Inquiring into Inquiry: Theory and Practice

Inquiry involves active construction of meaning by the learner. It is a constructivist approach, in which real, authentic questions drive the learning...and the teaching.

An introduction to Inquiry

Have you heard about teaching and learning through inquiry? Have you wondered what this means and how it works?  If so, you have already begun to engage in “real” inquiry, just by wondering about inquiry!

Inquiry involves the active construction of meaning BY THE LEARNER. It is a constructivist approach, in which real, authentic questions drive the learning…and the teaching. While knowledge remains important, the “coverage of knowledge” is considered less important and meaningful for the learner than the “uncovering of knowledge”, leading to enduring understandings and conceptual depth.

Many education systems, education departments, individual schools, and teachers have been aware of the power of engaging with an inquiry as their fundamental approach to teaching and learning. 

The International Baccaleaurate Organisation has recently organized and formalized a framework consisting of the fundamental aspects of teaching and learning through inquiry. Ultimately, this will help guide teachers as they plan for, facilitate, and assess student learning.

In true inquiry style, the resulting work is question-driven and concept-based. Through this framework, the focus for the teacher and the learner moves away from ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ questions to ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘what if’, ‘I wonder’…types of questions.

 “In the PYP it is believed that this (INQUIRY) is the way in which students learn best—that students should be invited to investigate significant issues by formulating their own questions, designing their own inquiries, assessing the various means available to support their inquiries, and proceeding with research, experimentation, observation, and analysis that will help them in finding their own responses to the issues. The starting point is students’ current understanding, and the goal is the active construction of meaning by building connections between that understanding and new information and experience, derived from the inquiry into new content.” The International Baccaleaurate Organisation’s (IBO) Primary Years Programme (PYP) statement

The IBO has synthesized the best research and classroom practice, drawn from a range of schools and teachers around the world. The resulting Primary Years Programme (PYP) framework is concept-driven, based on the philosophy that:

“purposeful, structured inquiry is a powerful vehicle for learning that promotes meaning and understanding, and challenges students to engage with significant ideas.” Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education p.15

The expertise involved in designing the PYP provides a robust, rigorous, and comprehensive guide to how inquiry works best in classrooms.  It is this framework (which can be extended and adapted to support enduring understanding in students of all ages) that I will use to illustrate and describe an approach that puts student learners at the center of their own learning, with their teachers as facilitators, collaborators and “guides on the side” rather than the “fonts of all knowledge”. For many teachers, this can require some real reflection into what they fundamentally believe about teaching and learning and what they believe about their role in supporting the learning of their students.

When we educate for understanding, application, and transference, we focus on the exploration of significant ideas to promote real understanding rather than the memorization of facts and knowledge in isolation. 

Practicing skills out of context may help us develop and master those skills, but we may not be able to use them as thinking and problem-solving tools. Many concepts worth investigating and revisiting, transcend subject or disciplinary boundaries and therefore can be understood from a range of perspectives.  The PYP has identified 8 fundamental concepts that exist in our world of thought, around which planning, teaching, learning, and assessment can be constructed. These concepts and their related essential questions are:

  • Form – What is it like?
  • Function – How does it work?
  • Causation – Why is it like it is?
  • Change – How is it changing?
  • Connection – How is it connected to other things?
  • Perspectives – What are the points of view?
  • Responsibility – What is our responsibility?
  • Reflection – How do we know?

As we continue to inquire into inquiry, we will use these concepts to guide our thinking and further develop our understanding.

Form – What is Inquiry like?

Questions around the concept of form are designed to help us observe, identify, describe, and categorize.  If we were to observe an inquiry-driven classroom in action, we would observe a dynamic space where everyone is engaged in thinking, problem-solving, asking questions, and finding their own way toward evidence-based answers.  This applies to both the teacher and the learner! Not everyone will be doing the same thing at the same time, and plans may change as discoveries are made. 

