Beyond Curriculum Mapping: Using Technology To Delve Deeper into Inquiry Learning


At Graham Elementary, part of L'Anse Creuse Public Schools in Michigan, our elementary school staff decided to take an evaluative look at the use of technology in the classroom through a self-study process and a district technology initiative called Project 2000 over a two-year period. The faculty had the opportunity to determine a new direction relative to technology integration, and, to that aim, we determined that curriculum mapping, study groups, and an onsite technology coach would be a model for our professional development efforts.

Our process included identifying curricular content, essential questions, and technology connections by grade level through a curriculum mapping process (Morehead & LaBeau, 2005). Through a self study of classroom technology use, Barbara LaBeau (technology consultant) and I (principal) decided that without a focus on curriculum reorganization through a curriculum mapping process, the school would not make enough progress toward the integration of computer technology into students' learning experiences. We determined through the self study that some teachers had developed projects and lessons that had only an appearance of integration with technology. We both questioned whether the lesson or project would continue to develop with meaningful technology integration without support and agitation of a technology consultant.

As we looked at the examples of technology, we asked ourselves, "Did the technology really become an integrated and essential part of the lesson?" Moreover, we pondered whether the initial restructured lesson or project allowed for the inclusion of technology event for just the sake of technology. In other words, we considered whether the true nature of the project or lesson using technology existed as a natural connection to the curriculum or as simply contrived. We agreed the situation was the latter and decided on a plan of action.

Curriculum Mapping, Integration and Inquiry Learning
Barbara and I organized a curriculum mapping process that included the expectation that teachers would begin to make technology connections. We encouraged teachers to consider how learning processes or concept development, such as compare and contrast or change over time, could incorporate computer technology applications, such as Inspiration, Kidspiration, Graph Club or Timeliner. Teachers continued to match the learning processes with the tools that best facilitated the process.

When the teachers began to see that computer technology enabled students to use inquiry for information, we encouraged them to study inquiry-based learning as a powerful model for acquiring deep understandings. Barbara and I decided to investigate inquiry learning as a possible pathway to allow teachers to see the value of incorporating technology into their teaching strategies.

During a summer retreat the teachers were introduced to the concept of inquiry learning. We explained multiple methods of using inquiry-based learning in the classroom to include learning centers, collaborative learning, cooperative learning, project-based leaning, and problem-based learning. Using a real worm bin, we linked models of inquiry-based learning for each grade level to the worm bin. By giving the teachers examples of essential questions appropriate to each grade level and content standard coupled with group work and discussion, the teachers worked on informational questions and concepts in which their students could participate and that aligned with their grade level standards.

Essentially, this process was the beginning of the teachers' understanding of how they could integrate inquiry appropriate to their grade level.

Also during the summer staff retreat we began with a discussion of inquiry-based learning and linked examples of what teachers where doing in their classroom that could easily be molded into a thematic unit and bridge the information that students were learning into broader concepts. We asked teachers to continue during the day to meet in grade-level meetings and, with their curriculum map in hand, to connect individual units into thematic units. Barbara and I both found that the teachers benefited from ongoing opportunities following the retreat to collaborate, reflect, research, and study teaching strategies and technology integration using the curriculum maps as a guide.

During these sessions, Barbara provided information related to distance-learning programs, collaborative projects, resource sites, and software capabilities to name a few. We considered these sessions as knowledge-building, motivational, and, in many ways, belief-changing experiences for teachers. Many teachers became intrigued and excited with the idea of facilitating learning in a new context, which included technology integration.

Essential Questions and Inquiry Learning
To create this new context for learning, we encouraged teachers to start with essential questions and understandings based on curriculum content standards from the curriculum mapping process. We explained that when teachers use questions to introduce topics, students are excited about finding answers. When questions begin with "What?" Why? or "How?" teachers lead students to try to understand the world in a more conceptual and fundamental manner.

Barbara effectively challenged the teachers to reflect on "how" the students might communicate their knowledge or understanding of concepts. Ultimately, teachers began to share with us their thoughts about how researching and representing are facilitated through technology use. They also came to the realization that products created by the students could serve as a form of performance assessment. During subsequent grade level meetings with the teachers, Barbara encouraged the teachers to accept the role of facilitator to assist students in understanding how the information gained is applied. In other words, in the process of their creating inquiry-based learning experiences, teachers began to see that they could not supply all of the needed information to the students without giving them predetermined answers to their questions or the essential questions.

