Mama, Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?

PBL-Graphic_3When my son Cory was a young boy, he would ask me questions in which I did not have quick, concrete answers.  “Mama, why do zebras have stripes? Why is the sky blue? How does a plane stay in the air?” Cory was naturally curious about the world he lived in—he wondered and he asked questions because he wanted to learn. As he grew older, he complained about school, and his questions took on a different form. He asked questions like “Why do I have to take English? How will I use Social Studies in real life? Why do I need a high school diploma?” Thankfully, Cory graduated from high school, but he will be the first to tell you it was only because I made him. He will also say the only high school learning he found useful was his BOCES construction courses. He has owned his own construction business since graduation. Obviously, the learning was relevant and interesting to him.

Recently, I was telling Cory about my new job as a Project-Based Learning (PBL) trainer. Now 29 years old, he asked me, “Mom, why has it taken teachers so long to figure out how kids learn?” Again, I did not have a quick, concrete answer.  His question, however, inspired me to form my own question–How can we nurture the spirit of inquiry to deepen student learning?

Luckily, we do not have to look too hard for the answer to this question because the natural process of inquiry is grounded in the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS). Inquiry-based learning supports constructivist learning theory where students construct deep meaning of the content rather than superficial learning. This kind of deep learning means instructional shifts must occur as students activate prior knowledge and investigate the topic leading to in-depth, complex understandings.  Nevertheless, the CCLS partially answers my question—what about the spirit of inquiry?

Project-Based Learning (PBL) embeds the inquiry process and brings learning to life for students. Now, we are getting at the heart of our inquiry question, but what does inquiry look like in a PBL plan?

The inquiry begins with assessing what students already know about a topic at the beginning of a unit. Cornell University has several strategies identified for assessing student prior knowledge, which leads into a list of “needs to know” produced from students’ questions and curiosity about the topic. Questioning is an important aspect of inquiry for both teachers and students; teachers can use questions to engage and challenge students to explore a topic.  Additionally, students have to know how to formulate effective questions to help drive the inquiry. That brings us to our next question, what makes a good inquiry question? A good inquiry-based question is one that is open to research, may have multiple answers, and encourages analytical thinking.

Let’s take this concept of inquiry and add collaboration, one of the 21st Century skills. What is collaborative inquiry? Collaborative inquiry is more than cooperative teams working together to create a product or to perform research with minimal engagement. Collaborative inquiry is students working in small groups to explore new and challenging content and concepts. It involves students—not teachers—digging deep into topics based on questions they care about or generate. In other words, they use the inquiry process to explore a topic and to take a lead on their own learning. This active exploration may entail students interviewing an expert, surveying or making observations of groups of people, looking for patterns or trends in data, or building a prototype or a model. Inquiry groups work together to gather information, to build their knowledge, to conduct investigations, to synthesize data and results, and to share their findings or conclusions with others. This is the answer to our inquiry question– How can we nurture the spirit of inquiry to deepen student learning?


Summer time is a perfect opportunity for teachers to further their inquiry about this topic. I would like to invite you to our PBLNY conference August 5-7 in which I will be hosting a breakout session titled Collaborative Inquiry on August 7. Another event you might consider is a one-day workshop on July 23 titled Power of Us: Collaborative Inquiry, which I will be co-hosting with Phyllis Litzenberger.  If you are unable to attend either event, please share with me how you use or plan to use collaborative inquiry in your classroom to deepen my understanding.

For those inquiring-minds who want to know the answer to my son’s question, why do zebras have stripes? I used Google for my mini—inquiry, which produced a quick, concrete answer.  Scientists discovered that the zebras’ stripes have evolved over time in order to repel blood-sucking flies. I have provided the link for you so you can see how researchers used the inquiry process to arrive at this discovery.

Pawlewicz_Denise_WEBDenise Pawlewicz
Project Based Learning Trainer/Coach
OCM BOCES Instructional Support Services

Twitter: @dpawlewicz

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