Engaging Learners with Authentic Inquiry

Engagement. You know the scene; the entire class is actively involved in their learning. There’s a quiet buzz going on all around. Children are chatting to each other, conversations are focused discussing ideas, plans, strategies. There is movement around the room, with tools and equipment being independently gathered, heads are together, collaboration is seen all around. You know that you’ve nailed it when the busyness of learning is their business!

But…..and there’s definitely a but, how do we keep this going across the curriculum? Is it too idealistic? Time consuming? Can we cover all standards this way? Can we really trust the kids to run with this? How do we, as the teacher, fit it in?

This post isn’t about what engagement looks like in your classroom but rather  about how to initiate and maintain the engagement within authentic inquiry focused learning. Engagement is so much more than just keeping the children busy with activities to complete. Far more than simply looking busy, it is when the students are actively involved in all parts of the lesson – from pre-assessing themselves to delivering their summative assessment and most parts in between. There is a sense of real life to the lesson together with active participation. And so, in response to those questions above, I have a few answers that will help with planning, implementing and fitting it all in smoothly. 


If you would like more information on engaging learners through inquiry based teaching, I’d highly recommend the following books. My school used Harvey Daniels’ & Stephanie Harvey’s book, “Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action”,  a few years ago for our Professional Development study and I learned a whole lot about keeping the kiddos engaged. “Teach Like A Pirate” by Dave Burgess, I read a few summers ago and loved its very useable content.

A great DVD for professional development, with ideas to implement inquiry.


Filled with amazing ideas to immediately use in your classroom.
This book is a great resource for focusing on building engagement in your class.

You can click on the pictures for a link to the books on Amazon.


Planning An Authentic and Engaging Inquiry

When planning my inquiry based lessons, I have 4 main points that I try to factor in. Three out of four are almost always included in every lesson that I plan and in any order.  Each point is a crucial part of creating engagement and makes for an authentic inquiry.

  1. Ownership
  2. Accountability
  3. Cooperation
  4. Content


Really, it’s a powerful thing. When we feel that we hold a stake in something, the value of it increases. Value alone will hold a child’s attention. If it’s important to them, then they will try to give their best.  I like to drive ownership with the children by giving them a voice in their learning and a stage to present their voice.

With a backwards plan when thinking through my lessons, often times I will give answers to the children and then have them research or figure out how the answers came about, where they came from, what the questions could be, what they lead on to. This of course, naturally leads to further questions and inquiries from the children, thus deepening the learning and making it more child centred. It has become their inquiry.

Decision making gives the children a voice in their own learning. This can be independent decisions for their own task or as part of a group decision with a collaborative task. A partial checklist is a great way to allow the children to add their own plans to what you have included for expectations. Example: 4 things could be listed to do by the teacher and the children would add an additional 1-3 items to the list, depending on the child and the task.

Integrating measure: volume, area & perimeter with 3d geometry.


Group roles are another great way to build ownership:

Keeping the kids involved in the action. Planning our 2d global village using area and perimeter, before BUILDING our3D village designs.

the messenger, the materials manager, the group leader, the time keeper and so on. These roles can be rotated and rehearsed with every group that is created, thus reinforcing the ATL skills ( Approaches to Learning Skills) that are always going on. You can link to another blog post all about developing those skills here. 


Self assessment promotes ownership & accountability.

Self Assessment is another reflective tool that gives the children a sense of ownership with their task in hand. Most of my inquiry based maths resources included a pre-assessment that involves the children thinking about what they are already knowledgeable about and asking them to reflect on their level. Is it green- confident?, yellow-somewhat proficient? or red- I need help? Formative assessments throughout units of inquiry can be completed by the kids and they themselves can keep track of their progress. Those are a great addition to end of the unit reflections too, comparing progress.


Ownership is naturally followed with the responsibility that comes with it-accountability.  Accountability can be shown and developed in several ways.

By setting goals, both individual and group goals, the children have set themselves a commitment to follow through. I like to have these goals verbally stated either to myself with a one-to-one mini conference or posted in the classroom, right under little noses. They act like a plan of action or a check list that the children can visually and mentally check off as they work through their task or their day.