The type and quality of the questions being asked by all learners are key to the healthy functioning of a classroom community that is engaged in true inquiry.  Decreased emphasis is placed on closed, “one-answer” types of questions, and increased emphasis is given to open, “many-answer” formation of questions.

I use this simple example to present how inquiry differs from traditional teaching and learning practice:

In a Mathematics class, the teacher asks “What is 2 + 2?”  The answer “=4” is already defined, closed, and assumed to be “right or wrong”

OR, the teacher asks “What is 4?”  Here the question is open and can be personalized by each learner and the answers are infinite, i.e.,= the number of people in my family

= the number between 3 and 5

= half of 8

= 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

= the month of my birthday

= the time my dance class starts

…and so on.

In this way, we can make the transition from learning and memorizing facts, to using our existing knowledge to learn new knowledge and develop a deep conceptual understanding of the value and meaning of “4”.

The power of an inquiry-based approach (for student and teacher learning) is that it opens up the world of powerful questions and goes much deeper than a pure sharing or transmission of knowledge.  Other examples of non-inquiry and inquiry questions include:

Non- Inquiry – When did World War Two start?

Inquiry – What are some things that cause conflict between people and can lead to war?

Non-Inquiry – Who is the author of this book?

Inquiry – What do you think motivated the author to write this book?  What is his/her message?

Often, in defining a concept like inquiry, which is part of determining its form, we can consider what it IS Not, to help us better understand what IT IS. When you are analyzing whether a lesson or activity is an example of inquiry, you could ask yourself:

  • Do the students know what results they are “supposed” to get?
  • Are the questions and steps predetermined for the students?
  • Is the teacher working harder than the students?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “Yes”, then it is likely that the experience is NOT inquiry driven.”

Function – How does Inquiry work?

At its best, inquiry works when we start by identifying the existing knowledge of the learner and build new learning on that foundation.

There are several outstanding educators currently providing extremely useful and practical models for teachers, to help them implement inquiry in their lessons.  One of them, whose work I really appreciate and use constantly in my professional and private life, is Kath Murdoch.

One of the great tools she has created is a model for designing a journey of inquiry:

Tune in:

  • Establish purpose and relevance
  • Provoke curiosity and wonder
  • Access and document prior knowledge, existing theories and ideas
  • Formulate questions
  • Consider ways to find out

Find out:

  • Use a range of resources & methods to gather information (read, view, interview, survey, experiment, observe…)
  • Aim to connect with people, places & objects to broaden understanding
  • Critically assess the value of information gathered
  • Document information gathered in a range of ways

Sort Out:

  • Make sense of the information gathered
  • Analyze, organize, compared, contrast, sift and sort
  • Reflect, respond and express new thinking
  • Revisit questions, refine and add new ones

Go further:

  • Use new questions as the basis for extending inquiry
  • Establish personal pathways of interest
  • Share new learnings with others

Reflect and act:

  • Consider ways to apply/use/share learning
  • Make connections back to the big ideas
  • Evaluate the progress
  • Consider unanswered questions – what next? What now?

In this design, we see that real inquiry is not necessarily a linear or cyclical process, but rather a set of steps and ways of thinking that we move between to guide our journey towards a deeper sense of knowledge and understanding.  By considering a possible area of inquiry that could be investigated with students, we can bring this alive.  Let’s assume that we are inquiring into “Healthy Forest Systems”Some steps in this inquiry journey could look like this:

Tuning in:

  • What are healthy forest systems like?”
  • “Why does it help us to understand forest systems?”
  • “What forest systems do we already know about?”

Finding Out:

  • What kinds of forest systems exist?”
  • What makes a forest system healthy/unhealthy?”
  • “What can we observe in forests that will tell us whether they are healthy or unhealthy?”
  • Where are the most/least healthy forest systems?”

Sorting Out:

  • “How can we recognize and describe different types of forest systems?”
  • “What do different kinds of forest systems need to be healthy?”