Furthermore, students would need to be the searchers of information, and the teacher's role would need to change to a facilitator of the learning process. Moreover, she highlighted the importance of teachers supporting the students' understanding by scaffolding learning as students gathered and sorted information. We suggested that one way of accomplishing this goal was through student-teacher conferences. Some teachers soon discovered that by conferencing with the students individually, in pairs or groups, the students communicated their desire to present their learning in a variety of ways. Students became more actively engaged as learners as they researched and presented learning very differently from the way they had done in the recent past using technology as a tool to this aim.

Addressing Teacher Concerns Through Professional Development
Barbara and I discovered that when teachers first begin inquiry learning, they face many challenges. For example, a second grade teacher posed these questions as she struggled to implement her yearlong focus on community:

  1. How do I construct questions that take children beyond literal understandings?
  2. How much can I expect the students to come up with, and what do I need to do in order to make sure that the curriculum objectives are covered?
  3. How do I decide which resources I should use and provide to the students?
  4. How can I help children plan, organize and present the information in a meaningful way?

To address the concerns and questions posed by the second-grade teacher, Barbara and I met individually with her to share a model of inquiry learning referred to as project based learning. Our goal was to provide direction and organization of curriculum content leading to technology integration through an inquiry process.

Our first step with the teacher was to clarify the theme that could unify the second-grade curriculum concepts in some way. This process entailed looking at each benchmark under science and social studies to begin with developing a common theme. Once a theme emerged, we continued to ask her to develop it. In doing so, the teacher framed a yearlong theme (table) around the unifying topic of community.

Year-Long Theme: Communities All Around Us
(adapted from Second Grade Unit of Study)
Content Area Benchmarks
(Michigan Curriculum Frameworks)
Essential Questions Conceptual Lens

Identify familiar organisms as part of a food chain or food web.

Design systems that encourage growing of particular plants/ animals.

Describe the basic requirements for all living things to maintain their existence.

What is a community?

Why are plants and animals interdependent in an ecosystem?

How is a garden a community?

How are communities alike or different?

Why are rules important to communities?


Compare and contrast (garden/insect and people community)

Social Studies

Identify locations of significance in the environment.

Describe people and their roles and contributions to the community.

Describe goods and services within a community.

Describe the characteristics of communities within a region.


This theme came together under the conceptual lens of interdependency uniting both science and social studies benchmarks/understandings. A comprehensive explanation of the three phases of project based learning provided the teacher with a critical framework for designing each unit of study.

Components of the Project-Based Second Grade Unit Design
Phase I of project-based learning begins through student interest in a topic, teacher initiation of a topic or a combination of teacher and student interest (Katz & Chard, 2000). In this example the teacher focused on the curriculum benchmarks in social studies and science. A substantive discussion followed that provided the teacher with an understanding of the students' background knowledge and experience with the topic of community. In this way, ownership of the project involved the entire class.

Next, an opening event or activity was implemented that stimulated interest initially for the whole class. The activity consisted of her reading The Magic School Bus Inside a Bee Hive and used Discovery's Unitedstreaming video clips to illustrate "a bee's life." These experiences led to the children's idea about using the nature area for observing bees and ants as "community" insects. For older elementary school children, it can be interesting to collect ideas from the whole class and map out what they already know about the topic from their own experience. The class creates a topic web plan or research construct. Inspiration or SmartIdeas are useful software tools for organization of thoughts.

The teacher uses this opportunity to assess what the students already know about and have experience with in regards to the topic. This informal assessment allows the teacher to determine needs of the students to ensure a comprehensive learning experience for each child.

The next step involved the teacher encouraging questions or wonderings from the children. The children were asked what they would like to investigate during the project. The teacher posted questions in the classroom and added more questions to the list each day. In our second grade example, the students generated many questions after the teacher took them to the nature center to study it, collected data and determined whether the nature area (garden) was a community. Many questions emerged as they shared, reviewed, discussed, and debated the information collected, as well as their prior knowledge. The questions were reviewed, revised, and discussed for a day or two before moving on to Phase 2.

During Phase 2, students think about, discuss, predict, and record what they are likely to see during their fieldwork. In this example, the fieldwork involved an off site learning experience in the nature area. Before they began their study, students were assisted by the teacher assisted in narrowing down which questions they were able to investigate, which "experts" they may contact, and objects they might bring back to the classroom.

During their visits to the nature area, they took notes, made sketches, and took digital photos of what they were most interested in and about what they would most like to learn.

The teacher had the children take backpacks or fanny packs to store materials during the experience. The packs included writing and drawing tools, sketchpads or clipboards, digital cameras, and tape recorders. (MP3 players would work great!) Fieldwork followup is critical to include in phase 2. The children discussed the field trip; shared accounts of what happened; and explained their sketches and photos, "experts" they interviewed, and observations of what they saw and what they learned.