With group goals, the very act of discussing, planning and committing to the group leads to accountability, when there is more than only one person relying on you. There is also a great feeling of accomplishment when goals are met. For goals that are not met, it presents a fabulous moment for self-reflection ( often in our reflection journals) and planning and setting new goals. You can take a look at this resource which contains graphic organisers/templates for planning, goal setting and reflecting with any unit of inquiry. IB PYP Portfolio, Goal Setting and Reflection Pack. 

Having a deadline for a task makes it very clear to the children that there is a timeline and an expectation. A great, free tool is  Online-Stopwatch.com  that 

you can simply set up on your Smart Board. With many timer options for showing the countdown, it’s fun, also engaging 🙂  and kids especially love the time bomb! Your role in this is to stick to your guns with the expectations, thus building the sense of commitment and accountability. If children fail with this, that’s great! Allow them to fail, so that they can learn better time management, delegation and all the other social and self management skills that are necessary for developing their accountability.

Contract of Integrity & Commitment

Signing an Agreement is always thought to be really cool with my kids. I think they like to practise their signatures more than anything. But regardless, I stress that it is an agreement made between us that clearly states the expectations and role that they will play throughout the inquiry. You can make this as fancy as you wish. You can see my example below, from my inquiry based math project, If the World Were A Village. This focuses on human rights, global awareness and number & measure, as the children will plan, design and build a global village based on informational text.


This is a crucial social skill that needs to be developed for so many reasons both in school and out. In the classroom, it can look as simple as allowing kids to help one another or having kids act as instructional models, giving them the opportunity to show what they know to the others, sharing their examples and strategies. This not only builds self esteem in the presenters but can also act as the carrot at the end of the stick for others who strive to present. The teacher can so easily differentiate this by having the children instruct on something that they are strong with.

Independent Group Selection is when the children will pick who they will work with. This can be effective as long as you are explicit with expectations. In other words: must be mixed with boys and girls, work with someone you haven’t worked with for a while, no more than 4 in a group etc.

Conversation Bingo Board

Using tools to enable discussions and engagement with one another helps to keep the synergy going and avoids confrontation, hierarchy issues and stale conversations. I created  conversation bingo boards which you can download here for free. These are simple to have in each group and the children simply take turns to select a conversation starter/sentence stem and cross them off, as they work. Easy to print, laminate and stick a few at each table group.


This is the meat of the sandwich. Engage with content and you have your audience’ attention.

Keep it interesting and authentic. Make it feel like the children have a task to do, a role to play, a purpose to their learning.

Clear instructions & expectations ensure that the kiddos have a clear understanding of what it is they are doing and why they are doing it. Without this, there is a tendency to lose your audience. Think about how many times you’ve been in a staff meeting and the content is boring at best, the speaker is preaching to the choir and all you can think about is did you take the chicken out to defrost before leaving for work. Or perhaps that’s just me! Lol!  But you get the gist; kids minds wander just as easily. 🙂

Mix it up: direct instruction vs. independent tasks vs. group work. Guided practise is helpful for collecting data on the level of mastery of the content you’re covering and for reviewing skills that need to be reviewed prior to releasing responsibility to the children. But allowing gradual release, with differentiated resources, for independent work and collaborative group work keeps the children actively involved with everything aforementioned – ownership, accountability, cooperation and of course, the content.

By implementing the points above, I have found that my kids are more often that not, thoroughly engaged in the activities and learning that goes on in my room.  I  ABSOLUTLEY love being a classroom teacher and there is nothing more rewarding for me than seeing the busy buzz of children speaking, listening, researching, cooperating and above all being an active and occupied part of their own education.

Please stay in touch. I’m always open to your comments, your own ideas and questions. You can keep up to date with new IB PYP resources as they become published by following me here  or find me on INSTAGRAM @pypteachingtools.

Til next time,


50% Complete

Be sure to subscribe to PYPteachingtools.com for practical strategies, hands on ideas and classroom ready tools for your inquiry-based classroom.