5 great inquiry ‘tuning in’ strategies for students of all ages

Senior teacher Ben Reeves (BR) and Primary teacher Emma Perrett (EP) demonstrate the power of engaging students’ curiosity, no matter what age.

Tuning students in to the concepts or big ideas of a new course of learning is different to merely introducing a new topic.

In the words of inquiry expert Kath Murdoch, “it’s about tuning in to students’ thinking”. It is a chance to honour what they bring to the inquiry, to unearth prior experiences, surface current thinking, and create meaningful contexts that will enable the formation of new knowledge, understanding and connection.

Students are never too young or too old to tune-in. As human beings, we love to be at the beginnings of a journey. We look ahead with feelings of hope, possibility, the promise of discovery, as we venture into the unknown.

Yet we also know from our own experience that what is meaningful is motivating, and when we are given a stake in shaping our own learning, we feel more engaged, more purposeful and more willing to put in effort.

Perhaps most importantly, to see ‘how far I have come’, I need to ask ‘where have I come from?’ Tuning in can surface the initial, visible evidence for students to see the continuous growth of their learning.

Here are five great tuning-in strategies that foster opportunities for student engagement and encourage their natural curiosity as co-creators of learning.

1. Mystery Artefact (or Stimulus Artefact)

What is it?

There is nothing like a mystery object to spark wondering and excitement.

Artefacts are concrete, physical things that are (or once were) embedded in a world of relations, meanings, processes or events.

Because of this, they are highly evocative to imaginative suppositions, hypothesis, or inferences about questions of use, value, context, culture, perspective, belief or significance.

Instead of announcing ‘this is what we’re studying next’, artefacts can prompt students to begin imagining and discovering a world of learning for themselves.

Examples

Contrasting objects

Philosopher Rob Wilson uses contrasts between familiar and unfamiliar objects to spark deep conceptual discussions. He once presented a bag, and a figurine (not these pictures, but real objects), and asked two simple questions:

  • What is this object?
  • What is its value?

The dissonance between the two objects naturally raised a whole range of different ideas, inferences and further questions, such as: what gives something value? Distinctions between use-value and aesthetic value. The relationship between culture, beliefs and value. Unintended consequences of some values on others (eg. plastic and pollution).

Students often come up with surprising and divergent thinking.

While this was intended to spark interest in problems of ‘value’ in Philosophy, it’s not hard to see how this same technique could engage students in issues of value in historical understanding, economics, English, or art interpretation. (BR)

Old fashioned objects

Rather than beginning a unit by announcing, ‘this term, we’re going to learn about the topic of communication and technology’, the teacher arrives with an old-fashioned telephone. She asks three questions:

  • What is this object?
  • How do you think it works?
  • What might it tell us about how people lived or communicated to others in the past, compared to how we do now?

For some teachers, it may be surprising that our analogue history is actually quite foreign to a native of the digital world.

By anchoring students in the past through a particular technological artefact, they have a specific reference point to begin wondering about the deeper conceptual relationships between technology, human relations, and social change. This can be further enriched by having students bring back stories of their parents’ or grandparents’ memories of using these objects, and what the world was like then. (BR)


Provoking thoughts and wonderings through a mystery artefact is particularly pertinent for primary students when tuning in to the transdisciplinary theme of ‘Where we are in place and time’.

Prep teachers Leah Opie and Sarah Johnston used a variety of olden day objects to spark curiosity at the beginning of their unit of inquiry on how ‘Our lives today reflect the past generations’.

After reading the story ‘Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge’ by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas, students reflected on the objects that Wilfred gave Miss Nancy to bring her memories back. Afterwards, they explored some olden day artefacts in the classroom.

Looking through the key concepts of form and connection, students were asked to try to guess what the artefacts were and how they worked. Some students thought the old radio may be a hairdryer and the mincer could be a horn.

After examining the olden day artefacts, the students wrote about what the object was, what it was used for, described its appearance and then reflected on what we use today that meets the same purpose. (EP)

Sparking curiosity and intrigue with an old-fashioned artefact can be achieved with students from all ages and many different subject areas. During a Year 5 unit of inquiry under the transdisciplinary theme ‘How the world works’, I presented the students with a variety of objects to capture their attention, create a sense of excitement and evoke deep thinking and questioning.

The central idea of the unit was ‘The changing demands of society determine the development of inventions’. To hone in on the evolution of different inventions, I wanted to take the students back in history to find out where many of our modern inventions first began.

