How to embed genuine inquiry in the IB curriculum

Inquiry is something that sets the International Baccalaureate apart, but what does it really mean when it comes to curriculum planning? One IB senior leader explains

Jennifer Fortet

Enquiry in the IB curriculum

You’ve done it, you’ve planned the unit. You’ve got at least six weeks of lessons lined up, the resources are on standby and the trip is booked. Time to sit back, relax and give yourself a pat on the back for being so organised.

This is how I like to work. At least it was, until I started teaching in an IB school. So what changed?

During the early part of my IB career, I started to hear the word "inquiry" a lot. I started to use the word inquiry a lot. But were my students actually inquiring? No. I wasn’t facilitating the opportunity and the learning was too teacher-led.

I have had to take a step back, research what true inquiry is and how this can be realistically and authentically facilitated in the classroom. 

Shared ownership

So what does inquiry-based learning actually mean? I have taken it to reflect the opportunities for children to take more ownership of their learning and follow their own curiosities.

It is easy to see how this is far more engaging than being told what your learning objective is and how to achieve it. The difficulty, however, is how to achieve this when, in reality, objectives do need to be delivered.

Below are a few easy tweaks to make that will boost engagement and facilitate better outcomes as a result. 

1. Trigger the curiosity

The starting point has to be more exciting than "What do you want to know about…?" The shrugs and "I dunno" responses will crush the topic before you’ve even started.

The inspiring hook is the key element here and can take many forms: a news clip, a trip, a (virtual) guest speaker, a problem, an opinion, a (fake) letter, etc. As with anything, the level of enthusiasm from the teacher here will make or break any of these suggestions.

As a staff, we read Teach Like a Pirate last year and the main takeaway for us was that engagement and the teacher’s passion (which can also be faked) are essential in inspiring curiosity. 

2. Question and review

‘Ask questions’ sounds too obvious, right? But it’s the very essence of inquiring. The very definition of inquire is to ask for information, to put a question, to seek information or to investigate.

While the IB starts with a line of inquiry to be investigated, it is easy to forget to pause the learning journey and reflect on what has been learned and what still needs to be discovered.

Asking questions that relate back to the inquiry and continuously revisiting the original idea will help to reframe thinking, generate further ideas and keep learning on track.

A simple "What do we now know, what do we still want to find out," at more regular intervals is a great starting point.  Asking the children what they would like to investigate or how they might do it is also so powerful in creating student agency. 

3. Take a step back from planning every aspect

I find this the most difficult because it can seem easier to manage the workload in advance. However, I do see how planning every aspect of the unit allows little freedom and opportunity for students to generate their own ideas, let alone begin to actually investigate them.

To strike a balance here between feeling prepared and facilitating child-led learning, knowing the end goal of the unit is paramount. Ask yourself why the unit is being taught, what skills do you want the children to develop and what knowledge and understanding do you want them to acquire.

Being clearer on the purpose can help guide pupils to a goal without micromanaging smaller objectives that lose sight of the bigger picture. Keeping the learning a little more fluid can also help move away from a worksheet and evidence culture and reflect a more natural process of having ideas, thinking, asking questions, investigating and evaluating. 

4. Make connections

Finally, we want the children to make better connections. It is often easy to make token links to other subject areas but these can be tenuous.

It will be interesting this year to have specialist teachers come to class bubbles. It may be easier for teachers to see what children are learning and make more authentic connections with children remaining in one environment.

Displays will reflect one class’ learning and the unit can be represented as a learning journey for that specific group. It seems like the perfect opportunity for bubbles to get really stuck into an inquiry, working as a group to collaborate and find the answers to questions that they pose. 

 A lasting impact

Inquiring really is a skill that we need learners to develop and the impact on results can be quite significant in terms of immediate outcomes, but also where lifelong learner attributes are concerned.

If this article has prompted you to ask the question "Do my students really inquire?", then you’re on the way to starting your own inquiry and I wish you every success. 

Jennifer Fortet is deputy head at the British International School of New York 

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Jennifer Fortet

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