Shifting the Classroom, One Step at a Time

Teachers who are interested in shifting their classrooms often don’t know where to start. It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else around you seems to think the system is broken.

A question I’m asked often is “Where should a teacher begin?”  Should teachers just let students go or is there a process to good inquiry?  I’ve reflected on  this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key.  I think letting students “go” without any structure will likely create failure, especially if students haven’t spent much time collaborating.  Skills need to be modelled.

When I start with a new group of students, the design is tight.  Choice is given, but I often pick the topic and options for student voice. I model skills like collaboration, thinking out loud about my learning, and explicating integrating tech and why it’s being used.


Start with creating one inquiry unit in one subject. You can jump in and change everything at once like I did, but that’s slightly crazy. Instead, if you design one unit in one subject, at the end of each day, or week, you can analyze what worked and what didn’t. While teaching doesn’t always leave a lot of time for luxuries like reflection, it really is the key to figuring out inquiry learning, and as the teacher, it’s one of your most important roles.

Sometimes you may not understand why certain things aren’t working. Ask your students. I’m often surprised by how much they know and how adept they are at articulating what they need.

Two of the best resources I’ve found for creating an inquiry classroom are Carol Kuhlthau’s work and Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning.

If you don’t know how to create an inquiry classroom, ask me. I’m happy to help. You can begin by posting comments here. If you need resources, I can probably point you to some. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to email, Skype and, if distance allows, have teachers, administrators and superintendents visit my classroom to see what we do.


Talk to your students about their learning — a lot.  Especially in the beginning, I talk to my students about why my classroom is structured differently than every other class in our school. I show them Ken Robinson’s talk about how the 20th century school system doesn’t really prepare students anymore.  I also show them Chris Lehmann’s TED-X talk emphasizing howeducation is broken and Karl Fisch’s Did You Know?.

I tell my students that essentially I’m preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems we’re not currently aware of. They get the point. It’s about developing skills and habits of learning, and we use content to do that.

But I also talk to my student’s about stuff like how their brain works, and how neural connections need to be made. That often, in order for students to learn something new, it needs to be attached to things they already know. Just before the recent break, during the last week of school, we talked about cognitive dissonance and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. They like to know there’s a reason for the way they feel when they don’t “get it.” And they like to know that everyone’s zone of development is different. In fact, they were amazed to find out everyone’s brain is different.

And, yes, I use the big words. I simply explain what they mean. I don’t use them to sound smart. I use them because it makes my students feel smart; most of our society doesn’t treat our students like they’re capable of understanding or doing much. I do.


Embed technology in ways that are authentic to the learning process. The first tools that I teach my students are Google Docs, Diigo or Delicious to bookmark their research, and Symbaloo to house their tools.

Experience has taught me that the first day I introduce a class to Google Docs, we will get nothing done. To them, it’s the most amazing thing ever. They usually spend most of the class typing back and forth to each other in the doc. No big deal. However, eventually, my students open Google Docs without me telling them to. I have students who literally use them for every lab, essay, and assignment. And the ability for a group to work on and edit the same document at the same time, more than makes up for the initial class we lose.

The social media tools we used to show our learning in our slavery unit seemed like the most natural and logical tools to use. As a learning community, we want our learning to extend beyond the four walls of our classroom. So we have a discussion, or likely multiple discussions, about what that should look like. We also want our projects to have “real world” implications. What’s more real world than advocacy against modern-day slavery using social media?

Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond our classroom — and how can what we do here make a difference to the real world?  Our tool selection is guided by the answers to these questions.


Remember that inquiry learning is an emotional process. Each stage of learning has specific emotions attached to it, and at some point, you and your students will likely hit the wall. That’s normal.

I’ve found that we need to talk more as an inquiry class. My role is to be well aware of how my students are doing emotionally, especially when we’re dealing with a weighty, overwhelming topic like slavery. While this may not matter much in a traditional classroom, it can completely blow apart a community learning through inquiry.

I won’t promise you that any of this will be easy. It’s not. You’ll likely have days when you wonder why you ever started it. But trust me, it’s worth it.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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12 Responses to Shifting the Classroom, One Step at a Time

  1. Thanks, Shelley, for this very inspirational and informational post. I very much enjoyed learning about the work out of Alberta from Alberta Learning. This is the first I have heard about it, and clearly it’s been around for a while.

    I’m hoping to see the Kuhlthau link you intended to share, but it appears to be broken. Might you have time to fix that? I am currently working on my PhD in inquiry learning and am keenly interested in what you are sharing here.

    Thanks so much!

    Shelly Buchanan

    On Thu, Apr 24, 2014 at 11:28 AM, Wright’sRoom

  2. sydney e. willcox, Como Park Sr. St Paul Mn says:

    You might like the Brain U site from the University of Minnesota. There are several really fun lessons, like altered goggles which show children, anyone how many times they have to practice something to acquire a new skill. Go to for other brain lessons
    Dr. Janet Dubinsky of the U Medical school works with Education department faculty to develop lessons with and for science educators to teach lessons about how the brain works.
    I use Brain U lessons on the ear to teach visual balance in art class. The kids love the body, brain connections to their art lessons.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post on how to get started with inquiry and for the resources you included. I especially like this quote: “Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond our classroom — and how can what we do here make a difference to the real world? Our tool selection is guided by the answers to these questions.”

  4. Frances Barnes says:

    I had an “ah ha” moment when you said to ask the students what’s working and what’s not working about your teaching. I’ve asked them to tell me what they like and don’t like about my class but not specifically about my teaching. This is a subtle change but I think will give me huge results. Thanks.

  5. Pingback: Reflection 14: Wright’s Room – Shifting the Classroom, One Step at a Time | Sarah Potter

  6. Pingback: Shifting the Classroom, One Step at a Time | teaching knowledge and creativity

  7. Pingback: Reflection #14: Wright’s Room/Shifting the Classroom, One Step at a Time | Window to the Classroom

  8. Hi Shelley,
    It was really great to meet you today. I certainly appreciate your offer to help bring my currently muddy ideas to clear fruition at YCDSB and beyond. Your first post has already helped me to frame our “learning experiment” for our teachers and students. I love that you are so transparent with your students about why you are teaching differently and that you gave your kids an understanding of Vygotsky’s theory. I know I will look to you and your work for further inspiration and guidance. Thank you!

  9. Shelley thank you for being so transparent. It’s always helpful to hear directly from educators. One comment that resonates with educators I work with frequently was: “It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else around you seems to think the system is broken”. But what you wrote following that is key: “It’s about developing skills and habits of learning, and we use content to do that.”

    I would like to offer one additional, immediate way to start inquiry-based learning. The Question Formulation Technique provides a structure for getting all students asking their own questions and driving their learning. Check it out!

  10. Craig says:

    Hi Shelly I’m a new Spanish teacher dealing with the frustration of investing in a credential program that taught me nothing about technology in the classroom, and nothing about how to actually teach my subject. I learned spanish mostly by asking good questions and I know that teaching can be done most effectively through inquiry. I do not want to be just another typical Spanish teacher. What do you recommend for foreign language?

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