Skip to main content

3 ways to help your volunteers and program staff facilitate inquiry

By Anne Stevenson

Imagine an after-school program in which second graders learn about chemical change by making pancakes. Or a club in which kids in fourth through sixth grades build a Rube Goldberg machine for a county competition. Or a group of teens re-engineering an underwater robot.

How do you, as the adult guiding the learning experience, facilitate inquiry to best engage them and challenge deeper thinking?

Adults may feel successful in creating a “space” where questions are encouraged, yet they feel challenged with how to further facilitate group learning, guide youth but not give them all the answers, and help deepen the learning experience with content or higher level thinking skills. These are strategies that will work in any learning setting, even if you don’t work specifically with STEM programming.
Inquiry-based learning is as an approach that includes exploring the natural or material world through questioning, discoveries, and testing the questions in the search for new understanding. -- Institute for Inquiry
Here are three strategies:

  1. Share a tool that describes the Eight Practices of Science and Engineering and operationalizes these practices -- that is, describes what youth actually do when they are using these skills or practices.
    This tool from the Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium in San Francisco identifies what it looks like when youth use the skill or practice. Discuss this tool in training or orientation of your volunteers to help them reflect on their teaching experience afterward.

  2. Help strengthen the adult’s skill in guiding “inquiry talk.”

    Guiding productive group discussions can be challenging. These four goals for productive discussions from The Inquiry Project help frame the role of the adult facilitator:
    • Help individual students share, expand and clarify their own thinking
    • Help youth listen carefully to each other
    • Help youth deepen their reasoning
    • Help youth think WITH others

  3. The Inquiry Project offers nine “Talk Moves” to help facilitators reach these goals. This checklist includes strategies such as asking for evidence or reasoning, and challenging with a counter example. 

  4. Offer time to investigate questions in the group.

  5. When your group wonders about something new, be sure your adult facilitators know it is okay and even encouraged to “go off road” and explore a question of interest in the group. Although this may not have been part of the original lesson plan, adults (especially those in non-formal learning settings) can offer time for youth to investigate their own questions. For additional guidance on leading young people in deeper science investigations, consider viewing this webinar: Digging deeper into inquiry and further exploring the Eight Practices of Science and Engineering discussed by grade level.
Developing skill and expertise in facilitating inquiry takes time and reflection.  Providing tools to support your program staff and volunteers is one good way to support their growth. The ultimate goal is to deepen the learning experiences of the young people in our programs. How might you support your volunteers or staff to strengthen their skills at facilitating inquiry?

-- Anne Stevenson, Extension educator and Extension professor

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Anne,
    Thanks for sharing some ideas of how to supporting reflection and understanding of how science is part of the experiential learning process. In a way, it is quite similar to my strategy.

    To me, a reflection of what I learned while doing something is important. As a novice facilitator of learning, I carried around a small guide to help me guide others through the reflection. (here is update of the tool: )

    I try to use an adapted process to focuses on STEM practices. I know that it isn't always feasible to plan the exact questions you are going to use for every session, however, I try hard to create enough time for the reflection and have a plan that focuses on the 8 practices.

    1. Thanks Mark! The Guide to Experiential Learning (flip book) is a great tool with additional questions for guiding youth or adults through the phases of the Experiential Learning cycle; thanks for sharing the link to it. Your point is very important that we can't know the exact questions we'll ask because we don't know exactly where young people will take the experience or what they'll want to dig having tools in one's "tool kit" is vital, as well as just trying it! We all improve as facilitators the more we facilitate these learning experiences! In addition, I ask other adults for feedback on my facilitation helps to reflect on our practice and debrief with others. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I like the "Talk Moves" tool! It helps explain how an adult can prompt deeper thinking which is a hard skill to explain. Will look up the tool Mark suggests, too!

    1. I like this tool for the same reason! The Inquiry Project has many tools and resources for those who wish to learn more, including videos by teachers who are working to implement deeper inquiry into their classrooms or settings. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Anne,
    Really appreciated the resources and practical tips you point to in your blog. A new report by the University of Chicago done for the Wallace Foundation, "Foundations for Young Adult Success", does a nice job talking about the various stages of action and reflection in a way others may find useful. The report and various summaries can be found at While not specifically about an inquiry approach, it helps people see the yin and yang between digging deeper into activities and reflection -- both critical to learning.

    Since relationships are also so important to creating an environment where inquiry can happen, people might want to check out Search Institute's new work on Developmental Relationships and the five critical ingredients (see

    Here are the five components:

    The Developmental Relationships Framework

    Express CARE - Show that you like me and want the best for me.
    • Be Present—Pay attention when you are with me.
    • Be Warm—Let me know that you like being with me and express positive feelings toward me.
    • Invest—Commit time and energy to doing things for and with me.
    • Show Interest—Make it a priority to understand who I am and what I care about.
    • Be Dependable—Be someone I can count on and trust.

    CHALLENGE Growth - Insist that I try to continuously improve.
    • Inspire—Help me see future possibilities for myself.
    • Expect—Make it clear that you want me to live up to my potential.
    • Stretch—Recognize my thoughts and abilities while also pushing me to strengthen them.
    • Limit—Hold me accountable for appropriate boundaries and rules.

    Provide SUPPORT - Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.
    • Encourage—Praise my efforts and achievements.
    • Guide—Provide practical assistance and feedback to help me learn.
    • Model—Be an example I can learn from and admire.
    • Advocate—Stand up for me when I need it.

    Share POWER - Hear my voice and let me share in making decisions.
    • Respect—Take me seriously and treat me fairly.
    • Give Voice—Ask for and listen to my opinions and consider them when you make decisions.
    • Respond—Understand and adjust to my needs, interests, and abilities.
    • Collaborate—Work with me to accomplish goals and solve problems.

    Expand POSSIBILITIES - Expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities.
    • Explore—Expose me to new ideas, experiences, and places.
    • Connect—Introduce me to people who can help me grow.
    • Navigate—Help me work through barriers that could stop me from achieving my goals.

  4. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of keeping inquiry in our tool box of educational strategies! And I do appreciate the connection to the NGSS Practices of Science and Engineering.

    This week, as I worked with one of our STEM pilot clubs, I was reminded of how differences in the development stages of youth affects how we guide them through inquiry and what we can expect of them in terms of science and engineering practices.

    With the NGSS practices of science and engineering there are guides or expectations for the different stages of development (their's is based on grade). Does such a guide exist for inquiry? I would think that such a tool could be a valuable aid for facilitating inquiry.


Post a Comment