Slow Down, Dive Deep and Keep Asking Questions: Costen UCLA Lab School Inquiry Collaboration 2020-21

Since 2010, The Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching and UCLA Lab School have been partnering to explore the use of primary sources in the context of an inquiry-based pedagogy. In this brave new world of remote teaching and learning, many of us began to rethink how we plan and teach using inquiry-based practices in a Zoom learning environment. Cotsen Mentor Teachers and UCLA Lab School Demonstration Teachers formed a new inquiry collaborative group that met monthly via Zoom from October 2020 to March 2021 to investigate. We thought the best way to proceed was to use an inquiry approach ourselves – questioning, researching, reflecting, documenting, and going public with our findings. While our focus was on our remote practices, we also considered which of these might be beneficial in our physical classrooms when we later returned to in-person teaching and learning.

The Process

True to our inquiry approach, we started by gauging the social emotional temperature of our collaborative group. What was on our minds as we began a second year of remote teaching? What concerns might we have? What questions might guide our investigation? We began by developing a simple set of working agreements to ensure that our meeting space would feel open and safe for all members to participate in whatever way they felt comfortable. There was no preconceived goal. The structure and the content emerged from our group conversations in meetings.

The remote learning experience forced us all to re-evaluate our core beliefs about teaching and learning. Together we generated a list of foundational ideas about:

  • The value of a social emotional environment that enables children to feel safe, be curious, and take risks
  • A learning relationship in which students are at the center and teachers are co-investigators
  • The importance of equity and access to inquiry education for children of all backgrounds, from all neighborhoods and with all skill levels
  • An inquiry pedagogy in which learning is authentic, ongoing and active
  • The significance of questioning in developing more curious, motivated, and engaged learners

To spark curiosity and conversation, we began each meeting with a different type of provocation, including primary sources, photos, art, and quotes. Our provocations supported our working agreements, including cultural responsiveness and an awareness of multiple perspectives, and encouraged conversations about our foundational ideas. For example, at our November meeting, we examined a photo from the 50th National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to offer another perspective on Thanksgiving through a primary source.

From the thoughts and questions articulated in each meeting, we developed a focus for the next meeting. For instance, we closed our November session, asking, “What are your students curious about?” and “How will you document your and your students’ thinking?” The focus of our next meeting became different forms of documentation, beginning with the provocation of a photo of artists’ journals and sketchbooks documenting their travels. Just as we listen to children’s voices in our own classrooms, we listened to each other to determine where we might go next in our investigation.

The conversation at each meeting was guided by a simple frame of questions:  What did you try? What went well? What did not? What are you wondering? Everyone was encouraged to bring examples of student work and lessons. We reflected upon our own remote classroom experiences and shared our thinking. In addition, members often shared classroom resources and virtual tools.

Documentation plays a pivotal role in the inquiry approach. It enables teachers to reflect on their own daily practice, stay connected with student voices, and keep track of students’ individual and collective progress throughout the inquiry.  However, teachers in our group realized that we often find documenting our own work more challenging than documenting student work. To address this in our group, we committed to keeping a record of our thinking and reflections in notebooks or by digital means. We also captured our teacher conversations in meeting minutes so that we could reflect on our own process, change, and questions at the end of our collaboration.

What we learned from our conversations and our experiences

As we have witnessed in our physical and remote classrooms, good teaching requires student engagement. The more students feel that their voices matter, the more motivated they are to participate in the learning and share their thinking. When students actively participate and have many opportunities for hands-on experiences, they become curious and are able to retain and apply their learning. As a group, we agreed the following practices were useful in making a remote setting more interactive and engaging for our diverse remote classrooms. We also believe these practices may be useful for in-person teaching and learning. 

Using Digital Technology and Resources

Digital Learning Walls

Many of us had created learning walls in our physical classrooms. These learning walls, which were co-constructed with students and included a record of their work and their thinking, made learning visible in the classroom. The shift to an all-digital environment shook up our assumptions about how teachers and students document the process and products of learning. To create documentation in a remote environment, some of us used Google slides or other digital platforms to develop digital learning walls. These are interactive presentations that include teacher input (provocations, questions, primary sources, resources, etc.) and documentation of students’ conversations and thinking which can then be accessed from home by students and teachers via their digital classroom.

Following is an example from Ms. Parkes’s Early Childhood digital classroom that documents their exploration of crayons through teacher questions and student conversation. Ms. Parkes noted that each day the children would begin with a reflection on what they did and what they were thinking the day before.


Exploring Crayons

What do crayons, look, feel and smell like?

What are the possibilities of crayons?

How do they feel different than markers?

What is the texture?

L.B.: It smells like crayon!

T.L.: It feels like a smooth crayon.