Many students were able to make connections, while others were viewing these objects for the very first time. The rich discussion that ensued was memorable as students shared their experiences, made assumptions and asked thought provoking questions to deepen their understanding of how inventions have evolved and changed over time. (EP)

Artefacts of particular significance

Imagine you are a professional appraiser on the Antique Road Show. Someone arrives with this mysterious key. All they know is that it might have something to do with the Civil Rights Movement in America. How would you go about researching this object, in order to answer the questions:

Josh Ajima’s Mystery Key Challenge

This is the scenario that teacher Josh Ajima used to introduce a unit on Civil Rights and Martin Luther King.

Not only does the object surface students’ prior knowledge, it does so in a way that encourages initial imaginative inferences, hunches, hypothesis. It also focuses students on the concept of a research strategy.

Josh set up a design template so students could 3D print replicas of the historic key. This also served as a model for students to then research, design and create their own 3D mystery object challenge.

Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Objects can have all kinds of significance, in different subject areas and contexts. Imagine giving the metaphors in a poem over to students as real, tangible objects to explore for their associations and significance? Or a selection of different kinds of wheels, to spark curiosity about the mathematical notion of Pi? (BR)


During an upper primary unit on Migration, I presented the students with a suitcase containing objects, artefacts, photos, diary entries, maps, and so on. Students were intrigued and began to excitedly explore the mystery suitcase, seeking to uncover who it belonged to and discovering the owner’s migration story. (EP)

Tips and Tricks:

  • Make sure you are clear about your role & purpose as a facilitator during the tuning-in process — that is, to surface rich student ideas, meanings, prior knowledge. A mystery object could easily turn into a game of ‘guessing what’s in the teacher’s head’.
  • Objects need to be carefully selected and appropriate, to spark curiosity in line with the engagement purposes, concepts and connections with the unit.
  • Documenting initial ideas gives the teacher a wealth of information about how students are making meaning, levels of conceptual understanding, gaps in factual knowledge or skills, all giving directions about where students can be further challenged.

2. Wonder Wall (See, Think, Wonder)

What is it?

This thinking routine from Harvard Project Zero is so effective in stimulating students’ curiosity relating to an area of study. It works by presenting students with a rich stimulus, like a painting or an image, and asking three simple questions. Each question builds on the other, surfacing three different yet interrelated kinds of thinking:

  • What do you see? 
    Encourages close observation and use of descriptive language, by uncovering and noticing ‘what is there’.
  • What do you think is going on? 
    Takes thinking from description to initial inference-making, as students begin to hypothesise about the situation, the story, or how something might have come about. If you want to broaden student ideas from the stimulus, you can ask, ‘what do you think about that?’, geared more to surfacing initial opinions. This might work, for example, if the image depicts something controversial.
  • What do you wonder? (Or, ‘what are you puzzled about?’)
    Having students ask questions helps to develop their dispositions towards curiosity and the expectation of further inquiry. Questions also enable a re-engagement, as students circle back to the details, pondering their meaning, and opening up possible significance.

Examples

I used this image in a year 10 English class to engage students with the process of interpretation.

The richness of the Raft of the Medusa stimulus enabled us to slow things down, especially the initial question — ‘what do you see?’

As students notice and share details, they also see what they might have missed. For example, hearing one student point out the tiny ship on the far horizon, others proclaimed, ‘wow, I didn’t notice that…’.

As the class collectively builds details and hypothesis about ‘what is going on’, further questions naturally emerge. Here is one student’s list of questions:

This student had originally missed the detail of the tiny ship, and was able to connect this to their question about the ‘waving scarfs’, raising further ideas and discussions about the human capacity for hope.

We could then venture into deeper ideas drawing on these details: for example, what might be the significance of the scale of the human gestures, compared to the scale of the ship?

In terms of our focus, this rich collective exploration enabled us to then segue into a metacognitive level, as we discussed the role and importance of each of these types of thinking in the process of creating interpretations.

We could then transfer and apply these insights and techniques to other examples in poetry. As students internalise thinking structures, they can begin to use them independently as conscious strategies in other situations.

I also had students produce a summary piece of writing that combined their descriptions, inferences and wonderings, after the discussions. This can provide a baseline understanding for further explorations into perspectives, contexts, themes, or artistic features. Here is an example of a student’s summary: (BR)


I used these two images (below) during a year 5 unit inquiring into the impact of colonisation on indigenous cultures. Both pictures depict the British colonisation of Australia from different perspectives — that of a white colonial settler contrasting with the perspective of Indigenous Australians. In the initial ‘I see’ investigation, students were encouraged to only identify what they could see in the pictures rather than expressing feelings or thoughts.

