What is inquiry learning?

In a previous post, I described inquiry learning as comprising three elements:

1)  questioning frameworks

2)  information literacy / information seeking  process

3)  an action research cycle

My conclusion was that these three elements define inquiry learning and separate it from related concepts such as information literacy.  My choice of foregrounding these elements is based on my analysis of a wide range of literature advocating inquiry learning and my own philosophical stance. The literature includes curriculum frameworks, teacher handbooks, inquiry models and research studies. My philosophical stance is that inquiry learning pedagogy should incorporate the elements of everyday inquiry and workplace/community inquiry (i.e action research). Thus, it should be authentic, empowering and student directed.

1) Questioning frameworks

Inquiry learning involves explicitly asking questions. In planning an inquiry task or unit of work, the role of the teacher and student in asking questions is crucial. In some cases, the teacher many choose the general topic or overarching question, and then have the students pose a series of sub questions. This serves a dual purpose: 1) to narrow the topic so it is manageable, and 2) to allow students to follow their interests.

The amount of student-led versus teacher-led questioning is related to the type of inquiry pedagogy that is followed. A structured inquiry is teacher-directed, a guided inquiry is a mix of teacher and student direction and an open inquiry is student-directed (Martin-Hansen 2002 ; Bell, Smetana and Binns 2005).

Essential questions

In some forms of inquiry learning, an overarching question is chosen from a range of ‘essential” or ‘big’ questions. These are questions that humans have been asking for millennia. Some relate to nature of being human, while others are discipline specific questions. Wilhelm (2007 pp. 41-74) suggests questions such as:

  • ‘Why is war necessary?
  • What is our responsibility to those in trouble/less fortunate/less powerful?
  • What makes a good relationship?
  • What makes a great person/leader?
  • What makes a good community?
  • What is our proper relationship to nature?
  • Why do organisms die?’

Likewise, Wiggins and McTighe (2005 pp. 105-125) suggest:

  •  ‘In what ways does art reflect culture as well as shape it?
  • What makes a mathematical argument convincing?
  • How do our various body systems interact?
  • How do authors use different story elements to establish mood?
  • What are the common factors in the rise and fall of powerful nations?’

Frameworks for guiding questions

There are a number of questioning frameworks used for guiding students’ questions. A simple framework is 7Ws and H (why, where, which, when, who, what, what if and how). Another is KWL (Ogle 1986). KWL asks:

  • What do I know?
  • What do I want to find out?
  • What have I learned?

An extended version of KWL is KWHLAQ (Barell 2008 p. 72). KWHLAQ asks:

  • What do I know?
  • What do I want to know?
  • How do I find out?
  • What have I learned?
  • What action will I take?
  • What new questions do I have?

There are a number of inquiry and information process models that have questioning frameworks built into each stage of the model. Furthermore, each discipline has particular questions that guide the inquiry process, especially in relation to the ways in which information is evaluated. I will explain these in a future blog post devoted to questioning frameworks.

2) Information literacy / information seeking  process

The second element of inquiry learning is an information literacy or information seeking process. At the heart of inquiry is data collection and information gathering. There are a number of models that teachers may use used to scaffold this process. They all involve stages of seeking/gathering, selecting, evaluating, analysing, organising and presenting data and information. The models are variously called information seeking, information skills, information literacy, information process or inquiry process models. The Big 6 (Eisenberg and Berkowitz 1990 ; Eisenberg and Berkowitz 2012), Information Search Process (ISP) (Kuhlthau 1991 ; Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari 2007), Information Process (NSW Department of Education and Training 2007) and Information Literacy Process (Ryan and Capra 2001) seem to be the most widely used models in Australia. As can be seen in the table they share similar steps.

Process models

Taken alone, these models can be regarded as information literacy or information process models. When combined with questioning frameworks and an action research cycle, they become inquiry models.

