Strategies to Build an Inquiry Driven Community

Kacey Molloy, Rianne Anderson, Kirtida Kale and Shikha Rathore
3 min read

Inquiry holds a special place in every PYP school! To be truly inquiry-driven, a learning community must constantly investigate, reflect and take action to improve their teaching and learning practices. In this blog, two schools share how they achieved their goal to build an inquiry-driven community – within and beyond their classroom walls. Dive into their strategies to get insights on how they approached this challenge and take-away ideas and tools to begin your inquiry journey!

Crossroads International School (CIS) is the first IB school in Udaipur, India. Over the last few months, our teaching team has been gearing towards the IB authorisation visit. While gearing up for a consultant visit, we identified inquiry-based learning as one of our key growth areas. And that’s where our journey into strengthening this practice began. To ensure that our community has a shared understanding of inquiry, we focused on creating opportunities for collaboration and deepening our understanding of inquiry in the PYP. We also looked for ways to make our thinking visible and used Sketchnoting and Visible Thinking Routines to help teachers and students. By sharing our journey, we hope to provide ideas and inspiration to any new school starting on this exciting journey.

Click on the tiles to explore each strategy

Building a Shared Understanding of Inquiry
The first step we took was to relook and question our already existing inquiry practices. We went into a research mode as we looked for ‘best practices’ and strategies that would help us develop inquiry based learning in our school. We invited guest speakers to help us understand what inquiry looks like, sounds like and feels like. We partnered with Pathways World School, Aravali that helped our teaching team understand what inquiry in the online setting could look like. Doing short PDs from the PYP playlist helped us immensely as we connected the theory to our already existing practices which scaffolded the in-depth understanding of inquiry. Our team spent an afternoon reflecting on Inquiry by Fire, an honest conversation between three stellar inquiry educators, Trevor Mackenzie, Kath Murdoch, and Kimberly Mitchell as they talked about the challenges and opportunities that come along with online schooling. A lot of prep was already underway even before the deep dive as our teachers attended the Toddle’s TIES (The Inquiry Educators Summit) held in May 2020. Teachers began giving more importance to personal inquiries as they planned time for Genius Fridays, and more peer teaching opportunities. They started to release control and plan more collaboratively along with their team members and students. We now see our teachers tying up loose ends and planning robust inquiry engagements while keeping student interest and passions alive.

Connecting the inquiry cycle we follow at CIS (Kath Murdoch) with the ‘Inquiry Approach’ as outlined in the PYP Playlist

Takeaways from the virtual teacher exchange with PWS, Aravali using the VTR, ‘What, So What, Now What?’
Sketchnoting as a strategy has some real benefits, which include metacognition and social emotional management. It is a self-differentiation strategy with a low threshold, high ceiling and wide walls that allows the learner to make their own connections and construct meaning. Sketchnoting helps develop many Approaches to Learning (ATL) implicitly and explicitly. As somebody who takes great interest in sketchnoting, I took the opportunity to introduce this strategy to our students, who took to it like fish to water. Teachers saw a drastic change in the kind of connections students were making and allowed them a deeper insight into their learners’ thinking and learning. Students who found it difficult to put their thoughts into writing or speaking, picked up pencils, colours and sketchpens to doodle their reflections with ease. This practice was well loved by teachers who then took it into their own classrooms and chose to tweak it to suit their context. And, all of these lead to more metacognition and reflection even in our youngest learners. Sketchnoting is now a go to strategy at CIS that always promotes robust learner engagement, deep thinking and reflection. We love looking at these beautiful, creative and original student work pieces.

So how did we know it was a huge success? When most of our students exercised their agency and created sketchnotes to showcase their learning during the virtual ‘Three Way Conference’. Many of them managed to keep it a ‘secret’ despite learning from home, to surprise their parents as they presented these during the conference. We watched our students become thinkers and balanced as this strategy helped them regulate their emotions during these unprecedented pandemic times.

Manu sketched the different plants that are used to create his favourite dish under the TD theme, Sharing the Planet

Unnati’s sketchnote of her timeline under the TD theme, Where We Are in Place and Time.
Visible Thinking Routines
Making Thinking Visible is a culture and a stance our school chose to take. As a Montessori school before becoming a candidate school, we valued thinking to navigate student learning. We started using routines that were familiar and easier to implement such as See-Think-Wonder, Colour Symbol Image etc. With more research and using different thinking routines during staff PDs, we became more and more adept at identifying the kind of thinking moves we want to see our students make. As we started using these VTRs to assess student learning, our teaching became more responsive. Most of our teachers and students are now trying to use the language of thinking and making deeper connections. There has been a significant change in the way they choose to communicate their understanding. A huge success for us was when our Hindi Language Specialist, Ms Meenakshi started translating some of the routines into Hindi and now uses them extensively in her classroom. Even at staff PDs, we use visible thinking routines to drive teacher thinking and enculturation of these dispositions. We have successfully used VTRs during Parent Induction programs to help them gain an insight into some of the practices we have adopted, to develop powerful thinkers and learners. These routines helped us and our learners to connect all those floating dots of information to affirm and extend our learning to form a big picture.

