Creating a Culture of Inquiry in the Classroom

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While MethodsSpace is a community of researchers, many of us also find ourselves in the role of instructor. This post is the first of a series that will explore juxtapositions of research methods and instruction. In Learning to Research/Researching to Learn posts I will explore ways that instructors can infuse research activities into courses where students learn about methods or curricular courses where they develop critical thinking skills.

The philosopher John Dewey wrote in an era with remarkable similarities to our own. When the telegraph and telephone opened immediate communication across the oceans and continents, he noted that while these technologies had broken down barriers “to bring peoples and classes into closer and more perceptible connection with one another. It remains for the most part to secure the intellectual and emotional significance of this physical annihilation of space” (Dewey, 1916, p. p. 85).

At the same time, the nature of work was changing with the Industrial Revolution and Dewey saw a corresponding need to change the nature of education. The identified a prevalent view, that “the subject-matter of education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them to the new generation” (Dewey, 1938, p. 17) and criticized it as hopelessly out of step with the newly connected world. Instead, he thought students need opportunities to gain the experience through problem-solving and reflection.

So many years later we revisit similar themes. We still grapple with the significance of bridging distances even though we live in a connected world. Even today, some welcome globalism and others fear it. We still contend with the educational dilemma Dewey described because simply transmitting information and skills is inadequate preparation for the challenges students face in academic, professional, and civic life. Knowing how to dig below the surface, discern fact from opinion, use scientific approaches to understand problems and support conclusions, are ever more important. How can we infuse research methods into instructional approaches to develop new habits of mind?

For the moment let’s set aside the details associated with various methodologies and think about the core elements of the research process. In most cases, we begin with a problem, and define the questions we want to answer. We find people or materials to explore and gather relevant data. After we analyze it, we tried to draw some kind of conclusions then share what was learned by presenting it to others in written or verbal form. We carry out these steps within epistemological and theoretical frameworks that help us understand and explain their positions as researchers in relationships with the world. How can we use these steps to build a culture of inquiry in classes we teach?

Here are some suggestions from a learning to research, researching to learn orientation. Depending on the available time and the nature of the class, you can use these ideas to reframe discussions are written assignments, or as the basis for research projects that involve collecting and analyzing data.

Research Steps Learning through Inquiry Developing a
Researcher’s Mindset
Using assigned and/or library research, discover problems and define questions. What information is incomplete or outdated?
Whose voices are missing?Do the readings represent a local or global perspectives?What are the writers’ assumptions or biases?Do the writers provide adequate foundations or evidence for their conclusions?Are there significant conflicts or differences within the set of readings—or in the field?
Let’s question the foundations of the materials we read and make a habit of looking for gaps in the literature.

When we uncover biases, let’s use them as the basis for reflection on our own world views and how they might influence the questions we choose to research.

Sample: People or Documents

Gather Data

Based biases or on missing or incomplete you identified, where can you find what you need to develop a more comprehensive understanding? Do you need to read more on the topic, or ask someone? Who? Let’s think about how to include global and/or underrepresented perspectives, including the use of open access or other materials that might not appear in library databases.

Let’s brainstorm ways to reach people who don’t typically participate in research.

Analyze and



How can we learn to use content, text, discourse, or other data analysis methods by practicing with course readings? Whether we use qualitative or quantitative methods, let’s reflect on ways our own backgrounds or prior understandings influence our interpretation of results.
Conclude and Report What did you learn? What new problems or questions did you discover? How can you present it in a way that leads to further exploration? Let’s reflect on ways to be transparent about biases or shortcomings when we report research findings.

Let’s consider how to communicate findings with people outside of academia—especially those who can put new ideas into practice.


Whether we are working with students who are children or adults, by moving from transmission to exploration, we can help our students realize the importance of inquiry. Being prepared to ask hard questions and think critically will be beneficial not only in the classroom or laboratory, but also in their everyday lives. In the process, they will develop mindsets and skillsets that will prepare them to be researchers in a complicated world.

How do you teach research skills? How do you create a culture of inquiry in your classrooms? Use the comment box to share your strategies or questions.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan Company.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan Company.

3 thoughts on “Creating a Culture of Inquiry in the Classroom

  1. Great article! It’s still up to date. First, we have to make our students be interested and push them to find the answers.

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