Updated: Mar 16, 2020
by Mary Borobia Walls
Students spend something like 13,000 hours of their young lives in K-12 education. What is the point of all of that time spent unless something comes of it, unless they are better human beings for it with the capacity to better the world and their communities?
Developing life-long learners who are intrinsically motivated to wonder, make, tinker, research, problem solve, create, and take action is complex work but well worth the behind the scenes planning. One tool to help develop this level of learner agency is An Action-Driven Inquiry Cycle. The action-driven inquiry process closely connects to the research in the National Academies Press publication How People Learn (the NAP website offers a free PDF download of this text).
The cycle begins with KNOWLEDGE. Having students think about what they think they already know about a given topic or concept taps into their background experiences and learning. Human beings cannot learn new concepts without a bridge from whatever has already been experienced. If a teacher does not ask students about what they already know and have experienced, how will she know how to build appropriate bridges for the human learners in her classroom? What often happens as well is that experts in the room emerge. I am always fascinated by how much background experiences students have about so many topics that I would never have anticipated! You will never know if you don't ask.
Next in the cycle is QUESTIONS. This is where students can delve into their own curiosities and wonders they have about the new learning. These student-generated questions have the potential to drive the next steps in learning, leading to shared or independent research, investigations, and other actions.
Once you have a line of questioning, then students LEARN through new experiences, new materials, texts, videos, interviews, experiments, or whatever context makes sense for the content being explored.
With new learning, then comes a new line of QUESTIONS. Students get a chance to question the validity of what was learned, the credibility of their sources, as well as delve into new curiosities that have been sparked.
At any stage in this cycle a learner can take ACTION. It is important, however, for each learner to reflect on when is it best to take action. For example, you can take action based on your prior knowledge, but what if that knowledge is misconception? Wouldn't it be better to take action after questioning what you think you know? Better yet, stop and learn from others before taking action. And even better yet, question what you have learned from others because there may be false understanding there too. The main idea here is that the more inquiry and understanding, the more informed an action can be. And that is something from which our entire world could benefit. The power of action that is based on deep learning, questioning, and reflection personally gives me hope for what human beings can do to better the world.
This Action-Driven Inquiry Cycle has been used in K-12 classrooms as well as for adult learning. The process works well with any discipline or context. The richness of the inquiry and actions that emerge depend on the topic chosen. It is best when the topic is accessible from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. Here's an example of what I mean. A third grade team of teachers I was supporting ran an inquiry on "The Gold Rush." The teachers were very disappointed because students were not very curious about this topic and had no drive to take actions. They went back to the drawing board and brought the topic of "Wealth" to their students instead. With this simple switch, the inquiry was immensely more meaningful, engaging, and sparked meaningful actions that mattered to the students. With adults, I consistently use this cycle to guide professional learning. It is a great needs assessment and self reflection tool for educations as they learn new approaches and understandings.
Here's access to a folder with a PDF of the cycle and a template that serves as a nice starting point.
Here's a little history behind the development of this cycle. When I was first introduced the the "KWL" chart as a middle school teacher, I was in love. But once put into practice in an actual classroom with actual students, I soon had a whole bunch of 2/3 filled out KWL charts. We'd start them with gusto, then peter out in the end. A colleague of mine, Jarred Shell, figured the flaw was that learning was the goal with a clear stopping point. That is not authentic learning! We don't learn something (if it is truly relevant to us), say that was good to learn, then shelve it. In response, he developed the "KQLQ", or know, question, learn, question. In this model, students' learning inspires new lines of inquiry and therefore more learning. I adopted this in my own classroom, later as an instructional coach & mentor, and as a director of a CA Math Science Partnership grant.
My work with International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program schools in Ontario, California pushed me to innovate this model further. It became a cycle rather than a linear process, and each stage of the cycle became an opportunity to reflect and to take action.