Should I freestyle?

Now you may be thinking, “Is it necessarily one or the other, self-directed or planned?” Well, in my experience this tends to be the case…

I have often started inquiry units with the good intention to allow students space to direct their own learning. However, I would succumb to the need to control what was happening. I believed this was the only way to ensure that learning outcomes would be met. One day I said the obvious in a staff meeting while we were discussing changes to the classroom structure, “Teachers are control freaks.”. This comment went down like a lead balloon! If I did have two left feet they both would have been in my mouth! Of all the teaching beliefs, this is one that we continually dosey-doe around. Is this for fear of sounding like the all controlling teaching? Or the opposite, worse outcome? To be seen as a “push over”? But this is inner battle I see again and again.


I like to know what will happen in my lessons, how I will meet outcomes is important to me so I structure and plan to ensure that what I need to cover will be covered. However, when I have based an inquiry solely on curriculum outcomes I had found it was too structured to allow for student-direction. Many teachers I know, including myself have witnessed the engagement that occurs when students plan and take ownership for their own learning. As educators, we want students to have this  deep engagement but also meet curriculum outcomes. So how do we dance this inquiry dance when one foot is trying to follow the steps and the other is freestyling?

Enter the dance instructor, guided inquiry.

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This model of student-directed inquiry allows educators to meet curriculum needs through a scaffolded release the control to students. Teachers begin by planning with a curriculum outcome in mind, however they allow students to direct their learning within the unit to achieve the desired goal (Edutopia, 2015). Because teachers are not directing each step of the inquiry, guided inquiry engages students in planning and facilitates student ownership and motivation (Manitoba Education and Youth, 2003; Grift, 2009).

Right, so now that you have your inquiry planner out what do you do? How do you start using this model of inquiry? Well here are a few key points to keep in mind, that I have found helpful:

Put the planner/unit of work/ inquiry template away!

Rather than starting with a theme or a topic it is better to start with a concept or a conceptual link (if you are writing an integrated unit). A concept might be a reword of curriculum outcome which better suits your learners whereas a conceptual link differs in that it combines curricula outcomes. For example, these outcomes from the Australian Curriculum;

  • Sudden geological changes and extreme weather events can affect Earth’s surface (ACSSU096)
  • The impact of bushfires or floods on environments and communities, and how people can respond (ACHASSK114)

Could be combined in a conceptual link such as:

Natural disasters are phenomena that effect different places in the world and result in relief efforts.

This conceptual link closely to relates to a focus question, For example:

How can natural disasters affect and change places and how can we respond?

How exciting! Finally, a question! It is so important to take time to plan these two elements in your inquiry. They can often be overlooked at the beginning of a document but they really will frame your unit and create space for student direction. So take your time when forming your conceptual link and focus question. Walk away. Make a cup of tea. Come back and read it again. Is this really what your will be covering?


Via Giphy


Phew! The control freak in me is content. I feel like the curriculum could possibly be covered now.

Don’t be afraid to scaffold students.

Scaffolding is employed by the teachers in a guided inquiry in order to assist students in their individual weaknesses and develop self-direction in students (Gerlach, 2008; Gillard, 2013; Manitoba Education and Youth, 2003; Murdoch, 2014).  The instruction in guided inquiry focuses on the skills required for independent inquiry, rather than just content (Manitoba Education and Youth, 2003; Murdoch, 2014). Do some of your students struggle to search for information? Do some have difficulty taking notes? These are the skills that we should be teaching to allow students to take greater ownership over their learning. Don’t feel pressured to give students answers or hold back on giving them information. Learning is a collaborative endeavor. So learn alongside your students, share with them your insights and listen to theirs. This assistance provided by the teacher allows guided inquiry to cater for a range of student abilities and understandings (FitzGerald, 2015).


Plan how you will check that the students have reached the outcomes set and do this with the students.

It goes without saying if you don’t know how you will assess students your will be chasing your tail (and your students) during a unit when you should be focusing your energy on teaching.  The same goes for your students. If they know how they will be assessed and what they will be assessed on it is clearer to them what they need to do. From the onset of an inquiry students and teachers collaboratively develop assessment criteria. Through inquiry students learn to identify the characteristics of quality work (Manitoba Education and Youth, 2003). When completing an inquiry students should be engaged in self-selected summative tasks, with the opportunity for creativity (McGuigan, 2013). Assessment in student-directed inquiry enables students to demonstrate their achievements to themselves and their teachers in their own way (Grift, 2009).

Developing open assessment tasks is a whole other topic, but one strategy I like is allowing students to complete reflective journaling throughout a unit, this turns a mountain of assessment into a mole hill at the end of each lesson. This method also aids in the ongoing cycle of inquiry allowing it to be driven through student self-reflection (FitzGerald, 2015). Self-reflection is a powerful form of assessment, enabling students to acknowledge their achievements and future goals. It is just as powerful for teachers to also partake in reflection during and post inquiry, developing student outcomes and their practice (Bird, 2014).


Giving students freedom in a guided inquiry model develops their research skills, which they will require to participate as a 21 century learners (FitzGerald, 2015; Yeung, 2009). In guided inquiry students develop the skills to question, be curious, hypothesise and transform information into knowledge (FitzGerald, 2015; Manitoba Education and Youth, 2003).  Many of these skills come out of students being able to formulate their own questions. But how do we make that happen? How do we get students to ask good questions? I’m going to consider that conundrum in my next post in this series.

Boogie on!



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