3) Action research cycle

The third element of inquiry learning is an action research cycle. An action research cycle is based on the principle of continuous inquiry. That is, where one inquiry creates questions that leads to the next inquiry. This is seen in the questioning frameworks such as KWHLAQ which asks ‘What new questions do I have?’ The idea of action is also at its heart. In this case action can be the result of the inquiry (as in KWHLAQ which asks ‘What action will I take?’), or it can be the inquiry itself.

Traditionally, an action research cycle includes a number of stages:  planning, acting, observing and evaluating (McTaggart 1991). These stages are very similar to the process models described above. They involve defining the research question or problem, designing an intervention or solution, implementing it, gathering data and information, and evaluating the result.

Action research is commonly used as a model for professional learning in organisations and community groups. Action research is ‘bottom up’ research that is undertaken by the practitioner, or person close to the research question, as opposed to ‘top down’ research undertaken by a company, government or consultant. Action research is regarded as a way of practitioners and community members taking ownership of the problem they have identified. It involves active participation in problem-solving and decision-making to improve practice. An essential component of action research is that it involves collaboration.

Action research is not mentioned in the literature as being part of inquiry learning. However, I have chosen to foreground it here as a philosophical stance. I believe that we should regard inquiry learning in school and university as being a preparation for action research in professional and community contexts. In this way, we empower our students to become active participants in workplaces and communities.

In terms of curriculum design, an action research cycle is similar to a spiral curriculum (Bruner 1963). With action research (i.e. inquiry), teachers and students can never say they have ‘done’ a topic (‘We did this topic last year, Miss!’). In a spiral curriculum, the same ‘topic’ is revisited at increasing levels of depth. Likewise, in an action research cycle, one cycle of inquiry raises new questions or problems, which leads to the next cycle.

One of the problems I see with inquiry learning in schools is that it is often interpreted as a ‘unit of work’ where students undertake a discrete inquiry i.e. it has a defined end point. In higher education this is seen in particular ‘inquiry’ assignments or particular subjects in a degree being designed as ‘inquiry’ subjects. A more powerful model, I believe, is where the entire curriculum is inquiry-based.

I acknowledge that it is idealistic of me to believe that continuous inquiry curriculum would be implemented at school and university level. This is because continuous inquiry (where one inquiry leads to the next) can lead in unanticipated directions, which is risky in an educational system that insists we predefine learning outcomes (Lupton 2012). However, I would argue that the inquiry pedagogy and models that we draw on should at least incorporate the ‘A’ and ‘Q’ of KWHLAQ. These models are what I call ‘holistic’ inquiry models.

Holistic inquiry models

Holistic inquiry models incorporate  a questioning framework, information literacy / information search process and an action research cycle. One such model is the Inquiry Circle (see image here). This model (Gourley 2008) is an amalgamation of three models from Murdoch (2005), Stripling (2003) and Branch and Oberg (2005). It is also clearly influenced by Kuhlthau (1991). The model comprises the stages 1) Tuning In 2) Finding Out 3) Sorting Out 4) Going Further 5) Making Conclusions 6) Taking Action, underpinned by Reflecting on Personal Understandings. At each stage there are a range of relevant questions that students use to guide their learning. This model is particularly appropriate for primary and secondary school inquiry, but could be adapted for use in higher education.

What process models and questioning frameworks have you found useful when teaching inquiry learning? Please share your experience by responding to this post 🙂


Barell, J. (2008). Why are school buses always yellow? Thousand Oaks, Corwin Press

Bell, R., Smetana, L. and Binns, I. (2005). “Simplifying inquiry instruction.” The Science Teacher 72(7): 30-33

Branch, J. and Oberg, D. (2005) “Focus on Inquiry.” IASL. 6 May http://education.alberta.ca/media/313361/focusoninquiry.pdf

Bruner, J. (1963) The process of education. New York: Random House

Eisenberg, M. and Berkowitz, R. (1990). Information problem-solving: The Big Six approach to library & information skills instruction. Norwood, New Jersey, Ablex Publishing Corporation

Eisenberg, M. and Berkowitz, R. (2012) The Big 6. Retrieved 12 August, 2012, from http://big6.com/

Gourley, B. (2008). Inquiry: The road less travelled. Knowledge Quest, 37(1), 18-23

