Studnet tuning in to a new topic using a gallery walk.

I always love the first week or two of teaching a Unit of Inquiry. There is lots of excitement in the air as students are full of questions, having their thinking and ideas provoked and challenged, and exploring new ideas and materials and this unit was no different. The “Tuning In” part of the inquiry cycle is so important as it allows us to recognize, unpack and record prior knowledge, challenge their ideas with some new thoughts about their own thinking and behaviour, and record questions to refine later on to drive inquiry. When working with Kath Murdoch a couple of years ago she talked about how you should spend at least two weeks in this stage to ground students in their new Unit of Inquiry. It has the feeling of jumping off a diving board into something new. Students can be unsure of new things but that is ok, everyone is as we start to decide the direction of the unit together. 


Students looking at a model to begin thinking about a unit.

Creating an activity that provokes the students’ thoughts before they are introduced to the topic of study is always a fun way to get the ball rolling and this can range from field trips to mystery boxes, to guest speakers to a simple gallery walk of images. Even a video can be a good way to spark student thinking and have them share their ideas and predictions. Any way that you choose in your classroom should spark ideas without giving away the focus of the unit. Think of it as a good hook to a book.

I remember at a previous job we had to do big provocations to really get the students excited and we worked hard as a team of ten along with our coordinators and single-subject teachers. One unit that we had about the solar system had all the homeroom teachers presenting a dance about the solar system to our 220 students. This was a bit over the top but it certainly got their attention and started them thinking. Since then I have toned it down a lot. This year I did a couple of fun ones where we sat in a circle and passed around a “black box”. (Our unit was about the brain and inside it was a model of the brain.) The excitement built very quickly as they gave evidence for their predictions and when the big reveal came the class was very delighted to learn more. They were full of questions already and the unit had barely started.

Students decided to weigh all the garbage, conveniently beginning a measuring unit.

For my current unit that I am using for my final project, the students had to bring in a plastic bag and keep all the garbage they generated during the school day. They carried them around at recess and keep everything in it from orange peels to used paper towels. The questions and discussion after started the learning in a positive way and the class began to give some direction about what they want to learn.  I guess deciding on a provocation is all about building a buzz.

Unpacking Central Idea

I always spend at least a day or two unpacking our Central Idea to ensure the students understand the key vocabulary, make predictions on what they think the unit will be about, begin to formulate questions and work together to construct knowledge. We start by looking at the Central Idea together a document such as this and then as groups, they research definitions, look up keywords using Etymology online, and draw and write any questions or predictions they have about the unit, we share this and post it around the classroom for each student to look at. This will help them in the following lessons to think about questions connected to our Central Idea and Lines of Inquiry. I started Structured Word Inquiry with the students at the beginning of the year so they are used to using online resources to find out the meanings of the words, finding the roots, and any new suffixes to add to our word wall.  

Student model of our Central Idea with explanation

I love having the students make things in the class and they really appreciate the creative time. To develop multi-sensory learning in the class I give them a bag of simple materials (sticky notes, toothpicks, tape, paper clips, a cup, whatever) and ask them to build a model of the Central Idea. This helps some of the abstract ideas become more concrete. I do this for every Unit of Inquiry so the students are quite independent during this task. They build some great models of what they think the Central-Idea represents. Usually, they create more literal interpretations but that needs to happen before it can start moving towards the abstract and interpretive. After reflecting on why they chose to build the model the way they did in an online learning journal post their understanding of the Central Idea is usually pretty solidified.  

Using the Community

Tuning into through a field trip to garbage facility.

Schedule permitting, I always like to arrange a field trip or guest speaker during the tuning in part of a unit in the first week or two. It allows students to see real-world connections to topics and concepts and gives them another opportunity to recognize that learning can take place in the world around us outside the classroom. Some examples of this include going to the park to sketch and look at how organisms are connected, bringing geologists in to look at rock samples, having the librarian/writer talk to them about poetry or visiting a museum for a traditional tour. For my current unit, I took the class to the waste and recycling facility. Yokohama burns its garbage and it was fascinating for the class to see how it is processed. They came back with a ton of questions about the new unit and were excited to learn more. Field trips are a great way to get students to start thinking about a topic. 

Thinking routines

Connect, Extend, Challenge (Wonder) Thinking Routing.

Using a Visible Thinking Routine such as Connect/Extend/Challenge is always a nice way to get the class to show their ideas and put the class on the path to a student-driven inquiry.  I usually use this routine at the beginning of each unit to help students make connections, think about what they want to learn about that is related to the topic, and then ask a question. We sort these on a board that will be added to throughout the unit.  In my current unit after completing this thinking routine, a Padlet helped them to categorize their questions. The students extended their questions by sorting them into the four Lines of Inquiry and we will use these as we progress throughout the unit.

Sorting questions into Lines of Inquiry using Padlet

For my current unit, I also experimented with Hexagonal thinking when unpacking some essential vocabulary. This was my first time trying this type of visible thinking and the students and I really enjoyed it. It also helped me to understand what they already thought about a topic and how they justified their connections. This activity has the added benefit of allowing students to see different perspectives when new groups rearrange and justify their arrangements. This display will also continue to stay up throughout the unit to be edited and rearranged as we move into the next stage of the inquiry cycle, finding out. Visible thinking routines are an effective way to build displays in the classroom that show what you value the most, student thinking.

Next steps. 

That about wraps up what I do in the first 1-2 weeks of a Unit of Inquiry. I think that it is really important to take time (even up to two weeks), in the beginning, to ensure that your class is excited about the topic, has a good grasp of the vocabulary in the Central Idea, and are brimming with questions. All of the activities I have described above help you to pre-assess student understanding of the Central Idea. More importantly, it is a jumping-off point for students to begin driving their own inquiry by creating questions. My students are very excited about waste now and have thoughtful questions to guide their inquiries in the future weeks. Next week we will begin research activities as we move from one part of the cycle into the next. Find out in the next post!