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Teaching for Inquiry in a Distance Learning Environment

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by Sunday Cummins

Chances are we will do some virtual teaching this next year and, as many of us learned last spring, creating engaging distance-learning experiences can be difficult. District-mandates dictating content may have served to hamper our ability to capture students’ interests as well. How can we use the wisdom we gained this last spring to create a learning environment where more students thrive? One thought is to give our students more control of what and how they learn; in other words, we need to nurture student inquiry.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to teach this way (or only limited opportunities), this might feel like an inspiring idea or a daunting one. What’s critical at this point, as you consider the possibilities, is thinking about how we can set our students up to succeed in this endeavor.

How can we host experiences that spark interest and lead to questions worthy of inquiry? How can we give students a sense of the types of questions they might ask? How can we help them navigate the plethora of resources that are “out there” many of which are geared towards more sophisticated readers? Here are a few suggestions.


  1. Provide sets of already-vetted sources on high interest topics.
    Building sets of accessible sources that are related in some way and providing opportunities for students to read-view-listen to and think critically about those sources can be a powerful learning experience. By asking simple questions like, “What can I add to my learning?” students begin to see patterns in the information they are learning, and they begin to recognize how information from a previous source is useful in understanding the next source. Through discussion of the multiple authors’ accuracy, authority and choices regarding reader-friendly layout and design, students can also get a better sense of what makes one source qualitatively better than another. These are important experiences they can tap as they begin to search for and make sense of sources on self-selected topics.

    As an example of “already-vetted sources on high interest topics,” I’ve created a Padlet with multiple sets of sources on high-interest topics like robot nurses, driverless cars, sport climbing. At the bottom of each set, you’ll find a cheat sheet I’ve created for you that highlights how each source overlaps with the others. This might be helpful as you confer with students or read their responses regarding what they noticed and learned.


  1. Plan for opportunities to just explore and ask questions.
    Sometimes we feel the need to “teach” with every single source our students read. We spend time teaching lots of strategies for making meaning, but we don’t necessarily provide time for students to browse, to look through multiple sources, to read or listen to some and not others, all while pondering the question, “What am I curious about that makes me want to do more research?” Students more easily engage in asking questions for inquiry if they have some prior knowledge on the topic. This is also an opportunity to provide “umbrella topics” related to content-area standards or other district-mandates.


  1. Brainstorm and list topics and/or questions together.
    Encourage students to generate a list of hot topics and questions with you as a scribe and use this opportunity to help students shape questions that are worthy of inquiry. When students pose simple questions like, “How many races has this driver won?” you can suggest additional higher-level questions like “How do drivers learn to race?” and “How does perseverance play a role in becoming a winning race car driver?” This kind of shared-thinking experience can be done with content-area umbrella topics, too.



  1. Provide mini-lessons and conferences that focus on thinking across sources.
    Just because students are reading-viewing-listening to multiple sources on a topic does not mean they are thinking across those sources. They may read each source in a silo, without thinking about what they have learned in other sources. If students begin thinking about inquiry with sets of sources you have created, use this as an opportunity to teach students to ask, “What did I just add to my learning?” Choose two sources that have complementary (or even contrasting details). Project excerpts from each and demonstrate what this looks like. Use language that has generative value like, “I just noticed that this author includes the same facts as the first author but she also added the fact that…” When you confer with students (during Zoom or TEAMS conferences), ask questions to push their thinking like, “What information did you add to your learning when you read the second source on this topic?” or “What would you have missed learning from this source if you had only looked at the first source?”

• • •

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Sunday Cummins is the author of Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking, and Writing Across Content-Area Sources. Learn more about this title at Heinemann.com. 

Download a Chapter of Nurturing Informed Thinking

Listen to our conversation with Sunday Cummins where she talks about how students need to be able to ask questions and then actively seek out answers by reading, listening or viewing multiple sources.
Listen to the Nurturing Informed Thinking Podcast


Sunday Cummins, a former classroom teacher and literacy coach, is the author of numerous professional books including Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking, and Writing Across Content-Area Resources. She has a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and taught at National Louis University. As a literacy consultant, she continues to teach and learn alongside educators with a focus on reading, writing, and creating informational sources. Sunday is a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University and also served as Literacy Education Professor at National Louis University. You can learn more about her current work through her blog at Sunday-Cummins.com.



Topics: Nurturing Informed Thinking, Sunday Cummins, Covid_19, Remote Learning

Date Published: 08/26/20

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