Discovering Our Beliefs Through Research (Inquiry Circles Weeks #6 and #7)

My students have been involved in their inquiry circle research for many weeks now. You can read about our first week of work in choosing our topics HERE, and you can read about our first phase of research where we focused on synthesizing new information from a variety of online sources HERE, and then you can read about our second phase of research where I handed control and ownership of the research over to my students HERE.

At this point in our work, my students have done a lot of work gathering research. They started with sources that I provided them until they knew enough to ask their own questions and follow their own direction in gathering more sources. After researching for a while on their own, it felt like they now knew enough to start to figure out what they actually believe about their topics.

Last year, I came to a big realization. Too often, as a teacher, I asked my students to write their claim or their thesis or their opinion BEFORE they had done any research. I asked them to craft a claim statement and then they used that claim to guide their research. They stated what they believed and then went out to search for research that supported those claims.

What I realized was that this practice was encouraging my students to ignore some research while favoring the research that supported what they thought they believed. They had no opportunity to shift and adapt and change their beliefs based on the research that they found. They believed at the start of their research EXACTLY what they believed at the end. They had just found others who agreed with them and ignored those who did not.

When I look at the mess that our world is in right now, I cannot help but wonder what role our own schooling played in all of this. I know that I was taught this way. State what you believe first and then go out and prove that you are right. So now, when we state what we believe, it is often only based on the information that we have read or seen or heard from others who already agree with us.

I know that I am terribly guilty of this. So I wanted to work to teach my students to do better.

So at the start of our inquiry circle research, I did not ask my students to make a claim. I did not ask them what they believed to be right and what they believed to be wrong. I asked them only what they thought they knew and what they still wanted to find out. As I explained in my second blog post about our inquiry circle research, I worked with my students to take the biases they already held and instead push them into a question that would lead them to more research. In all of this work, I hoped that they thinking would shift. I encouraged them to find sources that believed different things. I pushed them to look at multiple perspectives on a single issue. And I questioned them so that they were forced to think about the other side of things.

And through all of this. Through all of this digging and sorting and questioning and researching, they were starting to form beliefs. Beliefs based on the research they had done. Beliefs that many times were different than ones they held at the start of our work. Beliefs that were more nuanced, more reflective of the research they had done, more based in the work they had done to seek out multiple perspectives. These beliefs were evidence that they had grappled with complex issues and that they had researched from a wide variety of sources. These beliefs were based on information they had read, not merely based on what the adults around them had told them.

So now, they were ready to make their claims.

The first thing that we needed to do, was to understand what a claim statement really is. When I thought about what I wanted my students to craft, I really had to wrestle myself with the difference between an opinion, a fact and a claim. After looking around online, looking at the Common Core standards and thinking about what I wanted my students to be able to do in the world outside of my classroom, I settled on these beliefs about a claim statement:

It needed to a statement that expresses what YOU believe to be true BASED on the research that you have done.

It is not just a fact or a series of facts, but your interpretation of those facts because people can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in many different ways.

It should be a statement that could be argued. If everyone, or most everyone, around you would agree with you, then it isn’t really a claim statement.

It should be more than just an opinion, but an opinion that provides evidence that you have done research and that the information you have gathered has influenced and refined your opinion.

It should be evidence that you understand more about a topic or issue now than you did before you began researching or learning about that topic.

Once I understood this for myself, I needed to help my students understand what I wanted them to do.  I began with this anchor chart:


After having a discussion based on this anchor chart, I warned my students that they would be asked to start brainstorming claim statements in the next few days. If they did not feel as if they had enough research at this point, then they needed to change something about the way they were researching so that they would be ready.

On a day when I was going to be out at a meeting, I left THIS packet for my sub to go through with my students.  I was hoping that these examples would help them to start thinking about their own possible claim statements.  I shared my own possible claim statements after doing some extensive research on the Immigration Ban.  I shared with my students some examples of possible claim statements AND some of examples of statements that were NOT claim statements.  This was all written out in the packet.

When I returned, I asked my students to think back on all the research that they had done up to this point. I asked them to look back at the notes that they had taken. I asked them to think about what they had come to believe about their topics based on the research they had done. And then I asked them to craft, on their own, a few possible claim statements that might synthesize their current understanding and their current beliefs on their topic.

Now, at this point, there were some students who had COMPLETELY blank looks on their faces. Some students had no notes to look back on. Some students suddenly realized that all that time they spent scrolling up and down a website, without actually reading and digesting very much information, maybe wasn’t the best use of their time. Some students read a lot, but still had no idea how to take all of that and form a concise statement about their beliefs.

All of that was okay.

Because this work is really hard. And I don’t expect the kids to get it right away. They are going to mess up. They are going to realize that they should have done things differently. AND because of all of that, they are going to realize how to fix things. Or they are going to figure out how to ask for help from their group members and from me.  It is why I believe it is so important that we do this work in a group.

After brainstorming a bit, I sent the kids off to do more research. Those who realized that they really needed to step it up, mostly went off and stepped it up. For others, my assistant teacher and I were there to help them step it up. Others needed to flail around a bit more. My conferences over those days really focused on helping students put into words what they had come to believe. I asked questions like, “What would you try to convince someone of about your topic?” or “Now that you have done all of this research, what do you believe to be true?”