From these observations the students were then asked to make inferences about what they thought about the images. Using the contextual cues in both pictures, the British flag and the boats of the First Fleet, students delved deeper into the meaning behind the images and a rich discussion ensued about how the same event can be viewed from different perspectives.

Students then had the opportunity to wonder and ask questions about the images. These questions were then used as a reference point throughout the unit of inquiry as students were able to answer their initial wonderings and reflect on how their learning had shifted and changed. (EP)

Tips and Tricks

  • Having students write down their seeings, wonderings and questions ensures that each person has had a chance to think for themselves and offer something to share.
  • Ask students to write down other noticings (things they might not have seen) in a different colour, during the discussion. This helps them to build rich details and acknowledge the collective contributions of others.
  • Encourage students to inquire further into their questions. This can be an especially useful way of springboarding students into the initial exploration of a unit, giving them a sense of agency and purpose.

3. Circle of Viewpoints

What is it?

This is a thinking routine from Harvard Project Zero that makes visible the various perspectives embedded in a stimulus, text, issue or phenomena.

As part of a tuning-in approach, surfacing a multiplicity of viewpoints can help students to frame their initial thinking in relation to others, begin to appreciate complexity, and map out the terrain for further questions, ideas or investigations.

Example

A circle of viewpoints can follow on really well from initial ‘see, think, wonder’ descriptions. Students can begin to make a bridge between identifying particular perspectives, and the abstract ideas or values they may represent.

This example follows on from the previous Raft of the Medusa stimulus:

Notice how the students are firstly identifying the concrete features of different viewpoints, adding layers of illustrative details, and then using these as springboards into generating more abstract thematic ideas, such as ‘hope’, ‘grief’, ‘fate vs chance’. (BR)


The circle of viewpoints thinking routine is very effective when students are looking at something through the conceptual lens of perspective. The following example was taken from an inquiry into different forms of expression. Students viewed a variety of art forms and using the circle of viewpoints routine, investigated how different people/groups perceive or feel about that art form.

The stimuli used for the example above was a picture of graffiti. This particular student discussed his personal perspective and then looked at the viewpoints of the police/government, the public and graffiti artists. (EP)

Tips and Tricks

  • Having students move from the concrete to the abstract helps them to discover ideas, deeper meanings or significant concepts for themselves.
  • Take the opportunity to use the circle of viewpoints as a focus for discussion, enabling further elaborations of student thinking and the unpacking of ideas.
  • Once students begin to think at the abstract or conceptual level, the teacher can continue to press for supporting detail, reinforcing the important relationship between evidence and ideas.
  • A circle of viewpoints can also be a great springboard into creative, analytical or exploratory writing, as well as providing opportunities for students to generate their own investigative questions.

4. Silent Gallery Walk

What is it?

A silent gallery walk is an interactive classroom exhibit of meaningful questions, documents, images, problem-solving situations, texts and/or video clips.

Students walk through the gallery documenting their observations, thoughts, questions and opinions on the various graphic or textual displays, just as one might walk through an art gallery viewing artwork.

Students must interact with each exhibit in a purposeful way.

Choose a topic or concept that will evoke meaningful responses and challenge the students to question or deepen their thinking.

Students are to rotate through the gallery and will have a set amount of time to interact, contribute to and think about the stimuli at each exhibit. They may pose their own questions or simply respond or add to another student’s thoughts and feelings.

This thinking routine may culminate in a whole class discussion, small group reflection, exit slip or descriptive writing piece.

Example

To celebrate NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week, I set up a Silent Gallery Walk in my Year 5 classroom.

I specifically chose a range of stimuli to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

There was no discussion prior to this tuning in activity as I wanted to spark curiosity and allow the students the opportunity to share prior experiences, question their understandings and view these exhibits without any preconceived ideas or answers.

At the conclusion of the silent gallery, we began to unpack each exhibit as students shared their ideas, thoughts and wonderings. (EP)

Tips and Tricks

  • It is important to explain to the students that a Gallery Walk is to be done in silence, just like walking around an art gallery. This is a quiet activity.
  • This strategy may be used when you want to have students share their work, examine important historical documents, view news reports, respond to quotations or ask thought provoking questions.
  • As this strategy requires students to physically move around the room and interact with stimuli, it can be especially engaging for kinesthetic and hands-on learners.
  • Displays can be hung on walls or placed on tables around the classroom. Each exhibit needs to be far enough away from others so that students can evenly disperse around the room.

5. Provocation

What is it?

Emotions are not only powerful motivational tools, they are also signals that we care about something that matters in the world. A good provocation jolts us into a situation of challenge, discomfort or dissonance, where we must encounter or negotiate other responses, other perspectives, and exist for a time in a state of exciting, unresolved tension.

