This past week I learned how crucial the role of the teacher is in the inquiry classroom. In fact, during the course of the week, I came to see that an inquiry teacher has at least five roles to play in this exciting, sometimes frustrating, and always unpredictable process.

My English class is currently in the midst of learning about modern-day slavery. While we’re engaged in inquiry learning, I find we need to talk more as a class. The discussion is different from the traditional classroom in that I don’t talk at my students; instead, they carry most of the discussion, and I interject occasionally.

Monday’s class we spent discussing different ideas for videos and images my students would like to create around the issue of slavery.  The discussion was thoughtful and infused with creativity and excitement.

During these conversations, I find my role tends to be one of asking questions.  The questions of the day were what specifically do we want to make videos and images of, and how is this going to happen?  One of the main things we needed to decide is task assignments. Who is working on what?

The suggestion was made that we should work on the video as an entire group. Part of me thought, “not a good idea.”  I asked, “Why do you think it would be a good idea to do it that way?” Well, we’ll have more suggestions. And the more suggestions there are, the better it will be.

Maybe. But I’ve been on enough committees to know that’s not always the case. While more ideas might add to creativity, it can also increase the possibility for conflict.

Offering my experience, as the lead learner in my classroom, is the second role I often play. While I’ll always leave the final decision up to my students, I caution them with what I think the problems might be. My students, simply because of age, and at times inexperience, can’t always understand or predict all the consequences of possible decisions. And that’s when I offer my voice. At the same time, once they’ve decided, I also won’t stop them from doing something that likely won’t work. That’s part of the learning process.

They chose the whole-group approach. At the conclusion of the class, spirits were high.  One of my students asked, “Can I go home and google some of this stuff to get ideas?” Music to a teacher’s ears.

Then I was sick for the next two days.


I figured my students would be fine. I was wrong.

From what I can piece together, the next two days were a frustrating mess. Because my students decided to work as an entire group, their effort at collaboration eventually devolved into a bickering debate, with 20 minutes spent arguing over whether the chains should go on the actor’s wrists or ankles. Essentially, the video work ground to a halt.

The inquiry teacher functions a lot like the body’s spine.  You tend to take it for granted, until there’s a problem.  It imposes limits at times and is responsible for support and structure. And while I may not speak nearly as much as my students do, I know the key moments when and where my students need support and structure.

Had I been there, I would have had my students address the issue of working within such a large group.  Was it going all right? What could we do differently? What might we do instead?

The morning I returned I was greeted with, “You’re back! I’m so glad you’re here! English did not go well.” Throughout the day, during conversations with my students, I began to piece together the events of the past two days. Many were frustrated.  I calmly assured them, “We’ll fix it. Don’t worry.”


It’s an emotional process

Finally, during English class, we sat in circle and I asked where we were at. Silence. Some students were tired from doing all of the talking, others from the bickering of the past couple days. Others refused to be part of the video project because they were weary with all the fighting.

So I suggested that working on the video as an entire class might be the issue. They agreed. So we split into two groups; one group  worked on images, the other worked on the video production.

The group working on photographs went off on their own, and I sat with the video group and tried to talk them through the process. What was the video going to be about? Had they storyboarded every scene? They did, it had six frames.  Not quite good enough. What were they going to use for props? Where was their location? Who was acting in it?

This was one of the most painful conversations we’ve had in awhile. I reminded one of my students that we had conversations like this during our work on the Holocaust Museum too; it wasn’t the end of the world.  She thought for a moment. “Oh, yeah.”  My fourth role is to remind my students that we’ve done big things before that didn’t seem to be going well, but we keep pressing on.

But the morale of the class was so low that it was palpable. Even the photograph group wasn’t functioning well.  The class was quiet and unenthusiastic. The past couple days had taken their toll. As much as inquiry is a process about skill and content development, it’s also an emotional process. This is probably the most important thing for an inquiry teacher to realize, or the emotions involved may usurp your best intentions.


My scaffolding role

This is where Carol Kuhlthau’s research & Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development come in. As Kuhlthau researched the process of inquiry learning, she realized that there are specific emotions attached to each stage.  For a majority of the inquiry learning experience, students tend to vacillate from feelings of joy & excitement to feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, confused and doubting the entire process.  With this knowledge, teachers can intervene at crucial moments to help students acknowledge what is going on and grow from the experience. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development posits that by scaffolding specific experiences, teachers can assist students to do with help what they cannot do alone.

This is the fifth role I play. I need to be keenly aware, at all times, of the emotional climate of my classroom, and intervene at key moments, so that my students can do with help, what they cannot do alone. As a teacher, it’s also an emotional process. At the end of class, the voice inside my head was shrieking, “This process is a mistake! This is a mistake! Cut and run!” But part of being the lead learner in my classroom is ignoring this voice and going on in spite of it.


Breaking through

On the drive home, I thought about the dilemma we had. And my mind wandered back to some of the very first ideas we came up with. The prevalent idea was that they wanted the video to be simple enough that the message really stood out. For some reason, the Common Craft videos popped into my head and I realized that might be the solution.

Friday morning, I talked briefly about the situation we were in and that I might have a possible solution. I played a Common Craft video.

The result?  My students loved it and immediately saw the possibilities. They began talking about different videos that could be created and how it provided a lot more flexibility than anything else we had discussed. The videos can be worked on in smaller groups of three people, allowing everyone in the class to be actively engaged in a project that matters to them. The videos are simple and short — the two characteristics that were important to my students to begin with. And all the issues that existed with our other options disappeared.

Sometimes the role of the inquiry teacher is to help re-direct the process, to bring to the table ideas students don’t have the experience to think of, and, at times, help the process of learning and creating get back on track.

While some might believe a teacher should not interfere in the inquiry process, allowing the students to always figure it out on their own, I disagree. I think that can be a recipe for disaster. My students couldn’t have figured this out. Not because they’re not smart enough, they are. But their emotions had taken over and it’s hard for students to get past that. As a teacher, my role is to model what it looks like to regroup after things have fallen apart, especially when the emotions around the process feel terrible.

Tomorrow is a new week, and I’m excited to see what happens. One thing I know about inquiry learning is that it’s hard to predict what is going to happen. An inquiry teacher has to come to terms with that.

Photo courtesy of Marissa Mellor

About the author
Shelley Wright is a teacher and education blogger living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in Canada. She teaches high school English, science and technology and works with other teachers interested in connected, inquiry-driven learning. Her passion is social justice and helping her students make the world a better place. She blogs at Wright’s Room. Follow her on Twitter at @wrightsroom.