How Does PBL and Guided Inquiry Design Motivate and Engage Students? | Tara Quigley | 6 Min Read

I was worn out. Period after period, in the library with my sixth-grade Humanities classes, the effort to keep students on task and productive while researching was becoming futile. Students used to be able to focus on their work and remain engaged with their assigned topics about the Renaissance. What was different? Why did these sixth graders seem so unmotivated? It was the spring of 2014, and I was having difficulty reconciling the significance of the assignment with my students’ interest level and focus. Students had been allowed to choose their topics (from a list of 30); why were they so off task? I was not alone. A 2013 Gallup Poll starkly demonstrated a sharp and steady drop-off in engagement for students. I began to wonder how I might tap into more intrinsic interest and motivation with my students. 


In the fall of 2014, our librarian shared an article with me that completely transformed the way I structure my classroom. In the ensuing years, my colleagues and I have shifted our curriculum to incorporate the Guided Inquiry Design model (shown to the left) woven together with Project-Based Learning, and the level of interest, enthusiasm, and agency of our students has markedly increased. Inquiry and questioning were the tipping points for motivating my students.

In Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, he discusses at length the life and career advantages for those who are good at asking questions. Most educators do not teach students how to ask questions. Berger cites the Right Question Institute’s examination of the 2009 U.S. “Nation’s Report Card” data, noting the correlation between the drop in engagement among students and the parallel decline in student question asking. Does this matter? Why should we teach students to question? If we have learned anything during Pandemic teaching, it is that it is decidedly harder to engage and motivate students who aren’t in the same place as teachers. As of spring 2021, thousands of students have disengaged from school and virtually disappeared during the past 12 months. This is a crisis for their futures and the country as a whole. Students who are invited to have agency and autonomy in their education are…

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Tara Quigley

Tara Quigley began her teaching career in 1991 and has been at Princeton Day School for 23 years. She currently teaches sixth grade Humanities, serves as Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and is the Middle School Technology Coordinator. She works for OESIS as the Director of Program Alignment, working with schools to build mission-aligned culture and program. Having begun her career as a Middle-School science teacher, Tara has always been interested in incorporating inquiry, questioning, and exploration in her classroom. She has also taught early-childhood science, fourth grade, and fifth and sixth grade Humanities at Princeton Day School. In order to spark more engagement and intrinsic motivation in her classes, Tara began using Design Thinking, PBL, and inquiry in her Humanities classes to encourage student agency and allow for differentiation with Competency-Based Learning for feedback and assessment. Having seen great success with this approach, Tara frequently shares her process and experiences with her colleagues at PDS, national conferences, and peer schools. In 2014, Tara was appointed to the position of Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in which she has worked to educate and empower teachers to try new pedagogical practices and strategies, including: design thinking, PBL, Guided Inquiry Research, Visible Thinking Protocols, and teaching towards mastery of skills and competencies. In 2016, Tara was recognized as an OESIS Network Leader. And in 2020 she received the Intrepid Innovator Award.