Why We All Need To Focus on Geo-Inquiry More Than Ever!

This post was written by National Geographic Certified Educator, James Fester.

As students across the country slowly trickle back into long-vacant classrooms, questions about the ramifications of a year spent learning online have begun to circulate more and more. Terms like “learning loss” have added a sense of urgency to an already difficult process and have spurred education leaders into action.  

Schools, districts, and government agencies have all done their best to step up and try to create plans that don’t focus on deficits, but instead find opportunities to help students that create conditions for success. More and more, we are seeing these plans include opportunities for exploration, student-led learning, and reconnecting to the world they were shut out from. What’s more, recent guidelines released by the Department of Education supported these same ideas, creating a “trail” of sorts that schools and teachers can employ to help return students to a sense of normalcy that has escaped them during this past school year.    

This trail includes; 1) project-based learning, 2) engaging students in collaboration, 3) enrichment 4) field trips. 5) experiential/hands-on instruction.  

Educators familiar with the National Geographic Learning Framework know that the processes student-explorers engage in provide robust opportunities to engage in all of the practices mentioned previously. Projects that incorporate Geo-Inquiry, or the multi-step method where students investigate the interconnected world around them have been traveling the “trail to recovery” for a long time now, and are better situated than most to bounce back from any learning loss that might have resulted from pandemic teaching during the COVID crisis. 


Lessons focused on helping students to explore and make sense of their world are likely to see them spend time engaging with it through hands-on means. These opportunities to gather information and data can take the form of note taking, nature journaling, or capturing digital content, turning learning into a hands-on experience guided by big questions and thoughtful teacher facilitation. Observing webcam footage from Explore.org, for example, can be used to get students asking questions about animal behavior and give them insight into environments they might not otherwise have access to. Student-explorers also usually develop and apply their observation skills on short excursions outside their classroom or longer field trips. Even those who don’t have the opportunity to physically visit different environments can still hone their observational skills through online experiences like this Google-powered National Park adventure or through “virtual hikes”created by one of the many park sites throughout our country. For example, students can employ their observation skills to describe the plant and animal life that make up the environment at Eugene O’ Neill Nat’l Historic site on this virtual hike.  


One of the main goals of the National Geographic Framework is to help students develop into problem-solvers so that when they inherit the world around them they are confident in their ability to tackle even the biggest of problems. There are many ways to support students as they develop into problem-solvers, and a large number of them involve gathering evidence through hands-on means. Students may measure rainfall with homemade hydrometers, work in teams to develop models that explain how climate change may disrupt ecosystem services, or engage in inquiry at local museums or libraries, offering opportunities to take excursions. Helping students to use the data they gather or observe to craft arguments is a great way of helping them to develop as advocated and critical thinkers. Additionally, big problems like the ones investigated through Geo-Inquiry are rarely solved by individuals, and this is also true of Geo-Inquiry projects focused on the same. Students learn to work together and with outside experts as they search for solutions to the problems they see in their community and the wider world around them.


As previously mentioned, the ability to work as a member of a team is central to the student-explorer skillset. Collaboration helps provide multiple points of view, solutions that might otherwise not be considered, and the strengths that come with diversity. Those familiar with the power of student-led collaboration are probably not surprised to see that the DOE included it as a stand-alone element on their recovery trail. 

Students can collaborate in numerous ways within the Geo-Inquiry process. They can participate in hands-on investigations where they can compare results to increase the sample size of their data. They can develop discourse and discussion skills through group chat discussion modeled by their teacher. One way that I’ve had success is breaking students into investigative groups during field trips and other excursions as a way to cover more ground in a limited time, helping to increase the knowledge of the entire class. Most importantly, working together doesn’t just demonstrate to students the value of teamwork, it also increases opportunities for peer feedback and provides partners who they can reflect on their discoveries with, two essential elements seen in high-quality PBL models like PBLWorks Gold Standard model for project-based learning.   


Combining media and words into compelling stories that showcase their observations and solutions is not a simple process, but it is one that provides fertile opportunities for enrichment.  As students think critically about the best way to share their solutions with outside audiences, they may explore new tech tools that they’ve never used before. Utilizing video platforms like WeVideo or Adobe Spark or creating podcasts with tools like Anchor introduce them to new skills and lend themselves to future projects or possible outside pursuits. Creating meaning through worlds and media is also a collaborative process as students preview and give feedback on their peers work to ensure the messaging is engaging, and makes sense to outside audiences. 

The last school year was one fraught with challenges, but in spite of this, there is a silver lining. As this “trail” illustrates, the education world is waking up to what the National Geographic Learning Framework has long articulated – now, more than ever, teachers need to help their students reconnect with their world through exploration-focused education.  

Lead photo taken by Rebecca Hale.

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