A.H.: I choosed different colors because they’re my favorite colors. I choosed blue for me and green for Selassie and pink for Mia.

M.P.: The marker feels wetter on the page.

I.R.: It make different kids of marks. These ones are light and these are a little bit light and these ones are a little bit dark color. And then if you mix it it would like to be this color and this color.

A.A.: I worked on upside down lollypop.

L.B.: Markers are wetter and crayons are drier. I did lines, circles, wiggly lines, straight lines and little waves.


Ms. Mills’s fourth grade digital class engaged in a novel study of Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Ms. Mills wrote, “Not having walls to document our learning led to documentation of our novel study through a Google slideshow. It not only helped document student thinking, but it could be used as a reference as we worked our way through the text.” This particular learning experience concluded with the class reflecting on possible symbols in the text and creating their own 3-D representations of those symbols.

What could the ”earth’s heartbeat” symbolize?

It could symbolize Esperanza’s relationship (bond) to her dad. — Delilah & Maryjane

When her dad’s not there, she can’t hear it. — Iliana

Not being able to hear the heartbeat is symbolizing how her dad’s not here (he’s the missing piece). — Elizabeth Jenelle

Being patient, and waiting for something good. — Desiree

You can only hear it when you are relaxed. — Naomi


What we notice:

  • It looks abandoned.
  • The house is made out of hay and bricks. There are tents in the background.
  • It doesn’t look abandoned. There’s a clothing line.
  • The place is made of dirt.
  • There was another roof.
  • The shack is abandoned.
  • The picture looks like it was from a long time ago.
  • The house looks like it has broken doors.

What we wonder:

  • What are the letters at the bottom?
  • Are the people in the house poof and do people live in the tents?
  • What is the time period? Year?
  • What are ll the things behind the house?
  • Is it a farm?
  • Is it abandoned?
  • Why does it look so abandoned?
  • Why are there shovels?

The Hearbeat/Breathing of the Earth, by Valeria


The Rising Mountains, by Iliana


Papa’s Garden, by Delilah


Below is an example from Ms. Gentile’s Intermediate digital classroom. Note the primary source and the students’ observations, reflections, and questions.


Train Crew, circa 1870, Sugar Pine, San Joaquin Valley Historical Society


  1. No women
  2. Standing on truck, couldn’t be too long ago.
  3. One of the men looks like a ghost (lighter and less defined).
  4. There is cut wood and trees.
  5. Five men standing, two sitting. Looks like a forest. Wearing hats, cigar in mouth.
  6. Black and white photo.


  1. Nothing had happened with women’s rights.
  2. Perhaps late 1800s or early 1900s.
  3. Their job might be to chop wood.

Questions or Wonderings

  1. How long ago was this?
  2. Was that their job to cut wood or just posing for a picture?
  3. Was this during the Gold Rush? (rock in background)
  4. Where was this picture taken? (setting)
  5. I’m wondering about their lives and curious about why the place is called Sugar Pine.


Continuing their efforts to build community and as part of a project for children to create their own unique signature, Ms. Kantor’s Early Childhood and Primary digital class first discussed what a signature is. Ms. Kantor recorded their initial ideas.

What is a signature?

Behany – I have seen my parents write signatures before. They write their names.

Ege – Signatures are names stuck together. The first and last names.

Athena – When you write your signature it can mean that you agree with something or you have to sign something.

Efe – Signatures can be shapes, letters. Every signature is different.


Image from William Morris Signature Print (LuckyPosters)


Digital Interactive Boards

In a physical classroom, we designed places in lessons where students could respond to what they were reading or writing, post their ideas about a provocation or prompt, or ask questions. They typically used sticky notes on charts, wrote on the white board or added ideas to a Smart Board. Using these interactive methods, students could also categorize questions, identify misconceptions, and show new learning. How could we replicate this in the digital classroom? Many of us experimented with interactive response boards such as Jamboard, Padlet, or Nearpod. After learning how to use these interactive tools respectfully, students enjoyed both participating in the sessions and reflecting on the community’s responses. These interactive response boards could also become part of the class digital learning wall.

Ms. Mills also used Jamboard to capture student predictions about how the novel, Esperanza Rising, might end.



Ms. Gentile’s Upper II digital math class used Jamboard to solve problems together, such as this one about quartiles:


Mr. Jauregui’s fifth grade digital class used a Padlet to record their questions and wonderings before they started their inquiry investigation about water:


An overarching question emerged as we shared about our transition to 100% digital teaching and learning. How do we ensure that we are designing lessons and experiences for children that emphasize engagement for thinking and learning versus engagement for entertainment? Many of us had seen how other types of screen engagement (such as video games and on-line education sites) had influenced digital education platforms with a plethora of bright, funny characters and cartoon sounds. We remarked how this put pressure on teachers to create similarly entertaining content. We wondered out loud how this more superficial approach to learning and the ever-shrinking attention span required for these platforms might affect student engagement and learning in the physical classroom. Which of these platforms that we have experimented with in the remote world will we want to use for in-person learning? What might our criteria be for choosing digital technology for our in-person classrooms?

