Getting to Great Inquiry Questions

by | Dec 19, 2023

Originally published in Teacher Librarian, February 2019

Just the other day, I overheard a middle school student say, “We never get to understand things! Like, why do we have to study plate tectonics? What is sea spread? Why do we need to know that?” 

Through learning about plate tectonics, this student’s interest was piqued, and knowing that sea spread exists was not enough. She was bored with the facts and yearned to know why it’s important, what it really means. 

Underneath these questions she wondered why we don’t get to that level of understanding information at school. Traditional teaching and research fail to get to these bigger questions that students are yearning to answer, but using inquiry can.

Inquiry and Great Questions

Inquiry is a process that students can use to ask their own questions to learn more deeply from a variety of information sources. When inquiry is defined this way, our task shifts away from planning one lesson at a time and toward supporting student learning.

Seeing inquiry as a way of learning motivates us to create a learning environment where students’ questions drive them to dig more deeply into the content. It is then, that getting to great questions becomes the big challenge. 

Research has shown that the questions students pose for their own research make a difference in whether they gather facts or make meaning (Kuhlthau, 2004). The guided inquiry design (GID) process was created to support teacher and librarian collaborating teams to get students to the questions that inspire them. The best questions will keep them curious through product creation phases, and help them think critically about the world to construct new understandings. 

Great questions hold the key to unlock the best inquiries. Great questions for inquiry have the seeds of learners’ interests embedded in them. The GID process (see Figure 1) provides librarian and teacher teams with a road map for inquiry, a framework that leads to successful questioning and research. 

Guided Inquiry framework and phases

Figure 1. GID process

For example, in an inquiry unit on waves, a group of fourth grade students generated a list of questions (see Figure 2). The questions were documented in a collaborative Google Document at the end of the explore phase in the GID process (Maniotes, 2018). 

At first glance, some of these questions might seem better than others for inquiry and research. But the goal of GID is that students choose their own path as they find an area of deep personal interest in the topic at hand. 

Each of the above questions has the potential to be a worthy inquiry question. A short conference with the learning team helps each student to clarify what they mean, draw out their interest, and provide direction for gathering information about their interests. 

Student Chat – Sound Wave Questions

How are waves created?
In what ways do waves affect human beings?
How do we harness waves?
Why can’t we see waves with our naked eye?
How do sound waves (as in music) make us feel?
How did humans find out about waves?
What makes waves?
Does electricity carry waves?
Can waves be dangerous?
How big can waves be? How small can waves be?
How fast do waves go?

Power of the Conference

At all levels (preK–12) during inquiry learning, students benefit from conferences with the teacher and/or librarian. In GID, this transition occurs when students are moving from the Explore phase into the Identify phase (Kuhlthau, Maniotes, & Caspari, 2012). 

The purpose of a student conference is clarifying their thinking. As outlined in Figure 3. a quick conference with just the right timing and an inquiry mindset helps bring simple questions to life. Thinking together helps students transform more simple questions into complex ones. 

Here are some sample questions from the list from Figure 2 that students chose, and examples of how members of the learning team (teachers and librarians) conferred with students to help them clarify their thinking (see Figure 3). 

These are examples of efficient and effective conferencing where the pacing and timing is on target as the teacher jumps right in, knowing where the student is in their thinking. She has prepared for the conference, knowing by reading the students journal what they are thinking. This way, she can start with a  paraphrase and begin listening. 

Notice that these are short conversations not requiring more than a few minutes. 

Notice how the learning team goes into the conferences with an inquiry stance—not a judgmental tone but one of authentic curiosity for students’ ideas. 

Finally, take note that each conference concludes with the student ready to move forward into researching with specific thinking or search terms. Because the clarifying conference can be quick, the teacher or librarian will have time to end these conferences by engaging in a quick Google (or catalog) search with each student after they write their question down. That way, students know where to go and have a clear direction for key words, some resources, and their immediate next steps, increasing independence in the Gather phase (See Model Figure 1).

The Question Coaching Conversation

Student 1: Why can’t we see waves with our naked eye?

Teacher: Hi! Tell me more about your question, “Why can’t we see waves with our naked eye?”
Student: I don’t know . . .
Teacher: Can we see waves with our naked eye?
Student: Yeah, the waves in the ocean.
Teacher: OK, so you know that you can see some waves with your naked eye.
Student: Yes.
Teacher: How could you make that question more clear? Your question was, “Why can’t we see waves with our naked eye?”
Student: I meant like waves of energy. I was asking about any kinds of waves that we can’t see with our naked eye, like waves of energy.
Teacher: Oh OK. That is clearer. Now that you say it that way, is that something you’re still interested in, now that you’ve more clearly defined it? Waves of energy?
Student: Yeah, I want to know more about how we know there are waves when we can’t even see them.
Teacher: Sounds like an interesting quest! Are you thinking of focusing more on the energy aspect of it or a specific kind of wave, like light waves?
Student: I’m not sure.
Teacher: OK. Answering that will help you narrow your question even more, and it might be easier to find information once you narrow it down. For now, write down your question with energy or light. Then, as you start searching, you can decide which is the more interesting path to take. [Waits for student to write the question and check it.] Great! I’ll be interested in learning what you find out.

Source: Source: Maniotes (2017) addresses “Getting to GREAT Questions for Inquiry: Talking with your students draws out their best intentions.”

Conference Protocol

There are four important things for the learning team to remember when entering into the conference about questions. 

Students have good intentions

Educators need to reach inside students’ intentions. When we ask questions, we help students to clarify the connections they are making that might not be explicitly stated right away. A conversation like the ones above can draw out the information students use to arrive at their question, and helps them elaborate on their thinking. Through the short conversation, they can eventually get more specific. 

No question is a bad question

Yes, some questions that students come up with have easy answers. But even those questions can hold the seeds of deeper thinking. If the team takes the time to listen, and dig a little bit, conferences can really get students to tell us more about the great thinking behind those seemingly simple questions. 

Student interests drive their meaning making

Students will have more to tell if they are asked, “What interested you about this?” rather than, “Why did you pick this question?” Focusing on their interests takes the pressure and judgment off and opens the conversation to their Third Space (Maniotes, 2005). 

In GID, the third space is when students connect their lives and experiences outside of school to their studies (Maniotes, 2005). In inquiry, it will surface as students’ interests. Probing why they picked a question provides an opportunity for students to explain how their question connects to their lives and their experiences. Knowing student interest allows the learning team to connect the student to useful resources of high interest. (See 

Paraphrasing students shows listening and support

Listening is a key to guiding student’s inquiry. Paraphrasing what students say will help the teacher or librarian be a better listener in the conference and clarify the students’ intention. Paraphrase their words, until they “sign off” with their approval. 

Although inquiry learning can seem complicated, a simple conversation embedded into the process can go a long way to supporting students to clarify their direction which is one of the most challenging part of the process. Getting clarity on the focus of their research question and focus is essential to deep learning and searching and eventually deeper understanding. Time invested here, in the middle of the process in conferences, has huge payoffs for getting to great questions and for the long haul of student learning.


Kuhlthau, C. C. (2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Kuhlthau C., Maniotes, L. & Caspari, A. (2012). Guided inquiry design: A framework for inquiry in your school. Santa Barbara. CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Maniotes, L. (2005). The transformative power of literary third space (Doctoral dissertation). University of Colorado, Boulder.
Maniotes, L. (2017). Getting to GREAT Questions for Inquiry: Talking with your students draws out their best intentions [Blogpost]
Maniotes, L. (2018). Guided Inquiry design in action: Elementary. Santa Barbara. CA: Libraries Unlimited. 

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