Inquiry and Exploring

Colorado Master Environmental Educator Certification Response
Questioning, Analysis, and Interpretation Skills

An understanding of the role of inquiry is essential to being a quality environmental educator. Others have alluded to inquiry naming it a sense of wonder and naturalist intelligence.  Inquiry is a process that starts with a passion for knowledge and understanding beyond the realm of previous knowledge. Inquiry is a willingness and openness to learning.

Inquiry is a cycle of asking, investigating, creating, discussing, and finally reflecting. Project-learning allows for the full cycle of inquiry naturally and inquiry also lends itself to problem solving and interdisciplinary lessons. Due to the nature of my current work situation, it’s difficult to ever have enough with students to truly develop complete inquiry lessons. I do believe that my philosophy of teaching and how I develop lessons uses components of inquiry learning and embraces inquiry methods as much as possible in the limited time we have with students.

Inquiry begins with questioning. Questioning comes from observing through exploration, watching, and wondering. Then focusing one’s curiosity and wonderment into an articulated question is the next step and takes practice. The sense of curiosity leads the learner to ask questions that can effectively lead to investigations and research of the topic. It’s also important for the learner to understand the many factors and variables that influence the questions they pose.

One example of inquiry is our macroinvertebrate field trips when students explore the aquatic insects that live in the river. After a little bit of introduction, students are given the opportunity to take nets, put on waders, and go exploring in the river to find aquatic insects. They then are encouraged to ID the insects and figure out what the different insects tell us about the stream using ID charts. They are asked to draw the specimens and. Then we discuss what their findings were. We also have a final so-what discussion to get the students to think about why aquatic insects in the river matter anyway. This so-what reflection is an opportunity for the students to create more personal connections and understand how their actions can affect the life in the river and how they can practice responsible river stewardship.
Designing the investigation comes from the questions posed that were fostered by the learner’s curiosity. This is where background knowledge, understanding variables, and getting to employ one’s creativity comes into play. Allowing a learner to design their own investigative process (as opposed to the instructor’s process) is important to the inquiry process. How a learner goes about collecting information should be methodical and repeatable. It is also important to test the reliability of one’s information sources for scientific integrity and bias.

When working with a focused question, organizing observations, drawing conclusions, and developing explanations is achievable . Being able to organize observed data in appropriate ways is important and helpful to forming conclusions and explanations. It’s also important for learners to ask the question “why does this matter?,” “how does this conclusion affect other parts of the community?,” “can I relate this explanation to other questions?”.  

The process of inquiry lends itself to critical thinking and problem solving skills. When students are given the opportunity (time and space) to be curious, ask questions, and take more personal responsibility for their learning they begin to develop more critical thinking and problem solving skills. And there is no better place to learn and practice these skills than in a ‘real world’ environment.

Critical thinking is the process of asking why are we doing what we do. It’s a long term, strategic, proactive, holistic approach. It allows for creative new ways of thinking and doing things. Inquiry learning fosters critical thinking very well. The problem solving skills learned through inquiry are more focused on reactionary, immediate problems that the students come across through their investigations. Both sets of skills are crucial to learners. In environmental education it is essential to have learners asking “Why?”. Environmental education is focused on systems thinking, holistic views of how the world and communities work. The best environmental education allows for learners to learn through real-world, place-based inquiry learning where the instructor does not already know the outcome of the investigation.  Also allowing learners to share their findings, questions, and wonder with other learners empowers the learner with ownership and credibility which encourages life-long learning.

Creating opportunities for kids to have care-free timelessness in a natural setting to just explore, play, lay on the grass and watch the clouds, and practice the art of poking around is something we don’t allow enough of in our culture. It is these settings that kids (and adult learners) begin to wonder and begin to ask questions and formulate ways to investigate their questions. They become more aware of noticing things: what they see, smell, hear, and feel what’s present in their place. I believe this initial step of creating space and time for kids to be curious is critical to creating critical thinkers and problem solvers.


Excellence in Environmental Education - Guidelines for Learning (K-12). Washington, DC: North American Association for Environmental Education, 3nd edition, 2010.

Rainboth, Donna. Developing a Sense of Wonder. Portland, Oregon. The Best of Clearing Magazine, Issue 106, Spring 2000.

Martin, Jim. Developing Questioning Strategies: Resource Partitioning. Portland, Oregon. The Best of Clearing Magazine, Issue 101, April/May 1998.

Meyer, Maggie. Teaching and Learning Through the Naturalist Intelligence. Portland, Oregon. The Best of Clearing Magazine, Issue 102, September/October 1998.


Popular Posts