One criterion we agreed upon is that digital technology and resources must promote critical thinking. Digitized primary sources are one such resource. They require close observation, deep thinking, and student reflection. Raul Almada shared how he used a stereograph from the Library of Congress of John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt on Glacier Point in Yosemite in 1903 to promote student engagement in his fourth-grade class’s study of California. Mr. Almada remarked, “Their thinking and questions worked as good guides to start off their year.”


Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903


He also introduced to his students the Waldseemüller World Map of 1507. When his students were looking closely at this map online, one quickly asked, “Where is America on this map?” He added, “This map shows what they had explored and where they haven’t explored yet.”

Both of these experiences highlight the most exciting aspect of the inquiry approach to teaching. As Mr. Almada noted, “These experiences allow for genuine opportunities for the children to feel the agency that comes from open-ended investigations where they are able to share their thoughts and questions without any fear of being wrong. They are able to see and notice things that they can begin to form ideas about. They are confident to share their ideas because they have strong evidence for their thoughts. Being able to ask their own questions also builds interest and excitement to explore even further.”


Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii alioru[m]que lustrationes.

Hands on Learning in a Digital Classroom

During in-person learning, many of our group members had shared artifacts, another type of primary source, with their students as provocations to spark conversations in social studies and other content areas. Mr. Wilson commented on the power of artifacts from his grandfather to engage students in the study of California Native Americans. He worked to replicate this experience in his digital classroom where using a document camera, he presented pottery shards covered with tar from his grandfather’s collection of Owens Valley Paiute artifacts for his students to visually examine. They wondered what the tar was for and how the artisans got the tar, which they eventually discovered was for waterproofing vessels.  Mr. Wilson also demonstrated the power of comparison by showing arrowheads from California’s Owens Valley, Oklahoma, and Arizona for the students to examine for similarities and differences. He asked students what these artifacts might tell us about the lives of the Native Americans who lived there. Students had rich conversations making connections among the tribes by evaluating the different resources available to each tribe in their respective regions and climates.  While we all realized that sharing these objects remotely did not allow students to hold them in their own hands, students were still able to observe, think critically, and develop theories about the artifacts, which for many students was a welcome change from the PowerPoints and digital media that teachers were so often confined to using in a remote classroom.


Mr. Wilson’s grandfather standing near a Paiute petroglyph in California’s Owens Valley. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Wilson)


Native American artifacts collected by Mr. Wilson’s grandfather, with original labels on the envelopes in which Mr. Wilson’s grandfather kept the collection. These sparked questions about what they were, how they were made, and what these artifacts tell about the diverse people and communities who used them. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Wilson)

Social Emotional Lessons Learned

Another key observation articulated in our group was that remote teaching and learning require us to slow things down as teachers. Everything takes more time in the digital classroom – lessons, transitions, experiences, conversations, questions, reflections, to name a few. Students and teachers are learning new digital platforms and sometimes things just don’t go according to expectations. We all remarked that we learned to adjust the complexity and length of our lessons, breaking them up into smaller, more scaffolded sessions. The result was that we stayed on a topic longer and moved more slowly. As Ms. Hanners commented, what at first seemed to be obstacles to learning, she realized could be viewed as silver linings or gifts giving us the opportunity to take advantage of our changed circumstances and go deeper into an investigation. It allowed us to create a more open inquiry setting that balanced conforming to standards with following student interests and passions. We intend to remember this lesson and give ourselves permission to slow down and dive deep into investigations with our students when teaching in-person.

Necessity of Social Justice Learning

Human rights and social justice became important recurring themes in the group’s discussions. Several teachers in the group discussed their classroom experiences that centered around Human Rights Day on December 10, 2020. The 2020 theme was Recover Better — Stand up for Human Rights. The United Nations web page explains the significance of this theme:

This year’s Human Rights Day theme relates to the COVID-19 pandemic and focuses on the need to build back better by ensuring Human Rights are central to the recovery efforts. We will reach our common global goals only if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and exploited by COVID-19, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic, and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.”

