Inquiry learning is
an approach that provides learners opportunities to actively develop
skills that enable them to locate, gather, analyse, critique and apply
information in a wide range of contexts. as they develop understanding.
At least that is how I currently
understand and define the concept. I have found that trying to define
inquiry learning is like trying to grab a bar of soap in the bath. Every
time you think you have grasped its essence it slides away as another
piece of literature or concept challenges your carefully built
In my opinion, when inquiry learning is
implemented well in a school the following criteria are being met, or
there is demonstrable progress towards these criteria being met.
Students are at some stage of
progression along a continuum that starts at teacher directed units,
includes negotiated units through to student driven learning.
Students are actively supported and
scaffolded by teachers in the acquisition of relevant skills.
Students are engaged in learning.
Students deepen or gain understanding
of core concepts relevant to the context.
Students work collaboratively in
Students use and apply the
information then share their solutions, decisions, thinking and
outcomes in a celebration of understanding. They are not involved in
a process of shifting and sharing information.
Students will access a range of
Students predicate their work on
Students will be actively engaged in
asking and following up on questions as a central skill.
These criteria raise a number of
theoretical and practical issues for schools:
Goal: To implement inquiry
learning effectively a school first needs to have a clear goal and
reason behind taking this step and needs to constantly measure every
aspect of the implementation in terms of achieving that goal. For the
sake of this discussion I will make the assumption that a central goal
for implementing inquiry learning is to move students towards
independence as learners.
Progression: It is unrealistic to
expect students to be able to instantly develop high level learning
tasks that are supported by resources, scaffold specific skills, and
ensure usage and application of information. Experience has shown that
the move towards independence as a learner is a 6 to 13 year journey. It
is logical that the start point is highly scaffolded, teacher directed
activities where foundational skills are developed. Students can then
draw on their experiences and learning to move to negotiated inquiry
activities. Once skills have matured and developed further then students
can move towards increasing independence in developing their own
Scaffolding: Inquiry learning, if
it is targeted at developing independence will not be a sink or swim
experience for learners. Early experiences will be highly scaffolded,
allowing students to experience success and develop skills. To provide
adequate scaffolding places large demands on teachers in terms of that
preparation and planning as well as a high level of engagement and
interaction with students as they move through the learning experience.
Skill teaching: Learning is a
complex process and being independent as a learner requires the
development of a large number of skills. These skills will not be
acquired by absorption. Skills need to be deliberately taught by
teachers and practiced by students in real and engaging contexts over
Engagement: Student engagement in
learning is a central goal, however this requires teachers to develop
learning experiences that are highly relevant, challenging and practical
for the students. Teachers also need to be highly engaged and
enthusiastic themselves because bored and disinterested teachers is a
factor that will impact negatively on student engagement. This places a
very real challenge on teachers to plan and develop relevant activities
that they can engage in enthusiastically themselves.
Key Understandings: Schools have
curriculum requirements (either external or internal) and these will
usually include the development of conceptual understanding. It is
important for schools to clarify the key understandings they hope to
facilitate in their students and then use as the base for the inquiry
Grouping: The most powerful
learning happens when students can discuss, argue, compare ideas and
build understanding. It seems appropriate therefore that inquiry
learning is more effective when students are actively encouraged to do
this. Many years of working with schools on inquiry learning has leads
me to suggest that students work in groups of three. There is a special
dynamic that seems to happen in groups of three that doesn't occur so
easily in larger groups. Groups of three are also very easy for teachers
to monitor. Ensure that each group includes one of the best readers to
enable the group to access as high a text level as possible.
Applying and using information:
Understanding does not come through the shifting and sharing of
information. Real understanding comes through using and applying. For
instance I could read a large number of books and articles on
calligraphy, but it is the act of applying that information and actually
doing some calligraphy that will allow me to really understand the
concepts and information I have found. In my opinion good inquiry
learning will always involve students in some form of practical
application of the information they find. When examining inquiry
learning activities in schools I always have two base questions I seek
the answers to. Firstly I will analyse the task to see what information
the students are expected to find. Secondly I will look to see what they
are being asked to do with that information. Sadly in many cases I find
that the students are being asked to present the found information in
some form. This, in my opinion, is not good inquiry learning!
Information sources: Inquiry
learning experiences should foster students into working with a wide
range of information sources. These sources should include printed text,
digital sources, images, data and people. At the junior part of the
school inquiry learning is possible and effective as long as text is not
a major information source. At this level reading skills are limited so
major information sources should be people and images.
Prior knowledge: Gaining
understanding is a process of linking new information to prior
knowledge. This means that in any inquiry learning process there should
be a time for clarifying prior knowledge. We also need to recognise that
most of us will also think we know things that we later find are
incorrect, false, distorted or naive in some way. the implication of
this is that when we define our prior knowledge it may be of value to
carry out some small research activities to validate the stuff we think
Questioning: Questioning is a
major central skill to learning. It could be argued that it is in fact
our prime intellectual skill. Questioning is a skill set that needs to
be developed, to do so teachers need to have a clear understanding
of questioning, questioning skills and how to facilitate students'
questioning skills. (Further information on this is available on my
Questioning Wiki -
Teacher Development: All the
aspects touched on above indicate that good inquiry learning will not
happen by accident, it is predicated on good professional development
for teachers. The main ingredient in successful inquiry learning is the
teacher, and it is an unfair assumption to expect teachers to
successfully implement inquiry learning without adequate support and
assistance. It is unfair both on the teacher and the students.
School Infrastructure: For inquiry
learning to work properly there are many aspects of school
infrastructure that need to be examined and modified. this ranges from
library development to computer access to resource storage and a myriad
of other issues, especially if we are serious about this being a process
that moves students towards independence as learners.
Inquiry learning is a complex and
powerful methodology when it is done well. There are many challenges for
schools to face up to and I believe that any casual implementation of
inquiry learning is either doomed to failure through teacher and student
frustration or will be a shallow version of what is possible and will
eventually be abandoned because it is not meeting the goals.