Inquiry-Based Learning in Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and Beyond

Inquiry-Based Learning in Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and Beyond

Inquiry-Based Learning in Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and Beyond

Hey, y’all! Welcome back for more of our inquiry-based learning series! Today, we’re looking into how to structure inquiry-based learning in third and fourth grades and beyond. Inquiry in upper grades makes it possible to go deeper and explore things the younger grades cannot. 


Like with younger grades, we choose an overall “theme” that we’re focusing on (school lunches, energy, climate change, etc.), then determine which standards we want to hit during this unit. In the example of school lunches, we could learn about health and nutrition, how government standards differ from country to country, cultural norms and food choices in different areas, costs of feeding school children, quality of meals, and so much more. 


For third and fourth graders (and beyond), I usually create a digital learning plan that I share with them in Google Classroom. These include links to different resources to get them started, but as they learn more and more, they may find other sources of information that can help answer their questions. For more information on learning plans, check out this blog post

Inquiry-based learning plan for third, fourth, and fifth grades

For upper elementary students, our focus is a little more abstract. We start off with some black and white content (like in the previous example: nutritional guidelines and different cultural foods) and move into more abstract topics (why nutritional guidelines differ, why some countries fund all school lunches and others don’t, ways to make changes, etc.).


Inquiry units at this age are less guided and more coached. We create our guided questions through a QFT or similar conversation, then students start to explore the learning plan. As they work, more questions come up and their focus may shift slightly, but that’s okay. In upper grades, you become less of the giver of information and more of the guide to help them find the answers to their own questions. 


I try to keep our inquiry units as hands on as possible like I would with the younger grades, but it varies depending on the topic. With the school lunch example, I could bring in different foods to try, but it doesn’t pack the same kind of punch. However, when the inquiry unit is on energy, we can explore all kinds of sources of energy (building circuits, etc.) in hands-on ways. So, if you can bring in hands-on explorations, by all means, do so. But, don’t stress out about it if the topic is too abstract to make it work.

Inquiry-based learning in the upper elementary classroom

Guiding questions in upper elementary and beyond are a little more bold than with the younger grades: What is causing climate change to occur? What is the value of living in a world with art? Why is equity important to our school and community? Those are some big questions. And I’m sure your students can come up with more. The deeper the question, the more answers they seek. It is absolutely inspiring to watch them search for the answers and find more and more questions. 


At this age, I expect students to write their answers on their research pages. At the beginning of the school year, I model how to record what I found during our inquiries. As they become better researchers, I guide less and coach more. They may even choose to create a digital notetaker for their research, inserting images of things they found and citing their sources with links to refer back to. This is a perfect time to talk about plagiarism and giving credit where credit is due. 


For paper and pencil researchers, my students keep all their notes in a folder so that they can refer back to them. At the end of the unit, they present their learning either through an informational book they write, a poster they create, a diorama, a Google Slides presentation, or whatever you and your students are comfortable with. We do a gallery walk where students showcase what they learned and can check out everyone else’s learning. The kids, families, and admin love these! And they’re so easy. It’s a great boost to the kids’ confidence as independent learners and I love to see what they come up with!

Gallery walk responses for inquiry-based learning unit assessments

I hope this helps to get the wheels turning in your mind about how to make your elementary classroom more student-centered, hands-on, and inquiry-based. If you have any questions or want to bounce around ideas, shoot me a message and we can figure out your next inquiry-based learning unit for your classroom. 


Thanks for stopping by and have a wonderful week. I’ll talk to you soon. 


Stay cozy, 

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