“Which Truck is the Best Choice?” A story of Authentic Motivation to do an Inquiry Project

By: Priscila J.B.M. Costa and Felipe Costa

The Ignition

It was September, a couple of months into the outbreak of COVID-19, and school buildings were closed for in-person learning. My son was beginning his 5th grade year and working on schoolwork virtually through daily Google Meets and several other learning platforms. We also decided to give him a smartphone to help develop better digital literacy skills. One day, while I was driving and running errands, he blurted from the backseat, “Mom, I don’t understand! This website says the Ford F-450 is the best, but at the end, it says that GMC 3500HD is better than the Ford. It doesn’t make any sense.” 

As an educator and language teacher, I saw a teaching opportunity. His elementary school was a school of choice created as a national demonstration site for inquiry-based instruction. Souto-Manning et al. (2010) describe well the vision of the school and how teachers approach self-motivated inquiry. Felipe attended this particular school for two years and already learned how to take agency over his own inquiry projects. His interest in the topic of trucks was a motivating factor to use his inquiry skills on a real-life problem. It was also an opportunity to build a new digital literacy skill. 

I said, “I can’t read what is on the website because I am driving now, but you can tell me more about what you are reading.”

“I’m searching which truck is the best, but in this website sometimes they say one thing, and then they say the opposite. Why don’t they make up their minds?” he asked. 

“I agree. That does not make sense. Is it the same person writing the whole article, or are there several people sharing their opinions about various trucks?”

He described what he saw on the screen of his phone, “I think there is a question at the top, and people write their answers. One person wrote the Ford F-450 is better because it has more torque. It is a stronger work truck. Then, I continued reading, and there is this other person who said that the GMC 3500HD is better because it has more internal space and it is more comfortable.”

The Road to Learning

Photo by Benjamin Zhao on Unsplash

He was engaged in reading and motivated to find an answer. I pictured a Quora style forum. Reading that kind of multimodal genre requires specific literacy skills. The New London Group (1996) proposed the concept of multiliteracies, which expands the conventional definition of literacy to encompass reading texts in many other modalities beyond print. It includes new media such as all the digital resources offered by mobile devices and the Internet (Kalantzis & Cope, n.d., 2015). Jones and Hafner (2012) explain that “digital literacies involve not just being able to ‘operate’ tools like computers and mobile phones, but also the ability to adapt the affordances and constraints of these tools to particular circumstances” (p. 13). 

In this circumstance, I replied to him, “That sounds like a discussion forum. It is a website where anyone can ask questions about any topic, and people who know about that topic can join and give their answers. Some answers are better than others. Some are based on facts, like scientific research, and others are just their opinions based on experience. Are those answers about the trucks based on truck facts?”

“Well, there are some facts. Like, the first one says that the Ford F-450 has 1050 lb-ft of torque. That is a fact. The other says that the GMC 3500HD has a softer suspension and it rides smoother, and that is also a fact,” he answered.

I continued asking, “Look at those facts. I don’t know much about trucks, but it sounds like they are not about the same features. I believe they are comparing apples to oranges. Why is that?”  

Parking for a Lesson

He explained, “I think it depends on their opinion on what makes a good truck. Some people want a heavy-duty truck to use for work or to pull a big trailer. Other people prefer comfort and space when they use the truck to travel. So, at the end, when you read these answers, you can make your own decision depending on what you prefer for a truck.”

“And what is your conclusion?” I finally asked. 

He concluded, “For me, the Ford F-450 is better because I want to have more power than comfort.” 

Great! He built a literacy skill then and there. In this micro inquiry, he was able to make a critical analysis of the data he collected from the online forum. His engagement with the topic gave him motivation to read critically from a digital source and address his question. All those skills can be transferred to his academic work now that he is in middle school, because they help him read in search of information.   


Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding digital literacies: A Practical introduction. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (n.d.). Kalantzis and Cope on New Media Literacies: Technology’s Impacts on Communication [Com]. New Learning Online. Retrieved October 27, 2021, from

Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2015). Learning and New Media. In D. Scott & E. Hargreaves (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Learning (pp. 373–387). SAGE.

New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–92.

Souto-Manning, M., Mills, H., & O’Keefe, T. (2010). Teacher as Researcher: Collaborative Inquiry: From Kidwatching to Responsive Teaching. Childhood Education, 86(3), 169–171.