In the role of facilitator, the teachers assisted the children with the organization of the information gathered using questioning prompts such as, "How can we put all of our information together?" In this project, a large bulletin board in the room was the perfect area for display of data. The sketches became drawings that became more detailed murals or paintings in Phase 3 or used for plans for the construction of representations of their learning using a variety of art medium. In fact, the digital photos and drawings were developed into a large mural for this project in phase 3.

The students collected data on observations they made in the nature center. The students, upon returning to the classroom, charted their collective findings and created a graph on Tom Snyder's Graph Club. A poster-sized graph was posted in the classroom for further reference regarding the nature center. Students were encouraged to use information books and the Internet (with a hot list developed for student research) to confirm their understandings or raise new questions.

Based on the year-long theme of "community," the teacher needed to have the students understand that the nature area is part of a larger a community, and not just the community of bees.

Another focus for the community project was expanding to human communities--rural, suburban, and urban. Ultimately, the teacher facilitated a compare and contrast of the insect and human communities.

For the study of urban communities, the students invited visiting experts or used distance learning to have first-hand experience of the topic under study. Visiting experts talked to the children and answered questions. The teacher, continuing the study of communities, planned a field trip to a nearby urban area. The job of the students during the field trip was to record the various services and buildings in the community, taking pictures and drawing pictures. Students also conducted interviews concerning the jobs of people in the community. A group of students interviewed a civil engineer about their job. Several students posed the question of, "Where does the rainwater go in the city?" Once walked over without consideration, the drainage cover was now an item of fascination and further study! The students in the photo "discovered" a drainage sewer cover and delighted in their finding.

Phase 3 included a culminating activity, projection, presentation, or representation. The activity involved communicating, sharing, and presenting the students' representational learning from the project to others who may be interested. This provided an excellent opportunity and real purpose to review and evaluate the learning that has taken place over the course of several days or weeks. For example, the second grade class created a brochure about the city they visited entitled, "A Second Grade View of a City." The brochure contained their scanned sketches, digital photos, interviews, and descriptions of their experiences. The second graders then presented a copy of the brochure to all of the businesses and locations they visited and their families.

These representational learning opportunities provide the students with a way to express their learning and understandings. The children needed the opportunity to engage in a process of reflection of the learning. The teacher offered the children creative ways of representing and expressing their new knowledge through art, stories, drama, construction, and other learning media--in this example, the brochure idea. In phase 3 the teacher assesses the students' understanding of the essential learnings. Additionally, the teacher evaluated whether the students found the answers to the essential questions.

Upper Elementary Inquiry Project
A fourth-grade teacher approached inquiry learning in her classroom using the nature center as the central theme of the classroom study. Students' interest in recycling in the school and the community allowed for the extension of recyclers in the nature center. A worm bin was set up in the room, serving as the unifying object. The collection of data from the worms' food and excretion served as mathematical inquiry and allowed the students to construct graphs and charts of the information. Information gathered from video streaming, experts from distance learning, and information from research on the Internet proved to be invaluable student inquiry.

The students' interest in the garden also prompted them to research historical and botanical information for additional plantings in the nature center. Understanding plant growing needs and cycles and determining the flora and fauna across the regions of the United States allowed the students to determine what to plant in the garden. Inquiry into economics was a natural when monies were needed to purchase the plants. The financial need translated into the production of stationery, from the dried flowers, and from the collection of seeds for sale.

Final Thoughts
Staff members continually work on making meaningful connections between their curriculum and role of technology in the learning process. We contend that the process of curriculum mapping focused the teachers on understanding critical curriculum content, essential questions and integration of technology. The teachers are all at different levels of this understanding as to how it translates into their instruction. The curriculum mapping process was the beginning of our knowledge of how inquiry can lead to more conceptual understandings of content. As teachers continue to informally share with us their ongoing instructional changes, we feel we assisted in providing a better map for the journey that this school took toward technology integration.


  • Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (2000). Engaging children's minds: The project approach (2nd ed.). Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
  • Morehead, P., & LaBeau, B. (2004). Successful curriculum mapping: Fostering smooth technology integration. Learning and Leading with Technology, 32(4), 12-17.


About the authors: Pamela Morehead is an assistant professor at Oakland University in Rochester, MI and a former elementary school principal. Barbara LaBeau is an instructor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, MI and an independent technology consultant for TACTICS.

Have any additional questions? Want to share your story? Want to pass along a news tip? Contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].