Examples

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia. There was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock.

Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors. Peering inside, he saw a dead body, with nothing on but a gold ring.

This he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. He discovered it could make him invisible.

With great haste, he traveled to the royal city. As soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Gyges kills King Candaules

Would you, like Gyges, ‘do as you pleased’ with a magic ring that made you invisible, and be a “God among men”?(Plato, Republic)

This is the provocation I presented to my year 11 International Baccalaureate (IB) philosophy class, as part of our tuning-in to the study of Plato’s Republic. Almost at once, stories of imagined lives of unfettered freedom began to fly around the classroom.

Students who fastened themselves to virtue were quickly challenged by others, “as if you wouldn’t…”, vying together with the discomfort of looking into the mirror of their own moral selves.

The discussion delved into deeper questions about human nature.

Distinctions began to emerge between personal morality, legal systems, ethical frameworks.

We delved into the origins and assumptions of contract theories of justice.

All of this emerged from the students’ own guided dialogue, as they came to articulate the central questions of the text:

  • What is justice?
  • Does it pay to be virtuous?

Provocations are a great way to engage students’ emotions or imaginations, as they authentically grapple with the big questions of a text or unit of study, marking the start of a journey for later reflections and travels of deeper understandings. (BR) (See a further exploration of this example here: https://medium.com/@ben.reeves_62533/the-ancient-art-of-dialogue-10d3543d3a1c)


Tuning students in to a unit of inquiry about the impact of migration and the settlement of new colonies on indigenous cultures, I wanted to provoke my learners’ interest by creating an experience they would never forget.

The most powerful provocations often involve tapping into the important concepts of a unit — in this case, settlement, invasion and ownership.

I began to reflect on these concepts and was taken back to my own personal experience of owning my first home. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and achievement. If my new house was invaded and taken over by another family, I would have felt a devastating loss.

I couldn’t even begin to fathom the incredible loss the Indigenous Australians must have felt, when British settlers colonised Australia. How could I replicate such a feeling in my students?

The provocation involved explaining to the students that due to unforeseen circumstances, the two Year 5 classes would be swapped, and the teachers switched.

We were halfway through the school year and the children had already formed such a close bond with me as their teacher. They also felt a strong sense of identity in the classroom as their work adorned the walls and they had played an active role in the design of the learning space.

Swapping teachers and moving classrooms to some was catastrophic, while for others it prompted contemplation about what this would mean, and how they would cope with this sudden change and upheaval.

It wasn’t long before the other class ‘invaded’ the classroom leaving students feeling lost and afraid.

As teachers, we knew in that moment that our purpose had been achieved. We wanted the students to experience what it would feel like to have something really important and valuable taken away from them.

While this provocation sparked confusion and discomfort, it also stimulated imagination and curiosity.

It was important to end this scenario with a debrief session so that students could voice how the experience made them feel. They were then able to draw on this experience throughout the unit when discussing the impact of colonisation on indigenous peoples.

When students can make a personal connection to the concepts being explored, the learning becomes even more enriching and meaningful. This experience was one that was so memorable for students, they continued to talk about it for the remainder of the year. The concepts of settlement, invasion and ownership were seemingly entrenched in their minds.

Tips and Tricks

  • It is important for provocations to elicit a personal connection between students and the concepts being explored. Students can then move towards transferring their conceptual understanding to the bigger ideas in a unit of inquiry.
  • Provocations can take place throughout a unit to engage students in thinking and questioning. While they are a wonderful way to tune students in to a new inquiry, the most important thing is that they leave a lasting impression that students can reflect on and connect to their learning.
  • Give the students time to discuss and reflect on the experience. Provocations are intended to provoke or challenge one’s thinking and it is important to respect that students may need this time to debrief and express their feelings and emotions.

All of these tuning-in approaches offer immense opportunity for dialogue, discussion and questioning, as we seek to cultivate one of the most important dispositions for students of all ages —the spark of curiosity.

This article has been a collaboration between Ben Reeves and Emma Perrett.

Please let us know if you have enjoyed the different ideas and perspectives we have brought to our theme by clicking on the icon that looks like this, on the sidebar above — thanks!

Ben Reeves writes in the areas of education, philosophy and fiction. Current labors of love: Masters of Education — researching the assessment of 21st Century skills, first YA novel, and a tiny boat.

Emma Perrett is an IB PYP teacher, lifelong learner and Ed-tech geek. She is inspired by all things inquiry, cultivating learner agency in her classroom and unlocking the magic of learning.