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Books in Translation

Every Student Science Literate
July 18, 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 21
Table of Contents 

Teaching Through Inquiry

Engage, Explore, Explain, and Extend

Jeff C. Marshall

This article gives an overview of an instructional framework that takes students through the four components of inquiry: engage, explore, explain, and extend. The author describes the central aspects of each inquiry phase, the types of questions students might consider, assessments that check readiness to progress to the next level, and what reflective teacher practice might look like at each phase.


Engaging the learner through a hook, mind capture, or perturbation does effectively initiate the learning process, but engaging students in inquiry-based learning is more involved than just considering student motivation. The engage phase of inquiry includes all of the following aspects: (1) probing prior knowledge; (2) identifying alternatives or misconceptions; (3) providing motivation and interest-inducing stimuli; and (4) developing scientific questioning (fundamental to both science and math classes).

Teacher intentionality is critical for determining the degree that each aspect is emphasized in a given lesson. For instance, if the lesson or unit is inherently highly motivating, then you might best spend your time focusing on revealing students' prior knowledge or misconceptions.

Effective questioning is critical during all phases of inquiry-based learning. Effective questions to guide teacher facilitation during the four aspects of the engage phase include the following:

  • What do you know about _____?
  • What have you seen like this?
  • What have you heard about _____ that you aren't sure is true?
  • What would you like to investigate regarding _____?

Formative assessments can provide content-rich scenarios to check your students' understanding and help decide when to move on in the unit. Formative assessments for the engage phase might include a discrepant event (i.e., a surprising or startling science demonstration that powerfully piques students' curiosity), a pre-test to gauge misconceptions, formative probes (Keeley, Eberle, & Farrin, 2005), or KWHL charts (van Zee, Iwasyk, Kurose, Simpson, & Wild, 2001). A KWHL chart is a graphic organizer that facilitates learning by having students answer the following questions:

  1. What do I know?
  2. What do I want to know?
  3. How do I find out?
  4. What have I learned?

The more commonly known KWL chart leaves out a fundamental step for science and mathematics education that asks students to articulate how the investigation and learning will take place—for example, designing a procedure in science or a solution path in mathematics. When teachers reflect on what has occurred during the engage stage, they gain valuable information that informs their decisions for the next steps of instructional practice. For instance, by asking yourself, what did my students' prior knowledge tell me about their readiness to learn?, you are challenged to address specific student needs before plowing through more material.


Once you and your class have successfully navigated the engage stage, you can lead students into the explore phase. Note, however, that sometimes you might omit the engage stage. For instance, if a previous lesson in the unit uncovered the students' prior knowledge, or if the goals of the engage and explore phases can be collapsed into one instructional activity, then you may begin a lesson with the explore phase. The key aspects that define the explore phase include actively involving students in one or more of the following activities: predicting, designing, testing, collecting, and reasoning (Achieve, 2012; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; National Research Council, 2012).

Effective questions that help guide students through the explore phase include the following:

  • What if …?
  • How can you best study this question or problem?
  • What happens when …?
  • What information do you need to collect?
  • Why did you choose your method to study the question or problem?

Formative assessments can be contextualized into knowledge- or process-centered domains that focus on the individual, small groups, or whole class. Furthermore, formative assessment and reflective practice become meaningfully intertwined when individual responses are united with small- and large-group discussions. A common example is the think-pair-share learning strategy (Lyman, 1981).

Often teachers limit themselves to a fairly passive observational role when assessing student progress during explore. Although it may be beneficial to let students wade in the muck at times, you may want to assume a more active role by providing guided prompts to encourage individuals or groups to think more deeply about the investigation at hand. For instance, you could ask groups of students to describe the procedure that they intend to follow, and then have them tell you how this approach will help answer the study question. Doing so encourages students to slow down and think about how they interact with the content and what their thought processes are.

Reflective practice during the explore phase may begin by reviewing individual student entries in science or math journals or by considering students' proficiency in responding to their completion of the H portion of the KWHL chart ("How do I effectively study this question or problem?"). For example, if you learn that data collection seems problematic for your science class, then you might initiate a brief discussion with small groups that focuses on how to gather data in meaningful ways.


