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Teaching through the Inquiry Cycle

There are many things that I love about teaching the PYP, such as all of the ATLs and how they fit into the transdisciplinary themes, the learner profile traits and how critical global citizenship really is... I truly love the PYP.

But the inquiry cycle is where my heart is. Inquiry based learning is the core of the IB PYP and it creates a learner focused approach to develop their knowledge, skills and attitudes (ATLs or approaches to learning) by exploring engaging and relevant problems in the modern world. No history textbook needed!

Understanding the Inquiry Cycle

The inquiry cycle is an experience in learning, the process we go through from discovering or being introduced to a new idea up to the point that we do something with this new learning.

In the inquiry cycle, the phases a learner goes through are not necessarily linear, but more cyclical - meaning that the parts can be revisited as needed.

Tuning In

This is an absolute gem! Tuning in is the first stage of the inquiry cycle and one of my favorites. It is essential because you can't really plan with the end in mind if you don't know where you and your learners are starting.

Teacher confession: For a long time, I thought tuning in was about getting the students excited and ready for the inquiry and learning coming up. After meeting Kath Murdock I learned that tuning in is a chance to tune into your learners, not for your learners to tune into the unit.

During this stage, we still create an experience where students can develop an interest in the unit and create connections. However, that is not the sole purpose of this phase. Tuning In is cultivating interest, assessing prior knowledge, tuning in to our students' interests, identifying passions and discovering what our students want to learn about within the transdisciplinary theme and central idea.

Tuning In activities to try:

  • Brainstorming and concept mapping

  • Schema maps (or KWL charts)

  • Provocations that disrupt ideas and routines based on the transdisciplinary theme

  • Exploring artifacts

  • See, Think, Wonder

  • Create a wonder wall together

  • Gallery walk

Finding Out

Explore, discover, investigate! That's what we do during the Finding Out phase of the inquiry cycle. Information, stimuli and open-ended inquiry focused on the central idea. Much of the direction for this comes from two places: the central idea AND what I learned about my students' knowledge and interest during Tuning In.

IB PYP unit of inquiry, who we are, our human bodies, digestive system, how the stomach digests food, children using fingers to "digest" christmas cookies in a plastic bag with lemon juice as stomach acid
"Finding Out" how the stomach digests food

Engagements for Finding Out:

  • Guest speakers and field trips

  • Padlet of selected videos (I do not encourage children to explore YouTube on their own)

  • Selected texts across a variety of genres

  • Student directed interviews

  • Experiments

  • Build research skills

Sorting Out

With so much exposure to lots of new information, we shift into the Sorting Out phase of the inquiry cycle.

Sorting Out is the third stage of the inquiry cycle. During this stage, students start to organize their learning and begin to develop deeper understandings of the topic.

This is important because by organizing information, we also learn to organize our own thoughts and exercise self-management (tie in those ATLs). Students can build their own opinions and thoughts about what they've learned through compartmentalizing information by similarities, differences and proximities.

Ways to guide students through Sorting Out:

  • Timelines

  • Student-made Padlets

  • Graphic organizers (Venn diagrams, mind maps)

  • Physical sorting of objects, images and artifacts

  • Using the Popplet app to make digital timelines and mind maps

Did you know that increasing our ability to organize leads to reduced stress, increased efficiency, time management, self-management and general understanding? And to think that this was never in the curriculum or on our own report cards growing up!!

Going Further

Here is the golden opportunity for personalized inquiry and really tapping into the approaches to learning. From tuning in, finding out and sorting out - the students know enough to move forward... with teacher guidance, of course. This is the moment to give students the opportunity for mini-passion projects. With structures and routines in place, this brings the most beautiful learning.

I use students' questions that have already come up and were recorded earlier in the unit as a base but also encourage new questions connected to the central idea to drive personal inquiries.

getting personal with inquiry by kath murdock, how to create a passion project in the PYP, perparing for personalized learning.
I read the book, I met Kath, the learning was transformed in my classroom!

For years, I wanted my students to have the agency to do this - even in first and second grades, but didn't know how to scaffold this huge idea into something they could do mostly independently. After many struggles, I have finally succeeded!

Here's how I did it:

I found it helpful that we started the school year with a passion project under the transdisciplinary theme of 'How We Express Ourselves'. It really set everyone's mindset into inquiry mode and introduced student driven inquiry straight from the start. The students were heavily guided through the inquiry process with most of the agency at the end of the unit with a personal project.

From there, we've plugged this into the end of most units and we are in constant awe at how our students take such ownership of their learning. You can get a blank editable version of my student inquiry planner in the free resource library. It includes a step-by-step guide to inquiring and a storyboard planner to guide the research and presentation.

Making Connections

If you teach your unit with personalized learning, students will be making connections with their learning and the lives within the transdisciplinary theme. However, if you're following a more structured and teacher-led unit, this is a time where students would connect the central idea and lines of inquiry to different contexts.

Making Connections is a critical part of learning. The connections take place when students create personal meaning with what they are learning. They build a relationship between their learning and either the physical world or their emotional one.

The purpose and reason for learning is solidified during this phase of the inquiry cycle.

Approaches to Learning, the six transdisciplinary themes of the IB PYP, who we are, where we are in place and time, how we organize ourselves, how we express our selves, sharing the planet, how the world works, units of inquiry, central idea and lines of inquiry
Photograph and illustration collages of the PYP transdisciplinary themes

Learning for Making Connections:

  • I used to think... , now I think...

  • Peel the Fruit

  • "Imagine if..." activities to think outside of the box

  • Dinner Table Talk conversations at home about their inquiry

  • Address misconceptions from earlier in the unit

  • Revisit the concepts and related concepts of the unit of inquiry

Taking Action

And the point of all this was... to make a change or become a change maker and make the world a little better of a place for all.

Awesome ways to use Taking Action in the PYP:

  • Create and share a Podcast

  • Build a website (Google Sites is easy)

  • "Publish" a book and include it in the school or community library

  • Make and share a video with your school community

  • Invent a product or service that solves a problem

  • Write a persuasive letter and send it

  • Create essential agreements

  • Prepare and teach a lesson


teaching with the ib pyp learner profile traits, approaches to learning and inquiry, an international teacher blog

Looking for texts or teaching ideas incorporating the learner profile traits? Read this blog!

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With love from my classroom to yours,

💛  Sativa

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