Nudging toward Inquiry. What Do You Want the Students to Learn?

“Nudging toward Inquiry” offers practical strategies for amping up your instructional practice. This year, we’re fielding questions about inquiry-oriented practice and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

My district is pushing us to teach differently to meet CCSS. I want to learn how to do inquiry more instinctually. Say a teacher wants her kids to research the Nile River. Each will have a part of the river to cover. The students will write an essay and share their discoveries. How can this be converted into a good inquiry project?

The teacher’s project involves informational writing and presenting. But what will they be writing and sharing? How can we know with confidence that students are going beyond “word moving” (McKenzie 1996) and engaging purposefully with information? How can we make sure that they are synthesizing and evaluating, which are also essential CCSS skills? Consider the following suggestions.


Don’t assume that teachers want low-level projects. Few do! Ask, “What do you want students to learn?” If the answer is, “I want them to understand the relationship between the water and the people,” convert the response into an inquiry question like, “How did water impact the way communities developed along this portion of the Nile?” “I want them to learn how to use an index” might be better suited to a mini-lesson. “I want them to learn public speaking” fulfills CCSS’s goals for speaking and listening but, again, may not merit a full inquiry project. If the goal is just to acquire basic facts, then, as Debbie Abilock says, “You don’t need an inquiry project to learn facts that will basically be inert knowledge” (Debbie Abilock, email message to author, September 2013).


If the teacher stands firm on dehydrating a source into discrete facts and then rehydrating those facts into an essay, it can be illuminating to model a sample student search: “So, to research this, a student would search for… and then he’d click on the first link… aha! There’s the answer! Yipes! That was awfully fast. Is that what you were hoping for?” Many educators are paper-based researchers and are still conditioned to think that finding information is the time-consuming part of research.


If the project won’t be changed, maybe resetting the finish line is in order. Have each student find the needed information. Skip making a product and leapfrog to informal sharing. As Connie Williams pointed out in a recent conversation, the next step could be to say, “Now that everyone has ‘the big picture’ of the Nile, what new questions do you have?” (Connie Williams, email message to author, September 2013).


Coming up with great alternative ideas on the fly is tough. Violet H. Harada is often “picking up great ideas from readings, observations, discussions, and briefly noting them in a file for myself. It helps me when I have to share examples or do informal consultations.” Having a stable of ideas or Cloze phrases minimizes panic: “How would ________ be different if there had been no ______?” “How would _______ have changed _________?” “How did power impact _______?” (Violet H. Harada, email message to author, September 2013).


The thoughts in this month's column come from email conversations with Connie Williams, Debbie Abilock, and Violet H. Harada. Thank you!

Further Reading

McKenzie, Jamie. "We Weave the Web." Educational Leadership (November 1996). (accessed September 26, 2013).

About the Author

Kristin Fontichiaro, MLIS, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, where she coordinates the school library media specialization. She earned her master's in library and information science from Wayne State University. Formerly, she was an elementary school librarian and staff development facilitator for the Birmingham Public Schools in Michigan and a classroom teacher. She is the author of numerous award-winning books for youth, educators, and librarians. She can be reached at

MLA Citation Fontichiaro, Kristin. "Nudging toward Inquiry. What Do You Want the Students to Learn?" School Library Monthly, 30, no. 4, January 2014. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 1966963

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