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L. and Caspari, A. (2007). Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st century  Westport, Libraries Unlimited

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). “Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42(5): 361-371

Lupton, M. (2013) Reclaiming the art of teaching. Teaching in Higher Education 18(2) 156-166 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13562517.2012.694098

Martin-Hansen, L. (2002). “Defining inquiry: Exploring the many types of inquiry in the science classroom.” The Science Teacher 69(2): 34-37

McTaggart, R. (1991). “Principles for Participatory Action Research.” Adult Education Quarterly 41(3): 168-187

Murdoch, K (1998)  Classroom Connections: Strategies for Integrated Learning. Armadale, Vic: Eleanor Curtain Pub

NSW Department of Education and Training. (2007) Information skills in the school: Engaging learners in constructing knowledge. School Libraries and Information Literacy Unit  Curriculum K–12 Directorate, NSW Department of Education and Training, . Retrieved 12 August, 2012, from http://www.curriculumsupport.education.nsw.gov.au/schoollibraries/teachingideas/isp/docs/infoskills.pdf

Ogle, D. (1986). “K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text.” Reading Teacher 39: 564-570

Ryan, J. and Capra, S. (2001). Information literacy toolkit: Grades kindergarten-6. Chicago, ALA Editions

Stripling, Barbara (2003) “Inquiry-Based Learning.” In Curriculum Connections through the Library, ed. Barbara K. Stripling and Sandra Hughes-Hassell, 3-39. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria VA, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Wilhelm, J. (2007). Engaging readers and writers with inquiry. New York, Scholastic

8 responses to “What is inquiry learning?

  1. I am lucky. I teach my Grade 8 Religion classes about Judaism and aspects of the faith tradition in the context of Jesus’ life and times, this continues to be embellished and built upon over subsequent untits in RE. I also take Religion and Ethics in Grades 11 and 12 and move the students past the dimensions of religion to consider the legacy. I hadn’t realised that my approach and that of the college aligned so closely with the holistic approach to inquiry learning. It will be interesting to do further reading and see what the alternatives are. Thank you for such a thought provoking post.

  2. I really enjoy your breakdown of inquiry learning here Mandy.

    As Head of Inquiry Learning at my School (North Brisbane) I found myself on a journey traversing the models of inquiry used (5E’s, QCAA Historical Inquiry & Scientific Inquiry) trying to bring staff to a common understanding of IL. Your breakdown of these three components is very useful in continue doing this.

    Earlier on in the year I used the Alberto model as a way to help staff get a sense of the ISP and role metacognition plays with limited success.

    In collaboration with our amazing teacher-librarian (who I am pretty sure has superpowers by the way, she is fabulous) we delivered PD using C. Kuhlthau’s GI. We have had some great stories of success (our PE department have grabbed GI with both hands and have done some amazing work with healthy lifestyles and safe choices).

    Love the blog 🙂

    • Great to hear of your approach, Des 🙂 Fantastic that you are Head of Inquiry Learning – what a great title, I’m so jealous! And yay for your teacher-librarian with superpowers! Feel free to get in touch anytime to talk – perhaps sometime I could visit your school sometime to see the work that you’re doing?

  3. Inquiry Learning in a nutshell, what do you think?
    Inquiry Learning is a process by which learners apply a dynamic sequence of thinking skills which engenders higher order thinking and contemporary learning dispositions.

  4. Hi Mandy, just wanted to share my recent experience with an inquiry based teaching model. A school I recently worked at has implement the PYP – Primary Years Planning – which is part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. It breaks the learning down into “units of inquiry,” such as “sharing the planet,” and then requires the students to undergo inquiry learning tasks. This has been a big change to the schooling methods. They are also basing their pedagogy off the Inquiry Circle and it definitely seems to be working. I really enjoyed my time teaching in this type of setting and hope that it becomes more and more common.

    • Thanks for mentioning the IB approach – it seems as if they are basing the units of inquiry on big questions or essential questions. I’m guessing that each school can choose their process model with the unit of inquiry 🙂

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