About the Authors

Priscila J.B.M. Costa is an international doctoral student in Language and Literacy, a Holmes Scholar Alumna, and an adjunct instructor in the First Year English program at the University of South Carolina. 

Felipe Costa is a bilingual 6th-grader and a truck expert.


The Advantages of Inquiry: Equity and the Economy

By: Dr. Britnie Delinger Kane, Assistant Professor at the Citadel

In education, inquiry has long been considered foundational to all four major disciplines (e.g., Dewey, 1927)—English, social studies, science, and math—and it has been motivated and defended from a number of theoretical backdrops (i.e., critical literacy; social constructivist theories of learning; disciplinary literacy; engagement theory; and on and on). Others might choose a different conceptual framework from which to understand the place of inquiry in classrooms, but—for my money—I prefer to understand its utility from the standpoint of social constructivist theories of learning. This stance helps us to see connections between inquiry-oriented instruction, disciplinary literacy, and even more equitable forms of instruction.

The term “constructivist” teaching is often bandied about, but it’s a deeply complex and potentially misleading term. If you have never read Marc Windschitl’s (2002) review of the research on “constructivist” or “student-centered” instruction, you should. It will change the way you think about every piece of educational research you happen across —not to mention every blog with ten tips for integrating into the classroom Chromebooks or SeeSaw or Lucy Calkins’s writing curricula. Windschitl’s main argument in that piece is that the field has been unfair to teachers in advocating for a nebulous idea of “constructivist” teaching. He then, in detailed and clear ways, distinguishes between two broad orientations to theories of learning, cognitive constructivism (think Piaget) and social constructivism (Vygotsky), which continue to inform thinking in the learning sciences. 

So far, many of you may be nodding, straining to remember that Ed Psych class long ago where you kept getting the words assimilation and accommodation mixed up and someone asked you to make a poster about Vygotsky’s ZPD (only rarely have I been in a School of Ed that wasn’t plastered with posters of the ZPD). The point that Windschitl (2002) highlights is that humanity can file the articulation of coherent theories about human learning on its list of invaluable accomplishments of the last 100 years. However—and this is the clincher—theories of learning are NOT theories of teaching: Just because we know boatloads more about the ways that people learn does not necessarily mean that we can fill the same boats with our understanding of effective teaching. Windschitl proceeds to outline what—from a social constructivist standpoint—constitutes great teaching. He calls this ambitious instruction—or, how to teach in ways that will support what we understand, broadly, about the social nature of learning. The whole bullet-pointed list could sustain career-long consideration, but here’s my favorite line:

[When students are engaged in rich opportunities for conceptual learning, they are] routinely asked to apply knowledge in diverse and authentic contexts, to explain ideas, interpret texts, predict phenomena, and construct arguments based on evidence, rather than to focus exclusively on the acquisition of predetermined “right answers” (Windschitl, 2002, p. 137).

Windschitl calls such teaching ambitious, because it supports social constructivist forms of learning. Ultimately, Windschilt and other learning theorists seem to agree that ambitious instruction can support the rich forms of conceptual learning that students will need in order to succeed in our knowledge economy. Learning theorists have highlighted that such expertise involves not just memorization of important facts and procedures, but “a deep conceptual understanding of complex concepts and the ability to work with them creatively to generate new ideas, new theories, new products, and new knowledge” (Sawyer, 2014, p. 5). Indeed, it is a repeated finding of educational research that, by addressing complex, authentic, and relevant questions, students can learn to use their procedural and conceptual knowledge flexibly in order to solve novel problems while evaluating and communicating arguments clearly (Sawyer, 2014, p. 5).