One of the hardest conversations was to push some students past the obvious. This is harder with certain topics. For example, I have a group studying terrorism. I told them that a claim statement wouldn’t really be, “Terrorism is bad.” Because there are very few people in this world, other than terrorists themselves, who would ever argue with that statement. So with those students, I tried to ask questions like, “What do you now know about terrorism that other people might be surprised to find out?” or “What have you come to understand about terrorism that other people might not believe?” These questions were really powerful in helping students to discover new beliefs that they held BECAUSE of the research that they had done.

After a few days of conferring to help my students come to their INDIVIDUAL claim statements, I was ready to introduce my students to THIS claim organizer in order to help them begin to think about the claim statements that they wanted to make as a group and how they would support those claims with evidence.

I told them that now that they had their possible individual claim statements, they were going to meet with their inquiry circles and select one or two claim statements that they wanted to move forward with as a group. These claim statements would guide their writing and the action that they wanted to take to create positive change in the world outside of school.  They could choose to just use one person’s individual claim statement that seemed to be representative of the whole group’s thinking. Or they could choose to combine several individual claim statements into one, larger statement. Or they could choose to go two totally different directions if the group came to believe totally different things. But no matter what they chose to do as a group, they would need to work as a group in order to support that claim statement with specific and reliable evidence that they found throughout their research.

When I showed my two classes the claim organizer, I introduced it one section at a time. On the first day, I shared only the top box, where they were to craft their group’s claim statement or statements and then break that statement up into the parts that they would have to do support with research.

In order to help them to do this work, I shared with them THIS EXAMPLE OF MY OWN CLAIM ORGANIZER. On the first day, we only looked at what was written in the top box.  I talked through how I chose this claim statement and how I worked to break it apart into parts that I would need to support with research.

I then sent the kids off to work with their inquiry circle groups. Again, I knew this work would be hard, so I made sure to make it around to every group over the next two days. Some groups thought they were on the right track, and I just needed to help them solidify their claims when I met with them. Other groups really struggled and were extremely frustrated by the time I made it to meet with them. Again, all of that was okay. I knew that we would work through this process together. And again, the process was so much more important than where we ended up.

When I met with groups, we spent a lot of time trying out different ideas on our whiteboard tables before committing anything to the group’s document. We tried out many different versions of claim statements until we found one that everyone agreed to and then we worked to break that statement up into the parts that would each need to be supported. Only then, did the groups transfer these statements to their claim organizers. Each group created ONE Google document and shared it with every member of their inquiry circle group, so they were all able to be on the document at the same time in order to tweak the language we used and then work to find evidence to support that statement.

Here are some images of the claims that we crafted:

As I did this work with my students, I was in awe of how far they had come. It was amazing to me to listen to the conversations that my students were having. They had learned so much. And, please remember, our learning was not perfect. There were very real struggles in getting to this point and there was some students who were certainly leading their groups as others followed along. And, again, all of that was okay. Because look at where they were getting, together, as a group.

One of the things that I felt the proudest of, was how much the ideas held within these claim statements belonged solely to my students. These were not my ideas. These were ideas that my students reached based on their own research. They asked their own questions and they found their own answers and those answers led them to these beliefs.

And once we had these beliefs written down, then it was time to start working to support them fully with research.

So I returned to MY EXAMPLE OF A CLAIM ORGANIZER and this time we looked at the bottom sections of the document. This is where I worked to pull specific pieces of information, that I gathered from my own research, in order to prove why I believed my claim statement to be true and valid.

In the first column of the chart, I simply copied and pasted the links to specific articles, websites, videos and infographics that I believed proved specific parts of my claim statement to be true. In the second column, I quoted or summarized the parts of the source that I believed supported the specific part of the claim. Finally, in the third column, I used my own thinking and my own words to explain HOW the information in that source proved what I was trying to prove.

I summarized that process for my students with this anchor chart:


Some groups chose to divide the parts of their claim statements amongst the members of their group. Each person in the group worked to support a different part. Other groups decided to all look back at their notes and paste in the information that they had in regards to ALL parts of the claim statement. Other groups came up with a mixture of those two ideas.

Either way, every group had a clear goal of what this final phase of their research should look like.  And again, I was there to support, mostly with questioning and also talking through what information was still needed in each group.

The work that my students are doing now will guide the final weeks of our inquiry circle work. Next week, we use these claim organizers to help each group figure out how they will take action through writing and through other means in order to create positive change in the world outside of our classroom in connection with the issue that they studied and researched.

This work, watching these fifth graders discover their own beliefs based on what they have learned through questioning, inquiry and research, it has been so good for my heart. Every so often, I like to stop and think about what this world could become if more of us took lessons from these kids and so many other kids like them. I think about how I was raised in a world that did not yet know how to deal with all of the information that we found ourselves surrounded by. I grew up in a time when our schools did not know how to prepare us for the onslaught of knowledge that we would have at our fingertips. So there are so many of us who just do not know what to do with it all. I like to think that these kids that we are all raising, they will be different.

It is my hope, and I have found much evidence to support this hope over the past few weeks in my own classroom, that our students today will grow up to do so much better than us tomorrow. They will base their ideas on facts and not on hearsay. They will come to their beliefs because of real evidence and not because they once overheard a snippet of a conversation somewhere. They will know how to take in multiple perspectives, especially those that are different than their own, and they will adapt and shift and deepen their own ideas because of those perspectives.

This is what I hope. And when I look at these kids and the work that I see them doing, I honestly believe that there are better things ahead for this world.


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