Lose the Breadth, Keep the Depth: How to Make Learning Meaningful with Inquiry-Based Lessons

You'll find a step-by-step process to make learning meaningful with inquiry-based lessons. The pandemic taught us many things we don't need to forget--an important lesson is to lose the breadth but keep the depth in our curriculum. Scroll through to find out how to grab the free inquiry-based templates that you can use in your classroom right away!

Inquiry-based lessons have been around for a while. But hear me out–I think they’re the key to making learning meaningful for our post-pandemic students.

When we were going through all of the quarantining and hybrid learning that Covid brought, I remember the anxiety the most. Change was happening so quickly. We had to twist, turn, bend, and sometimes break at a moment’s notice. I was beyond concerned for the well-being of my colleagues and myself. I remember thinking, “This is it. It’s our chance–finally. If we don’t make lasting changes, then this is all for nothing.”

As we’ve slowly been returning to the status quo, I have to keep reminding myself of that. We endured too much and learned too much to just go backward.

But our students–they learned a lot, too. They learned that deadlines don’t matter. They learned that they can get credit for doing the bare minimum. They forgot how to be students.

This is a systemic problem. How do we get them back–engage them, make them care–in a post-pandemic world?

They’ve seen the man behind the curtain and the illusion of education as a magical path to success has lost its power. How do we bring that back without returning to some, frankly, outdated practices? (I discuss some of these in my Teaching Gen Z series.)

For the next few weeks, my posts will be part of a series called Reclaiming Education–What to Lose and What to Keep After the Pandemic. As we recover from the huge disruption in education that the pandemic brought, it’s important to remember that if we try to revert to the way things were, we’ll be leaving our students behind. I’ll be offering practical solutions to help re-engage our students. Along with these solutions, I’ll be adding resources to my Free Resource Library that you can edit and use in your classroom. You can get access to the Library by signing up for my email list.

Lose the Breadth

One takeaway for teachers during the pandemic was the realization that if we don’t get to everything, it’s okay. In most of our subjects, the curriculum is unrealistic. The educational standards have set us up to fail. That sounds harsh, but it’s accurate.

The standards are an ideal. They’re what students should know by the end of the school year in a perfect world. But we don’t teach in a perfect world. We teach in a world where students have varying backgrounds and ability levels. We teach in a world where people get sick and family emergencies happen. We live in a world of assemblies, pep rallies, and testing schedules.
The curriculum as it stands sets us up for failure.

If we cover everything, then that’s all that we have time to do–cover. Covering is not exploring. It doesn’t allow room for creativity, research, or curiosity. Covering is not learning.

Most importantly, covering will not engage our students. The pandemic revealed the game of school and most of our students are done playing. They don’t see the point. Learning has to be meaningful for them because the game is over and they must see the point if we want an educated citizenry.

Keep the Depth

Become an expert on the standards for your course. Collaborate with other teachers and look for creative ways to pare them down. Turn the ones you want to focus most on into engaging questions (this is not easy but well worth the time), and use an inquiry-based approach to teaching.

There are multiple models for inquiry-based lessons, but one of the biggest benefits is the potential it has to engage students. A really good question can spark curiosity and drive research. If students are engaged, depth of learning is more likely to occur.

Let’s walk through a process I’ve used to make a lesson inquiry-based.

The following standard is for world history in the Georgia Standards of Excellence:

SSWH16 Analyze the rise of nationalism and worldwide imperialism.
a. Compare and contrast the rise of the nation-state in Germany under Otto von Bismarck and Japan during the Meiji Restoration.
b. Assess imperialism in Africa and Asia, include: the influence of geography and natural resources.
c. Examine anti-imperial resistance, include: Opium Wars, Boxer Rebellion, and the Indian Revolt of 1857.

One way to approach this is to create a slideshow for each of the topics, deliver the content to your students, and have them take notes. You could also assign a reading and have students take notes. That can provide a valuable overview, but it will only cover the topic unless you use it as a launching point for deeper study.

Here’s an example of questions I came up with using this standard. These questions are designed to be thought-provoking and to guide research:

  1. How would the world be different if nationalism didn’t rise?
  2. How can primary sources help us to understand the rise of the nation-state in Germany under Otto von Bismarck?
  3. How can primary sources help us to understand the rise of the nation-state in Japan during the Meiji Restoration?
  4. How did imperialism shape the way Africa developed?
  5. How did imperialism shape the way Asia developed?
  6. How would Africa and Asia be different if the Industrial Revolution never happened?
  7. If social values were similar to those of today, would worldwide imperialism have occurred in the 19th century?
  8. How does 19th-century anti-imperial resistance compare to Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion in 2022?
  9. How did the Opium Wars between Britain and China serve as a cautionary tale for Japan?
  10. How did the Boxer Rebellion demonstrate China’s changing role in the global economy?
  11. If the British considered the values and norms of the people of India, could the Indian Revolt of 1857 have been avoided?

Grab these inquiry-based lessons from my Free Resource Library when you sign up for my email list!

These 11 questions will drive student research. You can allow students to select a driving question or put them in small groups and assign each group a question. Provide students with access to school databases, such as Galileo and Gale, and links to sites such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

Students can decide how they would like to present their findings to the class. They can create a film, a podcast, a slideshow, a website, a display, etc. As students are presenting, have the class fill out this QuickWrite Template for each presentation in order to process, reflect, and engage. A valuable assessment would be a Socratic Seminar.

Be sure to grab these editable templates from my Free Resource Library (sign up for my email list to get access):

  1. Inquiry-Based Project
  2. Inquiry-Based QuickWrite
  3. Socratic Seminar Template

Be sure to come back in two weeks for more in the series Reclaiming Education–What to Lose and What to Keep After the Pandemic.

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