Designing an Inquiry Workshop with Pinholes

©1998 Exploratorium

The following is a description and rationale for an inquiry experience that we designed for the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry Leadership Seminar. Although it describes a particular workshop, it can serve as an example of the elements to consider in the design of any short-term inquiry experience. The times listed in the attached schedule indicate what we did at this particular workshop, but you can create whatever time schedule best fits your teachers, goals, needs and constraints.



We designed this inquiry experience for a limited time period with several specific goals in mind. The purpose was to give the participants a quick but high-impact experience of doing inquiry, so they would have both a feel for what inquiry is and a vision of the process. We wanted them to see that movement toward conceptual understanding could be achieved with inquiry. To these ends, we designed a compressed inquiry experience.


Workshop Design

Inquiry Starting Point ---Tabletop Light Source Activity

We started with participants poking pinholes in black paper taped to light sources and exploring the light images that were projected. This is an exploratory, or "messing about" phase of inquiry that we are calling an inquiry starting point. This starting point (and inquiry starting points in general) had the purpose of:

  • arousing interest with an intriguing phenomena
  • defining a domain (a range of ideas and phenomena) for investigation
  • generating questions which could lead to investigations
  • providing tools for investigations (e.g. clear bulbs with various shaped filaments within light-boxes openings for making pinholes, pinhole viewer designs, etc.)


Developing a Thinking Tool-Pinhole Clamp-light Demonstration

After a break, we did a demonstration covering a clamp-light with aluminum foil, poking pinholes in the foil, and revealing that the light on the screen was made up of images of the bulb filament. This demonstration served the purpose of:

  • deepening interest-this intriguing idea helped to capture the imagination and gave new ways of thinking about pinholes and light.
  • generating additional questions which could lead to investigations
  • providing a "thinking tool"(a way of thinking about phenomena), in this case, the idea that light is made up of a collection of overlapping images provided a way of thinking about and making sense of experimental results


Soliciting Observations and Questions

At this point, we asked the group to share their observations and questions. We recorded these on chart paper to:

  • generate questions for investigation
  • identify people with similar interests
  • make the inquiry a group process-people got ideas and inspirations from each other's questions which helped them find their own question to investigate, and they shared information toward the goal of building their own conceptual understanding.


Extending the Experience and Adding Tools for Investigation-Pinhole Viewers, Refrigerator Box, Cards, etc.

People visited exhibits and were given hand-held pinhole viewers and cards with arrays of holes and odd-shaped holes (see the Image Walk Web Page). This part of the workshop:

  • extended the participants' experience with pinhole phenomena and provided greater breadth of related phenomena
  • provided additional tools for investigation (e.g. the cards)
  • generated more questions that could lead to investigations


"Setting the Stage" (organizing and initiating investigations)

We went through a process with the following steps:

1. Collected and recorded more questions. Talked about questions which were amenable to investigation.

2. Identified general categories of questions and divided the questions into these categories (such as questions about image reversal, size and shape of pinhole, clarity and brightness of image, etc.).

3. Divided the people into subgroups by interest in the various categories. Sent people off to talk in subgroups.

4. Formed investigation groups of 2-3 from these subgroups.

5. Had each investigation group identify their starting question or area of interest, collect materials needed and begin investigation.

This process served the purposes of:

  • highlighting the use of questions in initiating investigations
  • encouraging people to think consciously about what they want to investigate
  • creating groups by virtue of content interests, rather than social interests


Facilitating Investigations

The style, intensity, and staff-to-participant ratio for facilitation during investigations depend on a number of elements. These include your goals for the group, the group's experience with the inquiry process, and the amount of time that you have for investigation.

Facilitation requires an artful balance of knowing how to "read" a group, and knowing when and when not to intervene. It is a complex skill that develops over time. While there is no prescription, here is a brief description of some things to consider.


  • soliciting information --- we solicit information to determine whether and how to intervene through looking at what groups are doing, asking them what they are doing, asking for explanations of what they are doing or trying to find out, asking them how they did something, etc.


  • intervening --- an intervention can be anything that the facilitator does with a group to enhance their inquiry. If a group is already on a productive path, encouragement and validation may be the only kinds of interactions that are needed to help a group continue working meaningfully and enthusiastically. However, in many cases there are various reasons that groups may need some guidance, such as when groups are "stuck", sidetracked, could benefit from thinking more broadly or in a more focused way about the phenomena, or could benefit from connecting together ideas and experiences related to the phenomena. Some examples of possible intervention include: pointing out something that teachers haven't seen (e.g. Have you noticed the round image of the light fixture?), suggesting that they look at someone else's work, suggesting that they draw or represent what they think is going on, suggesting that they try something again, suggesting a path they might pursue, or asking them to consider a thinking tool.


During the Investigation

Groups were engaged in two sessions of pinhole investigations for up to two hours at a time. During this period, the staff was facilitating as necessary while the groups were:

  • planning and carrying out investigations
  • interacting with materials
  • making observations
  • asking questions
  • talking to each other to share observations and ideas
  • proposing explanations
  • making predictions and testing them
  • revisiting questions and explanations in light of new observations
  • recording and representing thinking through writing and drawing


The Process of Inquiry

The process of inquiry, like most creative processes, is often a path with peaks and valleys, moments of triumph and moments of frustration, and times when you think you know less than when you started. We chose a time period for investigation that was long enough for most people to experience some of these aspects of inquiry.

We also divided the work by putting in breaks and separating the investigation into two sessions. This allowed people to step away, consider their experience and come back to it refreshed.


Synthesizing the Group Experiences

At the end of the investigation period, groups shared information about both their investigation process and what they had learned. This served several purposes:


  • consolidation of learning --- no knowledge is complete. There are always questions to pose and more understanding to gain. Because of this, inquiry often ends with as many questions as it starts out with (albeit, they are new questions). In that sense there is no final closure. However, there are "resting points" or places where you can consolidate your progress and leave off further investigation until another time. It is important to provide help with this period of consolidation so that inquiry learners realize that they have made progress toward understanding by doing their investigations.


  • developing group understanding --- during the sharing of information we encouraged group interaction, their asking questions of each other and continued dialogue. We also elicited and pointed out discoveries that we had noticed them make. Active facilitation can help the group come to a conceptual understanding based on the combined findings from the whole group's work.


Additional Points

In a longer inquiry, there are some additional steps that we would have taken.

  • midpoint sharing --- by bringing groups together to share where they are, both in the process of investigation and in working on their questions, you can help to produce a community of inquiry. People can compare their process to that of others in order to create a broader understanding of the process of inquiry. They gain from each other's findings which helps to clarify their ideas. They also use the ideas of others to help suggest where they might go next with their own investigation.


  • process sharing --- in the course of investigation and at the end of investigation we encourage people to talk about the affective aspects of their inquiry experience; i.e. how it makes them feel. The affective experience in learning science plays a major role in both attitudes toward learning science and understanding of science content. Talking about their experience serves to highlight the importance of this element.



Day 1

60 minutes

Starting Point --- Tabletop Light Source Activity
Solicit observations and questions


30 minutes

A Thinking Tool --- Pinhole Clamp Light Demonstration

45 minutes

Extend Experience and Add Tools for Investigation --- Pinhole Viewers, Refrigerator Box, Cards, etc.


Day 2


35 minutes

Solicit Observations and Questions
"Setting the Stage" (organizing and initiating pinhole investigations)

105 minutes



120 minutes

Continue Pinhole Investigations

75 minutes

Synthesis --- Share results and talk about personal process of inquiry