Using Concept Routines to Drive Inquiries

Exploring concepts through inquiry can be a tricky area of teaching and learning to navigate. But it doesn’t have to be as complex as most people think. Concept routines are effective tools to help make students’ thinking visible and gather the data you need to set-up future investigations. A meaningful inquiry can be well-planned and structured without stifling creativity or giving too much away. These concept routines will help you to assess your students’ level of understanding, while giving you the data you need to drive your inquiries forward.

  • True or False. This routine requires the students to make judgements about one or more statements. Prepare a list of provocative statements related to the concept. Examples of statements might be:
    • Sustainability – If an action is not sustainable, it’s not worth doing.
    • Honesty – Kind people never lie.
    • Wealth – Rich people are happier than poor people.


  • Concept Walk. This routine requires students to analyze and record their ideas related to a series of words, images, artifacts or statements stationed around the room. If students are recording on a shared paper, encourage students to draw lines to connect ideas and place ticks next to ideas they agree with. You might:
    • Post different concepts in word form for students to reflect on. Then, use their recordings to assess student knowledge before, during or after a unit.
    • Post provocative images connected to one concept in particular. Ask students to analyze each photo and explain how it relates to the concept being investigated.  This could also be used to collect student-initiated questions related to the concept. Ask students, “What are you wondering about after looking at these photos?”
    • Post quotes from famous authors or scientists in the field of what you’re studying. Have students reflect on these quotes by extending or building on the author’s thinking, asking questions or recording any personal connections to the quotes.


  • Concept Sort. This routine requires students to make connections between different concepts, images or ideas. You can create the sort for them as a way to guide your inquiry towards a certain understanding. Or you can have the students record their own thinking on post-its, and then sort their own ideas into categories.


  • Concept hierarchy. This routine requires students to think about concepts in relation to one another. Ask students to organize concepts by placing the concepts in order of importance. Students can place concepts side-by-side if they feel they’re equally important.


  • Concept Wall. This routine is on-going and encourages students to actively participate in building an understanding of the concept(s). Create a space where students can write or hang post-its as they move through the unit and build on their learning. This also helps students become stronger at identifying ‘big’ ideas and concepts. As stated above, encourage students to draw lines to connect ideas and place ticks next to ideas they agree with.


  • Concept Questions. This routine helps to generate deep questions related to concepts. Make sure your students know the difference between thick and thin questions. Lay out a concept and ask students to develop a related conceptual question. (See related article Using P4C to Explore Concepts.) For example, if you are studying about ‘creativity,’ students might form questions like:
    • Where does creativity come from?
    • Where do people find inspiration?
    • Is creativity only for humans?


Use these routines frequently, so they become an integral part of the learning process in your classroom. If you find this article interesting, you might also try exploring Ron Richart’s visible thinking routines.

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