 12 curriculum development and implementation, having worked in a variety of curriculum leadership roles in IB schools in Switzerland, Germany and Hong Kong over the past ten years. She currently works as Head of Curriculum Development and Research and Vice Principal at United World College South East Asia in Singapore.

A certified Lynn Erickson Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Consultant and IB workshop leader, Carla has facilitated Concept-Based workshops with Lynn Erickson, Rachel French and independently around the world. She also works directly with schools interested in developing Concept-Based Inquiry in the classroom.


Carla holds a Masters in Elementary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and a Masters in Applied Educational Leadership and Management from the Institute of Education, University of London. Website:


Carla is the co-author of Concept-Based Inquiry in Action: Strategies to Promote Transferable Understanding.

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