Students making their thinking visible using the translated versions of the thinking routines सोचो, पहेली भुजो, ढूंढो (Think-Puzzle-Explore) and जोड़ो, बढ़ो, तोड़ो (Connect-Extend-Challenge)

These practices have largely been responsible for a drastic change in the way teachers and students think and learn. They have made online learning a little more tolerant as we managed to use them efficiently to increase learner interest and engagement. We do not consider ourselves experts in Inquiry or making thinking visible, but we are developing our own understanding bit by bit. It has been a fairly long journey that we undertook when we decided to commit to the Primary Years Program pedagogy and philosophy. As lifelong learners, we know we have a long way to go and these practices will stay with us as we move toward focusing on learner autonomy and self efficacy.

The International Community School of Addis Ababa (ICS) is an IB World School, offering the Primary Years Program and the Diploma Program. Over the past few years, our school community has focused heavily on improving its practices through the implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). We believe in the power of inquiry and have found structures to support a more rigorous implementation of this method to meet the unique needs of our school.

There can, however, be challenges associated with effectively implementing this model. Over time, one of our biggest challenges was the struggle to understand how to allow for agency in an inquiry-based classroom while still ensuring our learners experienced rigour that pushed them to deeper levels of learning. Our teachers also grappled with how to allow for personalized inquiry in a standards-based school. We continued to think about how we could follow students’ questions and interests while also being held to expectations around specific learning outcomes. These challenges have led us to implement strategies that have contributed to our overall effectiveness. We have found three significant strategies that have improved our program: the PLC process for responding to our unique learners, collaborative planning retreats to project units, and the use of a digital mind map to guide and document the learning journey. We hope to connect with you through our journey to inspire your own thinking.

Click on the tiles to explore each strategy

PLC Process
We follow the DuFour PLC model at ICS in asking and answering the four critical questions:
  1. What do we want students to know, understand, and be able to do?
  2. How will we know that they know it?
  3. What will we do if some students are not learning (the learning identified in Question 1)?
  4. What will we do if they already know/understand/can do it?
Our first year implementing this model, many in our team struggled to see how the PLC could connect with the PYP and inquiry. The main tenet of the PLC model is the utilization of data to inform instruction. We grappled with how an inquiry approach could fit into a data-driven model. In wrestling with this, however, we came to realize that data is more than numbers; data is the evidence collected every day by teachers and students that demonstrate where children are in their learning. This realization was a critical turning point in our understanding of how these two models fit together. We now strongly believe that not only does the PLC model support inquiry; it also helps to provide deeper and more rigorous inquiry experiences for students.

One of the boxes on the PYP planner is “Learning Goals and Success Criteria”. Prior to our realization detailed above, we struggled to understand how this box differed from the lines of inquiry, ATLs, and other bits of information detailed in a unit. PLC Question 1 helped us focus on what we want our students to know, understand and be able to do. This helped us really zoom in on the concepts (both key and related) that are critical to units and get clear as educators about the goals of the unit. In the past, we found that inquiries tended to go off in all directions, resulting in more shallow learning as educators and students were unclear about expectations. This is not to say we don’t value voice and choice; in fact, agency is a core belief of our school and we believe in providing a personalized approach to learning. The PLC model has provided more intentionality around this voice and choice.

As we came to understand the power of answering PLC Question 1 (What do we want students to know, understand, and be able to do?), we still found ourselves struggling with understanding how to use the four critical questions to guide us in supporting students through a learning model (inquiry) that sometimes felt was less quantifiable. This is where PLC Question 2 (How will we know that they know it?) came in. We realized that we collectively lacked understanding around the importance of assessment tools. We wanted to ensure our students had agency in how to demonstrate their learning, but in doing so we often lacked a consistent tool that could help us measure growth. Taking time to frame discussions around answering this question helps us determine which evidencing tool we will use throughout the unit to gauge students’ conceptual understanding, regardless of the way in which students choose to demonstrate their learning.

Using PLC Questions 1 and 2 to frame our thinking and discussions before units begin was powerful to see unfold; holding us back though was the challenge of finding the time to fully engage in these important discussions. This led us to designing another important practice: collaborative planning retreats.

