How to Create an Inquiry Zone for Math Learning

In a previous article, I suggested two ways to introduce inquiry-based math instruction into your teaching structure. One of them was to create a safe discovery environment – an Inquiry Zone. This is where students could ask anything and not be held responsible for performance.

It can be a location or a time – or both. It can be announced or understood.

As the facilitator, here are some things to do to create the safe Inquiry Zone.

Feet and Arrows
by Crystl | | CC BY

Maintain positive body language.

When a student asks a question, make sure your body language and facial expressions say, “Wow, that’s a very smart thing to ask.” Do this regardless of how you feel about the question personally.

Ignore negativity.

If other students laugh at a question, ignore them. Instead validate the asker and the question through words and body language. Chastising the negativity only validates it.

Super-validate every question.

Follow up every question with a similar or extended question. If you can’t think of one, say, “That’s really interesting. Let’s write it down so we can look it up on Google later.”

Post the rules.

Set up rules so that all the students know what inquiry really means in math. The rules I use are:

  1. Until you decide differently, everyone is wrong. Even the teacher and textbook.
  2. Every question is a great question.

These two rules build confidence. Not in getting the right answer, but in deciding what it means to be a right answer. If a kid gets to decide when the answer is right, they will ask more questions. Inquiry!

Be Wrong! Sign
by raketentim | | CC BY SA

Be wrong – often.

Modeling this “wrongness” makes kids comfortable with it. The more comfortable they are with being wrong, the more likely they are to engage in inquiry.

You can be wrong by not knowing something or actually doing a problem wrong (doing your arithmetic wrong, for instance).

If you are normally perfect, fake it. Mess up. Do it for the kids.

Destroy the back of the book.

I’m not sure you can get away with this without being fired.

If you don’t mind getting fired from your teaching job, or if you homeschool, get the kids to rip out the back of the book – you know, the part with all the answers in it. And don’t let them talk you into letting them “check their answers” on the calculator. That’s just as damaging.

The more they get to decide if their own answer is right, the more they will ask. The more inquiry will happen!

Will you create an Inquiry Zone?

Share your experiences in the comments, or on twitter:

This post may contain affiliate links. When you use them, you support us so we can continue to provide free content!

2 Responses to How to Create an Inquiry Zone for Math Learning

  1. Inquiry Zone’s rock! Learners must feel safe!

    They should also know how to validate their work, regardless to what the teacher says > “Until you decide differently, everyone is wrong. Even the teacher and textbook.”

    • Thanks, Toni, for stopping by. I know you and your crew focus on this a lot. It’s a pleasure to be creating learning zones in the world with you!

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.