In short, rich learning requires that students inquire into authentic and relevant problems, and so bringing inquiry into classrooms can be an important framework for teaching ambitiously. Of course, as a literacy person, I cannot think about discipline-specific forms of inquiry without also thinking about disciplinary literacy. Disciplinary literacy is about apprenticing students into the ways that experts use reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking in specific disciplines to inquire into questions of import to particular fields. At the heart of disciplinary literacy is the idea that students must learn both the content and processes through which knowledge is constructed in particular disciplines (Moje, 2007). As Moje (2007) emphasizes, understanding the processes through which knowledge is constructed is central to equitable forms of pedagogy—not only because understanding these processes helps students to reconstruct them and use them in their own lives, but because understanding those processes can support students, ultimately, in critiquing them. To my mind—understanding the processes through which knowledge is constructed in particular disciplines is about…well, inquiry. Spires and her colleagues (2016) agree. They have used inquiry as a means of supporting students’ disciplinary literacy, calling their framework for this work project-based inquiry (PBI). In their framework, PBI has five phases:

  1. ask a compelling question, 
  2. gather and analyze sources, 
  3. creatively synthesize claims and evidences, 
  4. critically evaluate and revise, and 
  5. share, publish, and act
Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash

Early evidence suggests that, by focusing on disciplinary literacy within an inquiry paradigm, teachers and students are able to deepen their understanding of disciplinary literacy and engage in deeper, authentic, relevant, and engaging content-specific learning (Spires et al., 2016). 

As research on disciplinary literacy centrally highlights, however, the processes through which disciplinarians construct knowledge—or, the modes of inquiry they use—are, of course, discipline specific (Dobbs, Ippolito & Charner-Laird, 2017; Moje, 2007; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Spires et al., 2016). A number of articles, including those cited here, have written about this in great depth, so I will limit myself to a single example. In the PBI framework that Spires and her colleagues suggest, inquiry across disciplines begins, of course, with a compelling question. Students then gather and analyze sources. However, the ways in which they analyze these sources are different: literary critics deconstruct literary and rhetorical devices, such as irony and metaphor; scientists attend to an author’s credential and authority within the field; and historians contextualize primary sources, paying attention to both the author, purpose, audience, and time period in which the piece was written or created; mathematicians analyze the logic of an argument without attending as closely to the context of the author (Spires et al., 2016, p. 153). Thus, all disciplines inquire, but they do so differently. 

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

In short, inquiry is a powerful framework for ambitious teaching, and it can be an important vehicle for supporting disciplinary literacy and content-area learning. By bringing inquiry projects into the classroom, students have opportunities to participate in disciplinary work, which can support students’ development of disciplinary literacy, as well as the content and processes that disciplinarians use to build knowledge. There are two major advantages to this: (1) inquiry can support students to develop the kinds of rich, flexible conceptual knowledge they will need in order to find success in the knowledge economy (Sawyer, 2014); and (2) inquiry allows students to participate in approximations of processes of discipline-specific knowledge construction, which is foundational to equitable teaching (Moje, 2007; Behrman, 2006).   


Behrman, E. H. (2006). Teaching about language, power, and text: A review of classroom practices that support critical literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy49(6), 490-498.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2016). Research on teaching and teacher education and its influence on policy and practice. Educational Researcher, 45(2), p. 83-91.

Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. Athens, OH: Shallow. 

Dobbs, C., Ippolito, J. & Charner-Laird, M. (2017). Investigating disciplinary literacy: A framework for collaborative professional learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Moje, E.B. (2007). Developing socially just subject-matter in- struction: A review of the literature on disciplinary literacy teaching. Review of Research in Education, 31(1), 1–44. doi:10. 3102/0091732X07300046001 

Sawyer, R. K. (2014). Introduction: The new science of learning. The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (pp. 1-18).

Shanahan, T. and Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Spires, H. A., Kerkhoff, S. N., Graham, A. C. K. (2016). Disciplinary literacy and inquiry: Teaching for deeper content learning. Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy, 60(2), p. 151-61. Windschitl, M. (2002). Framing constructivism in practice as the negotiation of dilemmas: An analysis of the conceptual, pedagogical, cultural, and political challenges facing teachers. Review of Educational Research, 72(2), 131–175.

About the Author

Britnie Delinger Kane is an assistant professor of literacy in the Zucker Family School of Education at The Citadel in Charleston, SC. Dr. Kane’s teaching and research focuses on how teachers learn to teach ambitiously. Her work has focused on a number of content areas, including mathematics, writing, and computer science. This focus has led to her interest in disciplinary literacy, to which she brings a learning science perspective. She has studied teachers’ professional learning across their careers, from preservice teachers’ involvement in simulations of professional work to in-service teachers’ participation in teacher workgroups to instructional coaching.