How to Set Up Inquiry-Based Professional Development for Teachers

This year, at TCFL, the professional development (PD) themes we set for the school year were “engagement” and “differentiation.” As teachers began looking into these, we found that they had a wide variety of interests. Some wanted to work on making sure the entire class was engaged in discussions, others wanted to engage students through the Next Generation Science Standards learning framework, while still others wanted to focus on developing questioning strategies for differentiation. With such varying interests, we wondered how we could meet all of their needs. We finally came up with the idea of providing inquiry-based PD. Teachers would have the opportunity to focus on their own inquiry by coming up with questions that interest them, researching ideas and strategies, trying them out in their classes, reflecting on the effectiveness, and beginning the cycle over again. 

We truly believe that our PD needs to model any kind of teaching that we would like our teachers to do. We meet every Friday from 12:30 to 2:30. and in the past 3 years we’ve been using that time for individualized professional development. We’ve found that a variety of factors  go into to make the learning meaningful to teachers, but the number one is: choice. For that reason Edcamp PD, tech PLAYdates, and book studies (with choice in the books we study) have worked well for us. This time we chose inquiry-based PD because not only would teachers have a great deal of control over their learning, but they would experience inquiry learning in action, a strategy that we’d like to see them use more of in their classes.  At the moment, we’re five weeks into the PD sessions and it’s going better than we could have imagined, so I wanted to share our process with you.

1. Give teachers a voice.

At the beginning of December, we sent out a survey using Google forms asking teachers to let us know their needs and interests in the areas of engagement or differentiation. We wanted to make sure that teachers had a voice in creating our PD. 

In this Wakelet page you’ll find links to all the Wakelet pages for the 8 different categories we created.

Once we had gathered their answers, we grouped their ideas into eight different categories: four of them were about engagement and four of them had to do with differentiation. For example in differentiation teachers could choose from how to use higher level thinking skills, strategies and tools for differentiation, different forms of assessment or differentiated feedback to move students forward. We looked for books, podcasts, blog posts, webinars, and articles that teachers might use in their inquiry and we created a Wakelet page for each group. If you’re unfamiliar with Wakelet, it’s a powerful curating tool that is worth checking out! In the Wakelet, we included all of our online materials, along with any graphics and pictures we found that had to do with the area of research.

2. Give teachers choices

Teachers browsing choice tables.

For our first PD session of 2020, we set up a PD area with eight different tables. On each table, we placed all the books and resources that we had found for each distinct category. We included quotes, graphics, and QR codes that led to blog posts or articles. We invited the teachers  to browse among the tables and choose the area that they would like to study. From their choices, we formed groups of 4 – 6 teachers who would work together. As much as possible, we tried to include teachers from a variety of subject areas and grade levels.

3. Give teaches time to come up with driving questions

On the following Friday we introduced the teachers to the idea of inquiry. Each group had a  large chart paper with their chosen topic. We used the Question Formulation Technique from The Right Question Institute to help teachers dive deep into their topic and think about how it would apply in their classrooms. For instance ,one group asked: “How can I come up with activities that have the same end goal but are still differentiated enough to be effective?” and “Will lower level students feel less capable if they realize they are doing something different/less challenging? How do I avoid this?” We wanted them to come up with strong questions that would guide their inquiry. 

4. Starting the Inquiry Cycle

We explained that the inquiry cycle would include: 

  1. Doing research about their question(s).
  2. Deciding on a plan of action to try out in their classroom.
  3. Reflecting on how it went.
  4. Tweaking and making changes if necessary.
  5. Beginning the whole cycle over again with a new question.

5. Give teachers plenty of time for research and discussion

On the following three Fridays, each group met in a different classroom and began to look into their inquiry questions. They did research during the Friday PD sessions sharing any information they found on their group Wakelet page. Some teachers carried on researching in their own time throughout the week, but this was optional. They looked into teaching strategies that they would like to experiment with, discussed their learnings, and created their action plans. 

6. Allow teachers to experiment and reflect

Teachers experimented with their action plans in the classroom, sometimes asking coaches to come in and observe them. After they tried out their new strategies, they reflected on whether or not they had been successful. If they weren’t successful, they could decide to revamp the strategy or to drop it and try something else. In their groups, they shared their experiences, supported one another, and learned together.

We had intended to spend about seven weeks on our initial inquiry questions, but now that  we’re five weeks in, teachers are asking for more time. They find that as they learn, they want to keep researching and trying new strategies. They’re incredibly engaged and we’re hearing comments like:

  • “I’m loving this PD. I like having a dedicated time to read professional books and take notes. Discussing what we’ve found with my group has given me a lot of ideas. I’m getting so much more out of this than I normally do in PD.”
  • “I listened to the podcast ‘Self-Paced Learning’ on Cult of Pedagogy and it inspired me. I think I can do something like that, although it will be a lot of work upfront. I think I’ll start with a small two-week unit and see how it goes. But I think it’s a way that differentiation can work for my students.”
  • “I can’t believe how well changing my questioning strategies worked. Students seem to be taking more risks. The students noticed the change and told me this was the best class I ever taught!”
  • “This is so motivating and I’m learning so much. But I need more time. Can you please extend the inquiry PD? I’ve never learned so much!”

So, yes, we plan to extend the Inquiry PD and we’ll definitely be using this model again!



  1. Thank you for sharing!!

  2. I love this idea! We’ve been batting around the topic for a while and just haven’t gotten our feet on the ground yet. This is impressive.

    • Thanks for reading, Brandelynn. Let me know if you get started. I’d love to hear how you make it work for your teachers.

  3. Thanks for sharing Carla, this is great. I have visited your wakelet group and started following that.
    Would you mind sharing a bit more details of the 1st session, like maybe a closer picture of the material that you had set up on the these tables.
    Thanks in advance

  4. Would you mind sharing the questionnaire that you used to find out more from teachers, please?

    • Sure. We sent out a Google form with this message: We’re planning our PD for January. It will be Edcamp style grouping (there will be a number of areas to choose from). In order to prepare this we need to know your needs and interests. This PD session will be a 6 week study so that you have time to deepen your understanding and try applying what your learn in your classroom. Please write your interest(s) below. Feel free to give more than one idea.

      Then we gave them this starter: Subjects should be around the areas that we’re focusing on this year (engagement, differentiation, or inquiry). Please be specific. For example instead of saying “inquiry” you might write “Inquiry – how to help students come up with deeper questions.”

      Teachers had space to give 3 ideas. From those reponses we came up with our 8 areas of inquiry.

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