I is for Inquiry: Author Q&A
I is for Inquiry: Author Q&A
PUBLISHED: Wednesday, August 12, 2020 by Andilynn Feddeler

I is for Inquiry takes a unique approach to helping teachers in the elementary grades create lessons and sustain inquiry in their classrooms. Learn more about this colorful, illustrated alphabet book and the inquiry concepts inside in this interview with the authors.

Q: How did you decide to write I is for Inquiry? Who is the ideal audience?

A: We have been working together as university researchers for several decades, but we all began our careers as classroom teachers. A large part of our research was also in classrooms in close collaboration with teachers, and we have devoted considerable time to teacher education and inservice professional development. We are strongly devoted to inquiry as a highly worthy activity for children and adults, and as the pedagogical approach of choice for the present and future. Countries, states, and provinces that champion inquiry-based curriculum and instruction do better, for example, in international comparisons of educational achievement.

We also know that starting inquiry-based instruction strikes fear into the hearts of some amazing educators. Yet these teachers are already doing some or many things that fall into the realm of inquiry-based teaching. There are already a number of wonderful books and videos showing inquiry classes in action. These examples, while inspiring, can also be daunting. “Fantastic, but I could never do that!” But we can. That is why we chose to work with smaller “bites.” Inquiry needs to start with the youngest students.

That is how we came to the idea of a book that places inquiry in a format that elementary teachers and school leaders can use in small chunks, and in a format that is fun in itself—so many topics have illustrated alphabet books!—and can even be shared directly with students. The core audience is the classroom teacher at the elementary level. The book or selected topics can also be shared with parents who might worry that inquiry is a distraction from core learning. The terms we have emphasized (e.g., dialogue, evidence, listening, questioning) are important learning skills that everyone, including teachers of other grade levels, can support. The strategies we support with advice and examples enhance core skills of literacy and numeracy, but they go even further.

One can think about our 26 inquiry elements, each briefly presented with how-to suggestions and a rationale for its importance, as building blocks. Each is valuable separately, but they come together in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Q: Why is inquiry so important in elementary curriculum? 

A: Inquiry is important in elementary curriculum because, like reading, writing, mathematics, and other core subjects, it is not just about content. It is a set of processes that stick and grow. For example, the earlier a child learns to read and to enjoy reading, the sooner reading becomes a foundation for further growth of literacy—not just the skill of doing it, but valuing written communication, finding and creating beauty in its use, and becoming independent in using reading to enrich one’s life. The same applies to inquiry. The educational literature is clear that the impact of high-quality elementary education is immense. The outcomes are not just knowledge or skills, but motivational, aesthetic, and social as well. They last a lifetime. Taking turns, listening actively, using evidence to support assertions, sharing results with others, asking good questions, and valuing contributions made by others are foundational skills and dispositions that are rarely conveyed as well as they can be in elementary school. All are closely integrated with literacy and numeracy. These inquiry skills and dispositions become tools for satisfying and expanding curiosity and creativity. Learners are not merely sponges who observe and absorb knowledge, but they get excited to learn more and confidently know how to pursue that learning independently and collaboratively with others who can bring complementary contributions to the adventure. Inquiry is not the exclusive domain of professional researchers. Elementary schools are its fertile soil. An inquiry-based elementary curriculum fuels a creative, inquisitive, motivated community of learners that includes the teacher and can extend to the home and beyond.

Q: What is the role of the illustrations in the book? How were they developed?

A: Our illustrations serve several purposes. They are fun and capture attention! They convey action and active learning, but inquiry is more than active learning alone because it includes internalized motivation, curiosity, and empowerment to explore interests and be a knowledge creator and sharer, not just consumer. The illustrations also identify the essential message of each short chapter. The cover illustration, for example, does not present any one of the figures as a teacher—students ultimately lead inquiry as a self-directed joint activity and ideas flow. In “F is for Facilitating,” we show learners and teachers (the division between them blurs a bit in inquiry) helping each other. In “J is for Juxtaposing,” we hint at a jigsaw puzzle and trying to match the pieces as part of making ideas clear. In “N is for Negotiating,” there is a pie on the table; how much does each person get? A pie example also appears in the text.

The illustrations can also be used to initiate dialogue with students about the concept. Why is there a pie on the table, and what does that have to do with negotiating? Why is negotiating an important skill to learn? What are the possible outcomes of what you see in this picture? What questions does this picture make you think of?

We developed the illustrations in an extended dialogue about what each letter-chapter was about and what elements should be especially highlighted. We also explicitly considered what color should be emphasized in each, and we varied them from letter to letter.

Q: How can the concepts in this book be adapted for at-home or distance learning?

A: Parents overseeing homework, homeschooling, or educating their children during any extended time away from school can use these ideas. Not all of the ideas will be as easily adaptable, but collaboration and sharing can be done electronically. Key ideas such as using children’s questions as springboards for exploration, listening, the importance of evidence, and the division of talk time (we need more for the learners, less for the adults!) can all enhance home or distance learning. If the reader is a designer of online instruction, this book provides accessible and straightforward ways to avoid falling into the trap of presenting memorizable content.

An important premise for the content of our book, one that applies equally to teachers and any other users, is that it does not have to be implemented all at once. Start with one of the 26 ideas. Weave in another. Then continue over time. Inquiry was not built in a day—neither was Rome. Each element is progress toward a 21st-century curriculum. Look through the chapters to see if some of these are already happening, but check if there are any new ideas that might appeal to you.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

A: First, a suggestion: Please do look at several or all of the online examples that we have found for every chapter. For your convenience, all the links are on the I is for Inquiry Resources page. When you later go back to specific chapters, have another look at the web examples. This will help bring the ideas in this book to life, and make each easier to be a “takeaway.”

Of course, we hope our readers will come to own up to 26 ways of building inquiry in their classrooms and for their pupils. We also hope the bite-size approach will be a positive and friendly invitation to create amazing learning environments. By “owning” we mean more than having the knowledge or skill. As we explain in the chapter “O is for Owning,” ownership also comes with strong feelings of pride and responsibility, just as inquiry does overall.

We also hope that our book is professionally respectful of our readers! We know some of these elements are not new to every teacher. We brought these inquiry building blocks together to help guide and reinforce inquiry in learning and teaching. We want our readers to feel affirmed and confident that they are up-to-date professionals creating a valuable and impactful learning experience for their pupils. The takeaway is therefore partly a set of knowledge and skills. This is the easy part because it is an “open book” experience—just keep the book on your desk and look anytime! Feel free to add your own ideas to the margins! The other part of the takeaway is how our reader identifies as a professional. Certainly, you may say, “I am a teacher.” We would like to extend that to “I am an inquiry-oriented teacher of inquiry-driven learners.”

Bruce M. Shore, Ph.D., Mark W. Aulls, Ed.D., Diana Tabatabai, Ph.D., and Juss Kaur Magon, D.Phil., have more than a century of combined experience as teachers, administrators, teacher educators, writers, supervisors, and researchers in inquiry-based teaching and learning, reading, mathematics, science, technology, and gifted education. They have worked in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, from primary grades to postdoctoral supervision, and as international workshop leaders and consultants.