Personalized Learning Using the Types of Student Inquiry

Trevor MacKenzie

Trevor MacKenzie is an award winning English teacher, Instructional Coach (focusing on inquiry and technology), and graduate student from Victoria, BC, Canada who believes that it is a magical time to be an educator.


When adopting a more personalized approach to learning I encourage colleagues to use the Types of Student Inquiry as a guide to support our learners through the transition from the traditional classroom models they have experienced to one where they have more agency over their learning.

I define the Structured Inquiry stage as “Students follow the lead of the teacher as the entire class engages in one inquiry together.”

My goals during this stage include:

  • to have students reflect on how a unit can begin with an essential question
  • to have students reflect on how the design of a unit should scaffold towards a strong summative assessment through aiming for a desired result, showing evidence as we work towards this goal, and have a clear and strong learning plan from the onset of the unit.
  • to have students reflect on my role as teacher in the room and question whether I am merely teaching content or if I am more a coach of understanding.
  • as students will eventually plan their Free Inquiry unit towards the end of our year (after they have gone through the previous Inquiry stages), I hope that they’ll reflect on the design of our unit so as to prepare them for this time when it comes.

Taking the Right Steps

There are a number of critically important steps during this initial unit that I must ensure the class is grasping.  Throughout the first few weeks I am constantly checking for understanding and gauging whether the class requires more time to unpack the concepts I am outlining.

Whether it is understanding and creating essential questions, the UbD framework, selecting and grappling with our resource, or how learning evidence scaffolds towards our performance task, this first unit acts as the foundation for our future inquiry stages.

If there is a misstep now it will create a ripple effect later therefore I take my time, I check for understanding multiple times and in multiple ways, and I talk with my learners.  So much can be gained from just having a conversation together.

I am a big fan of UbD so it should come as no surprise that I begin this unit by breaking down Understanding By Design with the group.  In order to help students grasp how the unit has been strongly planned to ensure a sound grasp of the essential question is obtained and, therefore, a successful performance task is achieved, we unpack UbD and apply the framework to several scenarios to ensure understanding.

I encourage you to further investigate UbD assess how it can impact your learners. Try applying the framework to something you have planned in the past. Ask yourself if it makes sense and scaffolds well for your students. I am confident you’ll discover that UbD provides a strong structure that can be applied to any essential question, discipline, or goal.

When I first adopted inquiry I didn’t start from scratch. I didn’t leave behind everything I had done or created throughout my career. I took a unit that I loved, one I had tweaked and revised several times, and one that had proven to be highly engaging and meaningful for my learners.  Consider doing the same as you’ll find that adopting inquiry at the Structured Stage can be a simple matter of restructuring what you already do and adding a few details to ensure student success.

Student Inquiry

Restructuring an English Unit

In my English classes I take a unit that I’ve taught many times before, typically a novel study, and I break down the unit from our end goals backwards to the essential question we are currently discussing.

A good example is evident in my English 12 course.  Here I begin this process in our first unit of study in the course, a literary analysis of Jon Krakauer’s tragic nonfiction account of Chris McCandless’ life and death, Into the Wild.

A few years back I restructured this unit, one I had taught for several years, to reflect the UbD framework in the structured stage of inquiry, one that begins with a driving question and supports looking at multiple sources of information in order to assess content and answer our inquiry. I chose the topics (essential questions), I identified the resources students would use to answer their essential questions, I selected the learning evidence we would utilize, and I designed the performance task.

Starting with a structured inquiry allows me several opportunities to better meet the needs of my learners both in the current unit and the rest of the course.  First, in this example I provided the class with five strong essential questions that they could chose from.  These essential questions are ones I have designed and I am certain they are strong and that they will synthesize with our text, Into the Wild.

Starting with Essential Questions

Giving a few options of essential questions to choose from allows students a level of voice and choice and further balances the control of learning in the room.  I know these questions will lend well to rich discussions, connections with the world around us, and a boatload of secondary sources that I have gathered.

We spend some time unpacking each of the questions and how they are products of the essential questions lessons we had done earlier in the course.  I focus on providing clarity for the class during this process as we will refer to these questions later in the course when students begin to develop and use their own essential questions. Their understanding of essential questions created during this time will be the foundation for their work in the other stages of inquiry for the coming months of the course.

I post these essential questions in our class so we can refer to them during discussions, connect with them when reading the text and analyzing quotes, and use them to help synthesize with current events.  These essential questions are everywhere throughout this structured inquiry unit and eventually they will act as the writing prompt for our performance task, a literary analysis essay.

Tailoring Secondary Sources

Second, this structured inquiry approach provides me the ability to tailor the secondary sources in advance of the research stage of the unit because I have the essential questions from the onset.

Poems, short stories, essays, quotes, documentaries, whatever I know will broaden the students’ understanding of their driving question, I collect and prepare to introduce throughout the unit. Now we all know that a well-prepared teacher is an effective teacher, but the advanced preparation is only one benefit. By having the resources at hand ready to use I can then guide my students through the demands of the research process and how they can go about locating resources to help them answer their essential question.  This process will be one that they will revisit throughout the year and eventually have to navigate on their own, with me as a facilitator and supporter, during the Free Inquiry stage towards the end of the year.

We unpack where they can go to help broaden their understanding of their essential question. We spend a considerable amount of time on where to find information.  We collaborate with our teacher librarian who walks us through several online databases and resources available in our library.  We also cover how to navigate the library itself and where students can find hard resources in our own school.

Demonstrating Importance

And third, starting with a structured inquiry approach allows me to demonstrate how what we are doing each day is guiding us to a strong performance task. This piece is critical for students to grasp. As we travel through the stages of inquiry learners will be given more and more agency over their learning.

With that control comes the responsibility of designing a unit of study that scaffolds towards their performance task.  As learners gain more freedom in their inquiry they will being to personalize their performance task more and more.  They will need to identify what learning evidence best supports their performance task and what self-assessment techniques will be utilized to reflect and ensure understanding is happening.

By beginning our year with this structured inquiry I am able to touch down on more than just what we are doing but why it is beneficial and how it is meaningful.  Doing so now will pay off later.





0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Victoria Larsen
Victoria Larsen
5 years ago

Hello Trevor,
Would you be so kind to tell me the date that this blog post was published? I would like to reference some of your thoughts on structured inquiry in a paper that I am writing for a university class.
Much appreciated!