Inquiring into Inquiry; an Early Years Guide to Discovery

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“At its very heart, inquiry is about investigation. It occurs when the learner seeks to discover/resolve/create/uncover/understand something. Inquirers are most often driven by questions.”

Kath Murdoch, Blog: JustWondering 

If inquiry learning is the act of discovering something new, how do Early Years teachers facilitate uncovering new discoveries when the whole experience of learning, school and life is so exciting? Every Early Years teacher (and parent) knows the overall exhausting amount of questions we receive on a daily basis, so how do we narrow in the questions and keep the students’ attention? The answer is quite simple, you ask for help and support!

The support and overall collaboration in school communities is positive for student’s learning. Educators understand the fact that learning doesn’t start, nor stop within the walls of the classroom and Early Years students arrive at school on their very first day with a wealth of prior knowledge. 

This blog post shows evidence on how inquiry can be supported in individual, small group or whole class inquiries and how community members deepen and extend the learning. Please comment below with your own strategies and ideas to keep this conversation growing!

Individual Inquiry

Documentation of student’s discussions and thought processes are an important way to understand students’ thinking and learning. The addition of co-teachers, teacher assistants, recording devices and other ways help capture and record and document. Another way to promote inquiry is through a personal inquiry book. A few years ago I had an exceptional learner in my Reception class (4-5 years of age) and he not only was authentically curious about the world, he was in need of being extended in his learning. So, we created his own inquiry book with the front cover looking like this:

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He received individual help with answering his questions through his buddy in Grade 6 (from his buddy class), his parents and his teachers (myself and the Education Assistant in his class). Here are some examples of his questions:

Why are there totem poles? (This was answered by his buddy which ended up in a few months discovery of the purpose, the meaning behind them, and then they created their own.)

Why does water run down? (This question was spurred through a provocation with the unit ‘Sharing the Planet’ which we then ventured into the purpose of gravity.)

How are babies made? (This inquiry was handed over to his parents!)

Small Group Inquiry

Small group inquiries allow for a shared investigation to be discovered. Many young students enjoy learning together so allowing them to share their friends’ interests is a special time for them to receive social support. Often times these interests come from older siblings or outside the school community.

Last year students in my class were very passionate about JoJo Bows (overly large bright hair bows) and coincidently one day on twitter a teacher from an older grade (Grade 4) in school posted how her students were using their I-time to discover JoJo Bows and then how they were made. After connecting how our classes have a shared interest the Grade 4 students invited students from my class to come and explore together. The students came back with their own bows that the older students help them make and were very proud. Although this was a one-off afternoon inquiry, the students from my class would often describe how it was their favourite time of the year.

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Another group inquiry that has occurred in recent years is the year-long Titanic project a group of 6-8 students were involved with, and all because of the help and support of the talented design/art/innovation teacher. Last year a parent donated three large fridge boxes from her family’s recent move. The students in the class spent an afternoon exploring these boxes and turning them into a pet hotel, a parking garage, a house, a jail and finally the Titanic. They then wanted to test this boat in the school swimming pool to see if it would float. Unfortunately, it did not which led to questions about the holes (hundreds of them) that they made in the boat and how they influenced the sinking. This then led to a student bringing in a book about the Titanic and they realised that the reason it sunk is because of an iceberg, and they believed they could make a better boat that wouldn’t sink. At this time, I understood this inquiry was far beyond my depth of knowledge and experience and sought out help. I spoke to another teacher who immediately jumped on board and helped support this discovery through the design (they tested different wood), made a prototype with lego, explored different types of batteries, communicated with the swimming coaches about a certain time to test their final piece and wrote invitations to community members to observe the final test. This inquiry lasted throughout the year, and the students would meet when they felt motivated and enthusiastic about their exploration. During one month the students’ attentions were focused on something else and the group didn’t meet at all, however a new question would spur new enthusiasm and they came back to the project. In addition, the core group was about 4-5 students, however others would join along the way, or these core students would go and explore other interests during their inquiry time. The project was fluid and authentic, and with the help of a supportive teacher this inquiry was very meaningful.


Whole Class Inquiry

Whole class inquiry is often tricky as the whole class may not have the same interests, passions or questions, so teachers are very lucky when a project comes along from a specific student’s question and evolves into an inquiry for the whole class. A few years ago during Open Play (where all classes in a grade level open their doors for students to play in other classes) a group of students in my class started to create their own hair dresser shop. From these core group of students, other students started to join and created new roles such as receptionist, cashier, massage therapist, and a cafe. We were able to connect it to the Unit of Inquiry (Where We Are In Place and Time) and explored the innovations (one of the lines of inquiry). For more detail of how this was done please see this keynote (Hairdresserjourney)

The whole school was incredibly supportive of this inquiry with the Head of School, teachers, siblings and groups of students from the high school attending. The level of support and willingness to attend and contribute to the whole class inquiry showed the students that their learning was valid and important. This inquiry lasted about 3 months from the beginning to end.

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Student inquiries are made easy when you seek the support of others. Educators are incredibly lucky to be part of school communities where parents, older students, teachers and admin want to be part of inquiries.

Have a personal connection? 

Comment Below!

Looking for more?

Check out this great blog post about inspiring further inquiry:




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