Going Further:

  • “What would happen if more of the world’s forests were unhealthy?”
  •  “How can people help an unhealthy forest system become more healthy?”
  • “People need forests but do forests need people?”

Reflect and Act:

  • “What is the most important thing I have learned and what do I want to DO about it?”
  • “How will my new understanding help me think/understand/act differently?”
  • “What do we/I know about healthy forest systems that I could share with other people?”

Causation – Why is Inquiry like it is?

Think about the kinds of spontaneous questions children ask naturally:

  • “Why is the sky blue?”
  • “Who made God?”
  • “Why are there so many languages in the world?”
  • “Why is that man homeless?”

These are big, open questions with no one answer.  They are open to a range of perspectives, involve many subject areas, and may be difficult to answer.  However, if this is the way that children think and formulate their naturally spontaneous questions, our work as teachers can be guided by these types of questions.  Think about it…children don’t often ask “easy” questions like “What color is the cup?” or “Is that a table?”. 

The truth is that inquiry fits so well with the natural way children think…it goes with the “grain of the brain”!  By starting with their questions, inquiry allows us to truly engage students in their own learning and understanding about the world around them.

As teachers, it is important that we understand that inquiry is not just another way of doing things in classrooms.  It is designed around what we know about the ways in which we learn best, through real interest and facing the challenge of confronting difficult and complex questions.  This is when the brain is working at its optimum level and is enjoying itself!

Change – How is Inquiry changing?

In considering how inquiry can change classroom environments and the teaching and learning experiences that take place, it is useful to remember that a constant process of change and adaptation is at work. 

First, it requires teachers to think about how their practice could change to better or increasingly accommodate student learning and understanding, at the conceptual level.  In reflecting on one’s own practice, the teacher is not required to make radical changes overnight but can carefully contemplate those changes as they transition into a more inquiry-driven approach.  The IBO’s PYP provides some sensible support in doing this, across the curriculum. 

Here are some examples of their Increased Emphasis/Decreased Emphasis tables to illustrate this point:

The point being made here is that, as teachers spend less time taking some of the approaches in the ‘Decreased Emphasis’ columns, they liberate some time to introduce some approaches from the ‘Increased Emphasis’ columns.  This is a gradual and personal process that each teacher will implement differently.

Connection – How is Inquiry connected to other things?

In accepting that we live, work, and learn in a world of interacting systems, we acknowledge that our actions affect others and therefore, relationships in inquiry classrooms become a real focus. We make connections with one another as learners and develop both independence and interdependence as we seek to find answers to questions, solve problems, and share our learning with each other.  Inquiry is a pedagogy, based on relationships and personal connections.

Further on the point of connection, inquiry allows us to look for and work with connections between subjects, disciplines, and ways of thinking.  Therefore, in an inquiry-driven classroom, we are very rarely “just doing science” for example.  As we inquire into forest systems, we will find there are elements of biology, chemistry, mathematics, human impact, sound, and even music, which can all be considered as authentic components of forests.  When we open our minds to these possibilities, we allow our students to develop an understanding of the ways in which their world is connected.  This can be described as either multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or trans-disciplinary, depending on how well learning tasks can be designed to weave together and effectively “collapse” the boundaries between disciplines.

One practical way of allowing students to realize this sense of interdependence for themselves is by using mind maps which enables them to organize and sort their knowledge into categories of understanding.  I call these concept maps because they can be helpful tools to help us navigate our way through inquiring into complex ideas and issues.

Perspective – What are the points of view about Inquiry?

Inquiry, like all pedagogical position, is grounded in a particular set of beliefs about how children learn and how they learn best.  It is a constructivist approach since it appreciates that all learners already have knowledge and beliefs about how the world works and their place in that world.  The perspective of the teacher who is committed to inquiry-driven teaching and learning is that we must first establish what the learners already know about the proposed subject and use this as the foundation for future learning.  Of course, each student will have a distinct set of background knowledge and experiences, meaning that they will share their own unique perspectives about a topic.

