Clarifying guided inquiry

Over the years I’ve been advocating inquiry learning I’ve noticed a plethora of terms have been used to name it. e.g.:

  • inquiry learning
  • inquiry-based learning
  • Guided Inquiry
  • guided inquiry
  • research-based learning

In this post I’d like to clarify the distinction between Guided Inquiry, guided inquiry and inquiry-guided learning. The distinction is important, in particular because Guided Inquiry (caps/proper noun) has a different meaning to guided inquiry (no caps/common noun).  Also, recently I came across inquiry-guided learning, which was a new term for me and I wondered why anyone would bother to invent a new term.

So, what is the distinction between the terms?

As the terms suggest, forms of inquiry learning that are deemed to be guided are scaffolded in some way by the teacher. There are a number of models that refer to guided inquiry (no caps/common noun). Many of these originate in K-12 science education, as inquiry-based learning first gained popularity in science, particularly in the US. Guided inquiry relates to a continuum from teacher-directed to student-directed inquiry. In the table below I have summarised the different levels of inquiry, showing the relationship of guided inquiry to other forms of inquiry. In relation to science education Bonnsetter also provides some useful tables here. The most teacher-directed approach is known as confirmation inquiry, where the teacher directs each aspect and the outcome is known e.g. ‘cookbook’ science lab activities. Structured inquiry is mainly teacher directed, with perhaps some agency from students in relation to some aspects. Guided inquiry  provides more agency, while open inquiry is completely student directed. The continuum forms a natural way to design curricula to gradually remove scaffolding to enable students to become completely independent.

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 12.00.32 pm

Levels of guidance (adapted from Bell, Smetana & Binns 2005, Bonnstetter 1998, Martin-Hansen 2002, National Rsearch Council 200)

Guided Inquiry (caps/proper noun) refers to the model presented by Carol Kuhlthau, Leslie Maniotes and Ann Caspari, in their 2007 book Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century (see here for the second edition, published in 2015). The authors say ‘Guided Inquiry offers an integrated unit of inquiry, planned and guided by an instructional team of a school librarian and teachers, allowing students to gain deeper understandings of subject area curriculum content and information literacy concepts’ (p. 1). In a companion volume published in 2012 –  Guided Inquiry Design, the authors expand the teaching team to include other experts, for instance a ESL specialist or technology specialist.

Guided Inquiry incorporates guided inquiry, in that it is scaffolded by teachers. The distinction between Guided Inquiry and guided inquiry is that the former strongly advocates the role of the school librarian and it explicitly incorporates an experiential model of information literacy/information seeking called the Information Search Process (ISP).   The ISP was developed from decades of empirical research into students’ information seeking. It consists of stages of the search process, with particular emotions being experienced by the student at each stage. The teaching team ‘concentrates on what students are thinking, feeling’ (p. 4) at each stage and they target teaching and learning activities to address each stage.

Guided Inquiry Design is an pedagogical and experiential model for designing and implementing inquiry units. It also incorporates the ISP and comprises the following stages:

  1. Open
  2. Immerse
  3. Explore
  4. Identify
  5. Gather
  6. Create
  7. Share
  8. Evaluate

Thus, Guided Inquiry is a particular type of K-12 inquiry learning model, which is the ‘brand’ and intellectual property of Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari. By contrast, guided inquiry is a general term for a mainly teacher-directed approach which has originated in K-12 science education.

In higher education, a similar approach has been taken to develop students’ research and inquiry skills. In this continuum from Willison and O’Regan, scaffolded research is similar to guided inquiry.  Likewise, Brew (2013) offers a ‘wheel’ model incorporating design approaches with the following elements (presented here as a table to emphasise the continuum aspect):

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 2.45.44 pm

(adapted from Brew 2013)

Along similar lines, Levy et al (2010) provide an inquiry-based learning model for higher education on a matrix showing the levels of teacher/client and student direction:

I discovered inquiry-guided learning from the higher education literature. Inquiry-guided learning seems to be espoused by mainly by Lee (2011, 2012). She claims that it is advocated in the Boyer Commission Report, however, when I searched the Report I found references to ‘guided research’ (p. 15) and ‘discovery guided by mentoring’ (p. 15) but none to ‘inquiry-guided learning’. The Boyer Report does, however advocate for ‘research-based learning and ‘inquiry-based learning’.

Lee describes guided-inquiry learning as promoting ‘the acquisition of new knowledge, abilities, and attitudes through students’ increasingly independent investigation of questions, problems, and issues, for which there is often no single answer’ (2012 p. 6). The guided aspect is implicit in students becoming ‘increasingly independent’, implying that they are originally dependent. I have to say find it annoying that Lee has created a new term, when existing terms are perfectly adequate!

When teachers are designing inquiry curricula it’s important that they consider which (if any) aspects will be teacher-directed, and which are student directed. I don’t necessarily espouse a developmental approach, i.e. starting with a structured inquiry and gradually removing the scaffolding as I believe that students can engage in open inquiry from the outset, as evidenced by learners who pursue hobbies and interests without any formal educational intervention.

In terms of designing curricula, I believe that Brew’s (2013) ‘wheel’ model above is the most sophisticated and holistic in designing and negotiating inquiry learning with students. The wheel model places students at the centre of the wheel, surrounded by pedagogical, disciplinary, curriculum, research and institutional contexts. It invites teachers to articulate learning outcomes in relation to skills, content and attributes. In terms of the dimensions listed in the table above, it is designed to enable teachers to explicitly consider the degree of students’ agency and independence in terms of a broad range of dimensions: topic, question, structure, audience and output and assessment. Furthermore, it considers knowledge as a key dimension.

Brew explains the wheel thus:

The segments are like pieces of  cake. You can eat the different pieces of cake in different ways. You can choose to eat the outside of a piece of cake or the inside or the middle. Thus it is perfectly possible, and indeed desirable in most cases, to mix the different levels in the different segments. (p. 614)

The model is designed for higher education, but I believe it would work just as well for K-12.


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

Bonnstetter, R. (1998). Inquiry: Learning from the past with an eye on the future. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 3(1).

Boyer Commission. (c1999). Reinventing undergraduate education. A blueprint for America’s research universities.

Brew, A. (2013). Understanding the scope of undergraduate research: A framework for curricular and pedagogical decision-making. Higher Education, 66(5), 603-618.

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

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L., & Caspari, A. (2012). Guided Inquiry Design: A framework for inquiry in your school. Westport: Libraries Unlimited.

Lee, V. (2011). The power of inquiry as a way of learning. Innovative Higher Education, 36, 149-160.

Lee, V. (2012). What is inquiry-guided learning? New Directions for Teaching and Learning (129), 5-14.

Levy, P., Little, S., McKinney, P., Nibbs, A., & Wood, J. (2010). The Sheffield companion to inquiry-based learning, CILASS (Centre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences), University of Sheffield.

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

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington: Centre for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education.

Willison, J & O’Regan, K (2015) Research skill development framework. University of Adelaide


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