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Using Inquiry to Engage Grade Nine Geographers!

I have the pleasure of teaching geography to an incredible bunch of teenagers at a high school school outside of Barrie.  In our room we work to create a classroom culture that encourages each learner to feel safe to share their ideas, empowered and engaged.  Each student understands the role that they play in their own learning and that as their teacher I am there to guide them along their learning journey.  

I use inquiry as a tool to engage my students and to foster deep learning.  Beginning on the first day of our grade nine Geography course I start with small activities that get the students to develop their questioning skills.  They use tools such as Q Charts to take basic questions and eventually turn them into deeper inquiry questions.  They soon learn that a good inquiry question is an invitation to investigate further.

Our natural resources unit is done as a guided inquiry and here are the steps I follow:

Step 1: Provide background information on a variety of natural resource issues facing Canadians.  This is done in the form of mini-lessons that leave the students wanting to know more.  Throughout the mini-lessons the students write questions they want to dig deeper into on post it notes and we put them on our side chalkboard.

In the formal inquiry process this is the “Formulating Questions” step.

Step 2:  After all of the mini-lessons are completed, on their own or in small groups students select a deep inquiry question they wish to investigate.  They are given five class periods to investigate the questions and gather information.  As a teacher, this is an amazing step to watch as the students find a variety of ways to gather their information. I often will have students conduct interviews with experts, use web based tools, and some may even travel to do a site visit to a place such as an organic farm.  

In the formal inquiry process these are the “Gather and Organize” and “Interpret and Analyze” steps.

Step 3:  After investigating their questions and gathering good information the students then decide how they would like to share their learning with their peers.  They decide what information they feel their peers should know about their topic and decide a way to best share it.  Examples of some methods students have chosen to share in the past have been videos, interactive models, art pieces, songs, etc.

In the formal inquiry process this is the “Evaluate and Draw Conclusions” step.

Step 4:  Finally, it’s time for them to share with their peers!  We host a sharing day in our classroom where students circulate to each other’s sharing stations and have conversations about their learning.  At one station they may be playing a board game about resource consumption while at the next station they may be listening to a podcast about organic food production.  It is amazing to hear the rich conversations that occur between students on this sharing day and it often leads to even more deep inquiry questions.  In the past I have invited guests from outside of our class in for our sharing day and this provides an authentic audience for the students.

Assessing the inquiry is a process that occurs right from the onset of step one and carries forward until the end of the unit.  It lends itself well to the triangulation of evidence collection in the form of observations, discussions and the final product.  Students can contribute to this process by daily self evaluation logs and teachers can provide feedback throughout the process.


As a teacher I love watching the students have an opportunity to explore their curiosities in this unit.  I am always amazed by what they learn and take from this unit and how I can still see evidence of this learning later in the course.  Students are engaged and enthusiastic during this inquiry unit and often show great pride on their sharing day.  Most importantly the students feel like they are driving their own learning in this unit and aren’t simply in the passenger seat.  I feel the skills they learn during the inquiry such as problem solving, planning and  communicating are invaluable.  

  • Sarah McLeod (SCDSB)


Craig Featherstone · December 11, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Sarah, this sounds like a great unit. Your kids must love the chance to pursue their own questions and I’m sure that tacking natural resources in this way could produce some really great connections. The social justice and environmental implications alone could create some really cool conversations I’m predicting! I especially love how this positions kids to become the innovators in your classroom. Really really nice. Out of curiosity, how do you handle the management side of an inquiry like this? Any tips? What does a mini-lesson look like (in Step 1)? Do you ever find that some students struggle with the openendedness of the unit (particularly in Step 2) and if so, what sort of supports do you put in place to help ensure students are successful? Thanks for sharing this. It really feels like a really great way to introduce inquiry into Geography!

Patrick Miller · December 12, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Hi Sarah. Thanks for sharing the learning you and your students have been uncovering. Student autonomy is a powerful driver for generating learning momentum so students carry on learning after they leave our classes, schools, and systems.
You touched on assessment which is a barrier to some people even beginning with inquiry. I think there is potential to see assessment in inquiry an opportunity rather than a barrier. How can we use inquiry as an opportunity to revisit triangulated assessment and focus on feedback? I am also wondering how the global competencies fit into measuring the impact/success/influence inquiry has on our students’ long-term outcomes? Looking forward to following this journey.

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