EdCuration Blog: Learning in Action

The Case for Inquiry to Address Learning Loss

Feb 6, 2023 4:11:33 PM / by Kristi Hemingway


The recent economic downturn prompted the standard call from my investment advisor, reminding me in a soothing voice that downturns—when greeted with calm, logic and strategy—offer the opportunity for growth. He calls, because even though I cognitively understand “buy low, sell high,” it’s counterintuitive. It doesn’t feel good in my nervous system. The intuitive response when I see my portfolio dropping is to retreat, immediately and quickly. He helps me to breathe into the discomfort and move forward instead, into expansion. 

We’re experiencing the same discomfort as educators looking at declines in recent NAEP scores and pandemic-induced learning loss. We intuitively want to double down on our defaults of control, force feeding content, and drill and kill methods of getting those numbers back up, no matter what. The clench of fear and worry persuades us that there’s no room for freedom and “fluff” right now. But the counterintuitive truth (research here) is that the path forward, the path to expansion, is through inquiry. If we default and retreat out of fear,  we will have missed the enormous opportunity for forward momentum that this recent disruption offers.


What is Inquiry?

Inquiry is a disposition and a pedagogy that strategically uses questions to help students take ownership of their learning, think critically and creatively, and promote collaboration. Inquiry-based strategies essentially capitalize on students’ curiosity.  Dr Daniel Berlin, the late British psychologist, conducted experimental research on curiosity, and he was able to demonstrate unequivocally that when people are curious about something, they learn more and better. Inquiry repurposes the inordinate amount of instructional time spent answering questions that no one has asked, into productive, curiosity-driven learning.

Inquiry is based on what we know about retention, according to neuroscientists. We best retain information that we take an active role in discovering, interpreting, and organizing. Inquiry invites students to generate learning rather than functioning as empty receptors. Not surprisingly, we simply don’t retain information that is received passively. Inquiry also engages emotion by targeting topics and questions that students care about. Emotion plays a dual role in learning, by first increasing our attention to a given topic, and thus heightening focus.  Second, emotions activate  a brain region called the amygdala which alerts our brain that “this is important.” 


Why Focus on Inquiry?

The often cited quote from Einstein warns that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We need different results, so while the “what” of our teaching may be fixed by our curriculum content, shifting the “how” of our teaching–our pedagogy–is the doorway to different results.  

John Hattie, who is an education professor and researcher in Australia has evaluated over 800 studies to determine which instructional decisions make the biggest difference when it comes to learning. Based on his meta-analysis, inquiry has a positive effect size on student learning. Here are three big reasons why:

  1. Inquiry incorporates many of the CASEL competencies for Social Emotional Learning, which students need to learn anyway. This accomplishes much more than simply checking these standards off a list. When we incorporate relationship skills, social awareness,  self-management, etc. into content learning, we are enhancing and accelerating the learning of both. By “chaining” academic content to a positive learning experience and emotions, the content–again–is more memorable. Students build confidence, and stay more invested in the subject matter. Happy, healthy students achieve more.

  2. Cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel Willingham, said, “In free societies, the ability to think critically is viewed as a cornerstone of individual civic engagement and economic success.” Inquiry upholds the tenets of representative democracy. It's not only about helping students uncover and discover ideas, but about helping them to ask their own questions. When people ask questions, they participate in decisions that affect them and this helps them become more informed voters and more civically minded. They will read the fine print, and be more apt to hold leaders accountable. They realize that they are in charge of creating the world they want to see: not a leader, a system or a regime.  If we want our schools to serve as the building blocks of democracy, of civil participatory society, inquiry is essential.

  3. Classrooms grounded in inquiry give students a leg up. They exhibit higher exam scores, greater college acceptance from prestigious universities, and experience fast tracks to global companies. Amazon, Google, and other fortune 500 companies  actively recruit employees with skills in higher order thinking, question asking, problem solving, teamwork and collaboration–skills that are built in inquiry-based classrooms. 


How to Shift to Inquiry

Kimberly Mitchell, the founder of Inquiry Partners, has identified the following  five behaviors that help root classrooms in Inquiry.

  1. Get Personal: Prioritize activities that create emotional bonds in all directions—teacher to student, student to student, student to school community, and classroom to families.

  2. Stay Curious: Act as shoulder-to-shoulder learners with students, by asking authentic questions (meaning questions for which you don’t yet have an answer).

  3. Ask More/Talk Less: Relinquish the airwaves, giving students voice and choice in every aspect of the classroom, including assessment.

  4. Encourage Evidence:  Examine everything with the questions, “How do we know? Why do we think that? How did we come to that conclusion or opinion?”

  5. Extend Thinking Time: Don’t answer your own questions!  Allow time to write, think, pair, share, and process ideas with multiple thinking modalities, including discussions and reflection time.
Kimberly Mitchell and Inquiry Partners flesh out all of these strategies, making them explicit and actionable through their website, online courses, the Inquiry Five School Bundle and Kimberly’s book Experience Inquiry

I facilitated the transition to inquiry-based learning in my classroom a number of years ago. Three things happened. 
  • First, my classroom got very active and very loud. To the naked eye, my classroom management had dissolved. My administrator was concerned until she listened more closely to the noise—of rich, text-based conversations.

  • Second, students reported that they loved coming to class and loved the books we were reading. They’d never said that before, and they were the same books I’d been teaching for years.

  • And third, they read more, their reading levels improved and their test scores went up. Everyone cheered. The students cheered the loudest because their voices had been set free.

Consider this your soothing phone call. In the face of learning loss and falling test scores, don’t retreat. Expand into inquiry.



Topics: SEL, Learning Loss

Kristi Hemingway

Written by Kristi Hemingway

Kristi is a lifelong educator, published author, national award winning journalist and a writing/literacy teacher and consultant. After working with international and European schools, as well as the US, Canadian, and British militaries, she managed programming for a large Arts and Humanities non-profit. Most recently Kristi worked for a curriculum company as a literacy consultant, instructional coach, and professional developer prior to joining EdCuration in 2019.

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