During the explore phase, process skills are emphasized as students grapple with ideas. During the explain phase, content becomes central while the process skills are used to support higher-order thinking such as interpreting, justifying, and analyzing. In this explore-before-explain model, students from diverse backgrounds and abilities now have shared experiences as a basis for their claims and ideas. Other prior experiences that students bring to class enrich the learning, too, but learning is accessible to all students because the data collected and observations made were experienced by everyone in class. At the core of the explain phase—and inquiry learning in general—students are involved in a recursive cycle between evidence and explanations. Ideally, the practices (or process skills) and content become embedded in the investigation.

Central aspects of the explain phase include (1) interpreting data and findings; (2) providing evidence for claims; (3) communicating findings (written, oral, using technology); and (4) providing alternative explanations for findings. Effective questions you can pose during this phase include the following:

  • What pattern(s) did you notice?
  • What evidence do you have for your claims?
  • How can you best explain or show your findings?
  • What are some other explanations for your findings?

Assessments for the explain phase include lab reports, presentations, and discussions. These assessments can be formative or summative depending on the implementation. Graphic organizers such as KWHL charts and POE (predict, observe, explain) cycles (White & Gunstone, 1992) that may have begun during earlier phases can now be completed (e.g., "What have you learned? Explain your results."). Concept maps can be used in a new way during the explain phase: during engage, they highlight knowledge gaps; whereas during explain, they illustrate links among new concepts, prior knowledge, and learned skills.

Reflective practice during the explain phase entails the teacher considering points such as How strong are the claims being made by the student? How well are students able to convey knowledge of key concepts? How accurate are their claims?


Providing one or more opportunities for students to apply their knowledge in meaningful, authentic contexts during the extend phase helps students solidify their conceptual understanding and develop a more permanent mental representation. You can determine the number of extend activities or the amount of time for this phase by considering the difficulty of the concept(s) being studied, the concept's importance in the curriculum, and the degree of understanding shown by all students.

During extend, students are asked to apply, elaborate, transfer, and generalize knowledge to novel situations. Appropriate questions for the extend phase include the following:

  • How do you think _____ applies to _____?
  • What would happen if …?
  • Where can we use this concept in the real world?
  • What consequences, benefits, and risks will come with certain decisions?

At this point in the inquiry process, assessments typically are seen only as summative. However, by providing formative assessment during extend, you can encourage students to think more deeply about their work. For example, you might split students into small teams to perform a new investigation or to solve a new problem that remains focused on the main concepts being studied. Or ask students to reflect in their journals on an area of weakness that you observed during a presentation.

In this stage of inquiry, you want to understand to what degree students are successful in transferring knowledge to new ideas and the quality of understanding that students can demonstrate. Reflective practice in this stage of instruction consists of focusing on the degree of conceptual understanding. The importance of the concept to the subject will help you determine the level of proficiency and the depth of understanding to expect from all students.


Achieve. (2012). Next Generation Science Standards. Retrieved from

Keeley, P., Eberle, F., & Farrin, L. (2005). Uncovering student ideas in science: 25 formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association Press.

Lyman, F. T. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students. In A. S. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming Digest (pp. 109–113). College Park: University of Maryland Press.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Washington, DC: Authors.

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

van Zee, E. H., Iwasyk, M., Kurose, A., Simpson, D., & Wild, J. (2001). Student and teacher questioning during conversations about science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(2), 159–190.

White, R. T., & Gunstone, R. F. (1992). Probing understanding. London: Falmer Press.

Jeff C. Marshall is an associate professor in science education at Clemson University in South Carolina. He is also the director of the Inquiry in Motion Institute, which works to facilitate teacher transformation in K–12 mathematics and science classrooms through rigorous and authentic inquiry-based learning experiences.

Source: Adapted from Succeeding with Inquiry in Science and Math Classrooms, a forthcoming book from ASCD and the National Science Teachers Association (October 2013).


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 21. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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