The Nature of Inquiry: Scaffolding Projects

By Sara Krauskopf

If you have never led an open-ended inquiry or project-based learning (PBL) unit before, it can be an intimidating experience. Diving into the unknown in terms of exactly what students will be working on and what they will produce creates a certain amount of anxiety and presents new challenges to the teacher as a facilitator of learning.  In my last blog entry, I described ways to get students to ask questions and narrow them down to that one “good question” that they will focus on for their project.  Now you are faced with helping a room full of students with different inquiries move through the process of answering their questions. This requires a series of steps and a certain shift in mindset as an instructor.  In this entry I will try to provide some tips and resources for working through facilitation of the planning and implementation of a set of projects.

It is important to model project design for students and build independence over time.  I often walk students through a behind-the-scenes look at how I planned a unit or set of experiences for them.  Who did I call?  What resources did I gather?  What did I have to test out in advance?  How long did it take me to do each of these steps?  Where did I run into stumbling blocks?  Did everything go smoothly or did I have to make adjustments?  This type of transparency in the teaching process not only helps students gain a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into lesson planning , but more importantly demonstrates that they need to plan out their strategy and be prepared for it to change.  No projects ever go exactly as planned, and hurdles, failures and re-adjustments are par for the course.

For your first open-ended inquiry, I would suggest restricting the range of projects students choose.  This will help you anticipate the types of resources students will need to complete projects, making it easier to provide a certain set of equipment, limited list of experts and vetted starter informational resources.  Allowing them to work in teams of 2-4 also provides students with built-in support and gives you fewer projects to facilitate as you navigate the changed work load with this type of learning.  With science experiments it is fairly straight-forward to guide students to a narrow, yet original set of project questions (eg.  How can we speed up rates of seed germination?).  As I mentioned in my first blog, my class investigated the question What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?, and then students designed their own projects focused on the question How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?  This was a broad inquiry, but narrow enough for me to anticipate a set of community education campaigns, composting experiments, and sewing projects to repurpose fabric.  I did have one group that chose to refurbish an old computer, which I had not anticipated, but they were so motivated that they got all of their own equipment and did not require my assistance very often.

I scaffold my planning process using the attached resource, based on one I received from Valley New School, which does all learning through a PBL model.  Students can complete this individually or in teams.  The planning stage will be the loudest, least organized, scariest part of the process.  Some students won’t know exactly what to do, will argue with one another and beg for your attention.  A few will plunge in, creating a product without planning anything and will need to be held back; others will struggle to come up with a viable idea; some will need help formulating the wording of their problem.  As a facilitator and not a lead teacher, you need to let students struggle.  Many times the groups that have the most trouble at the beginning have the best projects in the end.  They wind up taking more time in the planning phase and therefore everything else proceeds more smoothly.  Certain students also need reassurance that if their original plan does not work out, they will not be penalized.  A project that does not produce the desired results is not a failure, but rather a learning experience and an opportunity to try it another way.

I require students to get my approval of the planning document before they can proceed. Because of this, I expect to be pulled in ten different directions at once as everyone vies for my time and attention.  This is exhausting, but good!  I steel myself for these days and know things will settle down as projects are chosen and planned out.  Once students have created their plan and a tentative calendar, your days will run more smoothly.

Students learn time and task management through PBL.  Once we are in the actual research and action phases of the process, I ask students to do a self check-in and check-out process every day.  What are my responsibilities for the day?  What do we need?  And then, Did we meet those responsibilities? Why or why not?  What do we need for tomorrow?  Do we have homework?  The Buck Institute also provides an excellent set of student handouts to help teams set up their process and keep track of their work.

The hard work now falls to the students, and your job is to check in regularly to monitor progress and help facilitate overcoming challenges as they arise. You are now on your way to open-ended student inquiry!  Next topic, reflection.

Suggested Resources:

  • Short stories about real projects you could analyze with students from beginning to end as an example of PBL:  
    • (2007). Heroes of the Environment!. Harriet Rohmer.  
    • (2004) Voices of Hope (Heroes’ Stories for Challenging Times) (Readings from the Giraffe Heroes Project)

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015