Ms. Rico Magana was inspired to introduce human rights in her fourth-grade classroom. For many of her students this was a brand-new idea. Comparing two images of people during the pandemic from around the world, many students recognized and empathized with the people in the images. Students noticed that everyone was wearing masks, and they picked up on the feeling of tiredness and overall exhaustion. Students were questioning if what they saw in the images had anything to do with race. Ms. Rico Magana asked students what one word came to mind when they heard “Human Rights” and to add that word to a common Wordle. The themes that emerged on the Wordle were: justice, respect, safety, law, family, kindness.

Then she shared Eleanor Roosevelt’s iconic quote:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”


ELEANOR ROOSEVELT of the United States holding a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lake Success, NY, November 1949. UN Photo

The students realized through the classroom conversation that advocating for human rights begins in their own homes. They also viewed a video on Amnesty International and analyzed the UN document on human rights as part of a  study of nonfiction literature. The students used the UN document to explore ideas of what makes something nonfiction. 

Ms. Rico Magana recounted that during a leadership meeting at her school, she and her colleagues shared a collective interest in wanting to focus on social justice. Following the meeting, in honor of Black History Month, she sent an email to all staff and posed these questions: How can I amplify Black voices? How can I represent figures that are often hidden? How can I inspire my students with Black history, music, and stories? How can I reflect Black joy? This was not a normal practice of how content was shared, so it was a true moment of vulnerability at work. She wanted to demonstrate (not just tell about) a culture of inquiry by making visible to her students and colleagues that teachers are also thinking and asking questions. Her mantra became, “If you have questions, be curious and ask questions, even uncomfortable ones.”

Value of Struggle and Perseverance

Many of us remarked about the role of productive struggle and perseverance for both students and teachers during the pandemic. Ms. Rico Magana noted that she was “inspired by hearing from the group – the honest struggles and frustrations along with the successes.” Students and teachers faced many challenges with technology – from access to computers and tablets to learning to use new platforms or dealing with outdated software to internet access and connectivity. We saw the value of these struggles in developing increased flexibility, grace under pressure, and patience with each other. Ms. Ramirez, UCLA Lab School’s Safe School Specialist, shared that the Lab School added flexibility and agility to its core values as a way to address the newly heightened challenges of the pandemic. The Cool Tools Kit of concrete objects that represent different school values now includes the Bendy Flexible Straw to help students understand the importance of flexibility in our increasingly complex and uncertain world.

Questions We Still Have

While we addressed many of our initial questions, these remain as areas to ponder as we continue to reflect on our inquiry teaching and learning. Some of the questions may require conversations with school administrators and policy makers.

  • How can all students have access to classrooms that use inquiry practices that build collaboration, questioning, critical thinking, curiosity, conversation, and other skills?
  • How do we ensure that all students can engage in hands-on learning experiences and have access to the materials and resources needed to represent their learning?
  • How do we scaffold inquiry work for neuro-divergent learners?
  • How do we help parents understand inquiry pedagogy and why we are using it?


This collaboration allowed us to investigate inquiry teaching and learning, share our challenges and successes, and support and inspire one another during a most extraordinary time. Having a safe space for teachers from many different school contexts to honestly think aloud about our experiences and dreams was invaluable. It allowed us to face the trying times and learn that we can let ourselves experiment, let go of things that no longer work, and refresh our teaching with new learning.

Working Agreements

  • Be Curious
  • Be Humble
  • Be Open to Ideas
  • Be Gentle
  • Use a lens of being culturally responsive
  • Keep in mind all the multiple perspectives of all of our students
  • Be a listener –listen with your heart and your mind
  • Have a good time –keep it light –come together to talk and share
  • Support one another

Group Members

  • Raul Almada, Fourth Grade, Daniel Phelan Language Academy, Whittier City School District
  • Sylvia Gentile, Intermediate (8- to 10-year-olds), UCLA Lab School
  • Adrian Gumpert, Primary (6- to 8-year-olds), UCLA Lab School
  • Colleen Hanners, Third Grade, Gardenhill Elementary School, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District
  • Alex Jauregui, Fifth Grade, Carl E. Gilbert Elementary School, Buena Park School District
  • Judith Kantor, Teacher Librarian, UCLA Lab School
  • Kelsi Mills, Fourth Grade, Dolland Elementary School, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District
  • Jane Parkes, Early Childhood (4- to 5-year-olds) UCLA Lab School
  • Laurie Ramirez, Safe School Specialist, UCLA Lab School
  • Heidi Rico Magana, Fourth Grade, Wallen L. Andrews School, Whittier City School District
  • Chris Wilson, Intermediate (8- to 10-year-olds), UCLA Lab School
  • Dianne Glinos, Cotsen Program Officer
  • Barbara Golding, Cotsen Associate Director
  • Jerry Harris, Cotsen Executive Director
  • Nicole Mancevice, Assistant Professor in Residence, UCLA’s CONNECT Center for Research and Innovation.