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The Inquiry Cycle in Action in 4th Grade

The Inquiry Cycle in Action in 4th Grade


20160912_113652 A 4th grade class in front of their "Wonder Wall," part of step one of the inquiry cycle,


When you walk in to Daniel Watson’s 4th grade class, you will immediately notice that one wall is covered in a sea of colorful post-its. This is the class’ “Wonder Wall,” where students post the “wonders” (questions) they have about the topics they are studying. In this case, students had generated 88 separate questions about the broader concept of “migration.” These questions were part of the first step in the inquiry learning process, “Tuning In,” when students assess what they already know about a topic and think about what else they would like to know.

The inquiry learning cycle, as defined by educator Kath Murdoch, has 6 different stages – Tuning In, Finding Out, Sorting Out, Going Further, Making Conclusions, and Taking Action. This fall, the 4th graders are learning about “migration,” both locally and globally, in the present and historically, by navigating the stages of the inquiry cycle. Inquiry learning is central to the PYP curriculum of the International Baccalaureate Programme, and it helps students become curious, confident, and self-motivated learners.


tune in Tuning In – Students were given a "provocation," analyzing images related to the topic of "migration."


Tuning In

What do I know about this topic? What experience do I have with this topic? What do I want to know?

  • Students began with a “provocation” – they examined photos of migrations across time and around the world, thinking about what the images all had in common. The images included several of the California Gold Rush, directing students towards the topic of local California history.
  • The class analyzed the concept of “migration,” and determined the meaning of related key words using a dictionary and prior knowledge.
  • Students created their “Wonder Wall,” asking what else they wanted to know about migration based on the photos they had seen and key terms they had learned.


step 2 Finding Out – Students chose books to research the answers to their "wonder" questions.


Finding Out

Where might I find out more information? What resources might I use? Where can I find different points of view on this?

  • Students chose appropriate books to research answers to their own “wonder” questions.
  • In one class, students interviewed a fellow classmate who had recently moved from France, to hear about her own migration experience.



20160928_091852 Sorting Out – Students created "mind maps" to visually represent connections between the answers they had found to their different "wonder" questions.


Sorting Out

How can I sort the information I have found? What information helps answer my questions or the questions of others? What keywords help me make sense of the information I found?

  • Students worked to sort the “wonder” questions they had answered into groups, based on what different questions/answers had in common. They came up with 11 different groups.
  • Using these 11 groups, students created “mind maps” to visually represent connections between topics (such as how the experience of Chinese migrants to California compared/contrasted with American migrants).
  • With guidance from Mr. Daniel, students were able to generate three general “Lines of Inquiry”:
    • How migration can be represented geographically
    • How migration is a response to a particular event/circumstance
    • California and its history of migration, connected to gold


20160928_105523 Students shared what they had learned in both art and writing.


Going Further

Are all my questions answered? What information do I wish to share? Have I considered the different points of view on this topic? How can I plan to show the connections I have made?

  • Students read present day migration stories from around the world and used their new knowledge to gain perspective on how migration touches us all.

  • They shared what they had learned through an art piece and a writing piece. 

The 4th grade “migration” unit will continue throughout the fall, as students enter the next 2 phases of the inquiry cycle.

Making Conclusions

What do I know and understand about the Central Idea? Have I shared what I learned with others effectively? What would I do differently?

  • Students will write a detailed paragraph, backed up by readings and new knowledge, about what migration is to them.

Taking Action

How can what I learned help me in my life or help others? How can I improve my learning? How have my feelings changed throughout this inquiry process?

  • Students will be asked to, with the help of their parents, look in the local community to see if there are ways they can help new immigrants to California and Palo Alto. This may end up being donating clothes, or even volunteering at a local center.

In addition to inquiring into human migration in class, students were also able to use what they had learned about migration in California during the Gold Rush on their recent overnight trip to gold country (Coloma)!

The 4th graders have been very enthusiastic about the inquiry process, becoming more engaged in their learning, and more self-directed and self-motivated. Overall, our students have responded positively to the PYP-inspired lessons teachers have been implementing in their classrooms this fall, and we are very excited about this inspiring new approach to student learning at ISTP!


inquirycycle1 The Inquiry Cycle of learning, as developed by educator Kath Murdoch.
*In 2020, the International School of the Peninsula (ISTP) formally changed its name to Silicon Valley International School (INTL) to better reflect its bilingual programs, location, and international values.


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