Sample PLC Question 1 document
Collaborative Planning Retreats
We believe in the power of time and space to thoroughly and thoughtfully outline PLC Questions 1 and 2 (focused on learning goals and success criteria), and to support rich learning opportunities for our students. We have provided this time and space through the implementation of collaborative planning retreats. These retreats allow us to gain clarity on learning goals across all educators involved in the unit of inquiry (homeroom teachers, single subject teachers, educational assistants, learning support, etc). These half day retreats happen a few weeks before a new unit begins. Using what we know about our learners, we design units of inquiry that are meaningful and are open to student voice and choice. At the same time, we ensure these units are robust and include clear learning objectives. Our retreats consist of unpacking unit details, making necessary changes that reflect previous years’ reflections, taking into account the unique group of learners entering into the inquiry, and projecting for potential contexts that may arise. The use of Toddle helps guide us through this process. We realize that it’s hard for educators to be out of the classroom, however, this dedicated collaboration time provides opportunity for educators to project powerful inquiry experiences for our students.

Collaboration is a core belief of ICS. Our planning retreats have been instrumental in ensuring we come to a consistent understanding of the unit across the teaching team. The time we spend together has been invaluable in helping improve our collaboration to implement stronger units. Taking time to identify diverse contexts through which to explore conceptual understandings has had a positive impact on student understanding. In grade 4, for example, a unit under Sharing the Planet seeks to help students understand the connection between limited resources and peace and conflict. During the planning retreat, we identified contexts around the world that would connect with students and expose them to this understanding in new ways, such as access to water in Ethiopia, the perspectives of various countries regarding the Nile River, as well as how the COVID vaccination is distributed around the world. Identifying contexts for guided inquiries, while also planning for opening the unit up to allow learners to explore these concepts through contexts of their choosing, has provided rigour through an agentic, inquiry-based approach. After implementing these retreats, we found they provided a solid base; however, we struggled with how to document and respond to the many different inquiries students were taking as the unit continued. This struggle led us to seek out a tool that could guide us while also documenting the journey.
Mind Mapping the Inquiry Learning Journey
Figuring out how to follow individual or group inquiries was a challenge, and we also struggled with documentation. We knew we needed to find a tool to support us, which eventually led us to explore how a mind-mapping approach might help. We found mind mapping helpful during our collaborative planning to keep us focused on answering PLC Questions 3 and 4 (What will we do if some students are not learning?; What will we do if they already know/understand/can do it?). Mind mapping has helped us move away from a list of disconnected learning engagements, that before tended to stay static year after year, to an approach more responsive to our learners. We use the mind map to document student questions, misconceptions, evidence of learning, and student interests. This approach has also allowed us to connect across subjects in meaningful ways.

Sample mind map created with the program Coggle

Our journey of implementing the PLC process through a PYP framework is surely not complete, but we have made many steps in the journey. We have learned from experts and practitioners along the way as we have improved our effectiveness as inquiry facilitators. Toddle has been instrumental in supporting our collaboration both within our school and in connecting us with the greater community. It is through these collaborative networks that we can continue to grow. We hope that by sharing our journey, we are able to assist others on their paths.

Wondering how you can create a culture of inquiry in your school community? Here is an observation tool that will help you identify actions taken by learners, teachers and the learning community in an inquiry-based classroom.

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Kacey Molloy
Kacey Molloy
Kacey Molloy is a PYP Coordinator at the International Community School of Addis Ababa (ICS) in Ethiopia. Originally from Montana, Kacey joined ICS in 2016 after having served as an elementary teacher in the American International School of Dhaka, Bangladesh for 5 years, and before that as a Peace Corps volunteer in what is now North Macedonia. She is passionate about working alongside colleagues to implement a constructivist, student-centered program. Outside of school you can find Kacey singing, studying in pursuit of a doctorate degree, and enjoying time with her family.
Rianne Anderson
Rianne Anderson
Rianne Anderson is a PYP Coordinator at the International Community School of Addis Ababa (ICS) in Ethiopia. Before joining ICS in 2015, Rianne and her family lived in Colorado where she worked as an elementary teacher and PYP coordinator. Rianne enjoys working collaboratively with staff to ensure that students thrive and learn at high levels using an inquiry approach. Outside of school you can find Rianne spending time with her husband and children. As a family they love to travel and create memories in new places.
Kirtida Kale
Kirtida Kale
Kirtida is the PYP Coordinator at Crossroads International School, India. She has been a PYP practitioner for over 9 years and considers herself as a lifelong learner with a passion for all things inquiry, Making Thinking Visible and sketchnoting.
Shikha Rathore
Shikha Rathore
Shikha is the Principal at Crossroads International School. She has been a passionate educator for over 12 years and strongly believes that 'Children are smarter than they are given credit for'. She also believes collaboration takes our learning to another level, and is always looking to create meaningful opportunities for teachers and students to engage in collaborative learning.
Disclaimer - This resource has been produced independently of and not endorsed by the IB. Toddle’s resources seek to encourage sharing of perspectives and innovative ideas for classroom teaching & learning. They are not intended to be replacements for official IB guides and publications. Views and opinions expressed by the authors of these resources are personal and should not be construed as official guidance by the IB. Please seek assistance from your school’s IB coordinator and/or refer to official IB documents before implementing ideas and strategies shared within these resources in your classroom.