Giving Students Control Through Experimental Inquiry

By Scott Sterling

In most pedagogical models, the goal is to move the classroom from one that is teacher-centered to student-centered. The student-centered approach provides engagement in the learning process, a certain level of personalization, and a greater chance for mastery.

One way to generate that degree of a student-centered environment is by providing a range of experimental inquiry tasks.

In these tasks, through a general set of guiding questions, students become responsible for their own progression through a prediction of their choice. The prediction may not work, and that’s ok. That’s where the best learning occurs.

The role of the teacher in experimental inquiry tasks is to ask guiding and clarifying questions as well as provide resources to facilitate the students’ inquiries. Using the analogy of a ship at sea, the teacher is no longer the captain; they navigate and provide engineering.

Here’s a sample of guiding questions that teachers can use to move students along the inquiry process:

  1. What is my prediction?
  2. How will I test my prediction?
  3. What do I expect to see if my prediction is accurate?
  4. What actually happened?
  5. Did my prediction come true?
  6. How has my thinking changed about the situation?


This process may seem like the basis for a huge, project-based learning task, but it’s equally effective for tasks that may take a matter of minutes to complete. Here is a sampling of potential tasks for various subject areas.

Language arts

In a unit on advertising, students can make predictions about how effective certain ads are and then confirm or disprove their predictions through surveys and other evidence-gathering strategies.


A math curriculum tends to be a progression of skills. When introducing the next phase of that progression, offer the opportunity for students to invent ways to accomplish the new task and investigate their hypotheses. For example, there are many ways to multiply two or three-digit numbers. Some are effective. Others are not. Let students come up with their own idea and then test for its effectiveness.

Social studies

To confirm social studies predictions, surveys and interviews are the primary methods of information gathering. Students can predict anything from budgetary effects in economics to trying to hypothesize the future at the beginning of a history unit (“After World War I, Germany was severely punished. What do you think will happen with their frustration?”)


What happens if you rearrange this chord progression or scale? In what instances would that kind of result be needed?


Bill Gates once said he wasn’t afraid to hire lazy workers; they were the most likely to find the most efficient way to complete a task. In any computer science unit, ask students to come up with a better way to accomplish the same end result with their code. Testing for success should be easy.

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