One effective technique for extracting and expressing the many perspectives that may exist within a classroom is the Visible Thinking Routine of Tug-For-Truth, which is an approach to introducing the skills of intellectual and organized debates to young learners.  This is just one of the many Visible Thinking Routines designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Tug for Truth

A routine for exploring tensions of truth

  1. Identify a question of truth – a controversial claim that something is true or false – where you know there is some evidence on both sides that students can bring forward.
  2. Ask students if they have an opinion about it (it’s okay not to have one).
  3. Draw a tug-of-war diagram on the board (or tape a piece of rope on the wall and use Post-its to make it more dramatic). Explain that students can add two kinds of things.  One is evidence – tugs in the Yes, Agree, True direction or the No, Disagree, False direction.  The other thing is to add a question about the tug-of-war itself.  A question that asks for more information or about “what if” we tried this or that, what would the result be?
  4. Facilitate a discussion in the form of a debate, allowing each student to expand on their ideas orally, defend their position, change their minds in the light of contributions made by other students. This can be done in one session or over several days.
  5. Finish the Tug for Truth by asking students what new ideas they have about the question of truth. Can we decide now? Do some people lean one way and some the other? Is the best answer in a “gray area” – most of the time true but not always, or true half the time? How could we settle this if we had to?

Some of the controversial claims I have used to expose and share the perspectives of my students include:

  • People need forests more than forests need people
  • Changes in technology improve our lives
  • Some people have different rights than others
  • Electricity is necessary for a happy life

Responsibility – What is our responsibility as we teach through Inquiry?

Once a teacher has sought to find out what learners already know about the focus area for future learning, they have the responsibility to respect the learners by:

  • Ensuring that what is already understood is not taught again
  • Using student questions to continually drive and assess the learning taking place
  • Acknowledging different student’s interests, learning styles, and learning pace
  • Expecting that each child will learn something unique and relevant to them

The teacher is not the source of the knowledge, the students must find out for themselves.

To help guide this part of the inquiry process, the PYP proposes three questions to help teachers determine how they will respectfully and responsibly plan for their learning of their particular cohort of students.  Once again, in true inquiry style, they pose three essential questions:

  • What do we want to learn? (i.e. to be able to know, do, and understand?)
  • How will we learn best
  • How will we know what we have learned?

Reflection – How do we know that Inquiry is working?

Reflective practice is highly-valued when we approach teaching and learning with a spirit of inquiry.  Because there are very few “right answers”, reflection allows us to consider our reasoning and examine the evidence we have discovered, to enable each learner to “know what they know”.  This introduces a powerful and necessary element of metacognition to the process of inquiry, helping teachers and students to understand.

“what it means to know in different disciplines, and encourages them to be rigorous in examining evidence for potential bias or other inaccuracy.” Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education. P.20

As educators, we can reflect on our “inquiry into inquiry” by asking questions like:

  • How do our new understandings about inquiry suggest changes to our beliefs about best teaching and learning practices?
  • How could our new appreciation about inquiry affect change in our classroom environments?
  • How is inquiry different from my current approach as an educator, and as a leader of student learning?
  • How could I effectively communicate my new understandings about inquiry to other educators?


Inquiry is a powerful tool we can use to promote learning that is significant, relevant, meaningful, and enduring for all learners. 

By respecting individual learners, focusing on concepts, and taking the time to learn in ways that align with real-life experience, we accept the challenge of staying open-minded to the exciting possibilities that can result when we put learners at the center of their own learning and commit to allowing thoughtful questions to drive the learning. 

It is such an exciting and inspiring process for teachers and learners, as they focus on their approaches to learning, not only on the product of the learning.

Have you already tried using inquiry in your class? If not, will you try it? Let me know in the comment section below!

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