Building a Culture of Inquiry from the Ground Up

Apr 05, 2016 By Urvi Shah, Director of Educational Technology and Innovation, Independent Girls School, Maryland

How do we encourage innovation and innovative thinking in the classroom?

Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, explains that innovation is defining a problem and borrowing ideas/inspiration from what’s already been done in order to create new combinations of thoughts and ideas to address that problem. Innovative thinking is not concerned with having uniquely new ideas but is instead about combining existing knowledge from seemingly unrelated ideas/topics to produce a solution. 

Traditional lecture, rote memorization, or regurgitation of information in classes do not provide students with a playground to think deeply, analyze, or simply ponder things they have learned. Through a variety of case studies and examples, Berger argues that classes where students ask questions open creativity and thus innovation.

As educators, we understand this; however, how exactly do we create a classroom environment that allows for deep inquiry to elicit innovative thinking?

Let’s imagine each of our students own a one acre by one acre plot of soil. If half of your class was given seeds, a set amount of water, fertilizer, and confined areas in which to grow their crops, we might develop similar plots of land. If the other half of your class was encouraged to shop for their own seeds, fertilizer, and provide water as they saw fit, they would cultivate unique gardens within a higher range of experiences. Using this analogy, we can think of our classrooms as an opportunity to create inquisitive, innovative thinkers by encouraging students to investigate and make their own decisions.

In order to apply this idea to the classroom, here are five steps to developing an inquiry-based approach to learning that will lead to innovative thinking:

1. Question-storming

Brainstorming ideas and solutions is great, but how do students know what they don’t know? In order for students to realize their knowledge gaps and unleash their curiosity, we must encourage sessions in class (at the beginning, during, and end of a unit or topic of study) where students can question-storm freely. This is simply an opportunity for students to write down any and all questions that come to their minds about the topic of study. To further develop students’ ability to ask questions, teachers can ask them to “open” closed questions and “close” open questions. For example, a student might ask the closed question “were the Wright brothers the first to develop a functioning airplane?” which can be transformed to the open question “why was there a perception that the Wright brothers were not the first in flight?” By encouraging question-storming throughout the topic of study, students can refine and further add to their questions as they gain knowledge of the topic.

2.  Problem Defining

Throughout the question-storming period, students should be asked to choose a question they would like to investigate. Developing, defining, and tweaking their problem (question) also will allow them to “sit” with the problem and have it percolate in their minds. Berger describes the idea of “sitting with” a problem to help the mind connect ideas from unrelated topics. This break in deliberate thinking allows the mind to explore ideas without any limit or formative assessment.

3.  Independent Research and Idea Generation

Google allows its employees to use 20 percent of their work time on their own independent projects and research. Some important and innovative Google products such as Gmail were the result of that designated time. By using this as a model in the classroom, what would happen if we allocated a small chunk of time in class or for homework that propelled students to investigate their problem/question? We often see that when students develop their own problem for study they feel empowered and innately interested in learning more about it. This independent research and idea generation time could lead to greater inquiry on the topic.

4.  Conferencing and sharing

Berger argues that once questions and ideas are generated individually, it is helpful to share them amongst others in order to gain feedback and further develop them. This can be hard in the classroom as students often have the mindset to keep their work private for fear of having it stolen. A practical way of sharing these ideas would be to provide each student with wall space in the classroom to post their question/problem and initial ideas. Their peers can then add ideas or feedback using post it notes with their name attached. This negates any fear of plagiarism and encourages collaboration and discussion. Initially, this might be uncomfortable for some students; however, it can be used as a teaching moment on how to provide feedback, ask deep questions, and contribute to their peers’ work.

5.  Development

One potentially inspiring way to close the unit of study would be for students to develop a solution to their problem/question. This could be an open-ended task such as a written paper or model, etc. Part of this process should be that students ask more questions about the ideas they have developed around their problem/question. As a result, students are asking deep and big questions about their own work, process, and their resulting ideas.

An example of organic questioning which led to innovating thinking and inquiry based learning...

I was teaching grade 6 math and science in 2010, when the BP oil spill crisis occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. A student asked me to explain what happened and how it had occurred; after some research, I presented my class with a brief overview of the crisis (which of course had nothing to do with the unit we were currently studying in class). The students took great interest in the crisis and asked question after question until my entire 60 minute period was gone. I was so encouraged by their curiosity that I developed an independent research project for the students around the crisis. Their end goal was to design their own solution to stopping the spread and flow of the oil. Students were tasked with asking questions, defining the real life problem, and researching both the science of the oil rig/spill and what current solutions existed. Lastly, students were asked to create a diagram and written description of their solution to demonstrate what they had learned. The students took great ownership and pride in their work; independent of my instructions, some of my students approached family members with engineering backgrounds to gain feedback on their ideas, built to scale models of their solution, and requested to present their findings to their fellow middle school students in assembly. The solutions that students came up with were at the core of innovative thinking. Their process was a combination of deep questioning and borrowing of pre-existing ideas that led them to their own innovative solutions. We sent all innovative solutions to BP and the students came away from the experience feeling that not only had they learned something about the world but also had contributed to finding a solution to a problem (i.e. making it a better place).

The basic principles of the five steps outlined above can be used in any teaching situation both inside and outside the classroom. The oil spill example was an organic teaching moment that lent itself to inquiry-based learning; however, the same can be accomplished during extra-curricular clubs and activities in order to foster a culture of inquiry and innovation. For example, my colleagues run a film festival club, and students develop, frame, produce, and edit a short film. The entire process is student led, beginning with students framing their movie as a question and the teacher facilitating their progress with further questions to elicit deep thought.

A globally recognized example of extra-curricular inquiry-based learning is the FIRST LEGO League challenge. The program requires students to produce an innovative project where they create their own questions or problem statements, investigate, research, design, and share their ideas with members of the community. Students are in charge of their learning and are naturally and continuously asking questions that they themselves answer. FIRST further enhances this process by encouraging mentors to facilitate students’ work by asking them deep and meaningful open and closed questions. This tangible and executable example of an extra-curricular learning experience can guide teachers to better create a culture of inquiry and innovation.

As an educator, I understand the limits and pressures of time and resources in the classroom; however, I believe it’s up to the teaching community to be innovative and inquiry-driven in our approach in order to create a culture of inquiry in our classrooms. Although each of our classes, subject areas and units are different, we can encourage questioning and combining new ideas in any class and within any topic. How might we take each unique learning experience and better allow students to grow their creativity and curiosity through questioning and inquiry? 

Urvi Shah is the Director of Educational Technology and Innovation at an independent girls school in Maryland. Read Urvi’s bio.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

Back to Blog

Add new comment