From information … to knowledge creation!

Why Inquiry?

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Over the past few weeks, I have been contemplating and discussing the seemingly simple question of “why inquiry?” as a choice for teaching, and I have been challenged to go much deeper past my first instinctual answer of “what other choice is there”?  I have been teaching and learning from an inquiry-based approach for many years, and it has become like second nature to me.  However, I have been recently challenged to defend the use of inquiry and persuasively describe what inquiry is and isn’t along with exploring the spectrum of inquiry – from the idea of complete student generated questions and pursuit of knowledge to quite structured and mostly teacher-driven guided inquiry.  I, myself, prefer to land somewhere in the middle by providing enough structure to allow my students to explore and emulate real world issues and problems while pursuing their interests and passions, but also providing enough scaffolding to ensure curricular connections and just-in-time learning of necessary and relevant skills.

What is Inquiry?

There are myriad definitions of inquiry that exist in the world of education.  The following are two that have resonated with me. Together for Learning (2010) describes inquiry in the following way:

Inquiry is a complex process of constructing personal meaning, applying critical thinking skills, solving problems, creating understanding, and questioning. In its truest form, the inquiry process requires an individual to look deeper and beyond the obvious, examine information for validity, point of view and bias, and construct meaning from all of these endeavours. Effective application of an inquiry model can transform novice learners into interdependent and independent learners, confident of their information power. (p. 25)

Focus on Inquiry (2004) defines inquiry-based learning in this manner:

Inquiry-based learning is a process where students are involved in their learning, formulate questions, investigate widely and then build new understandings, meanings and knowledge. That knowledge is new to the students and may be used to answer a question, to develop a solution or to support a position or point of view. The knowledge is usually presented to others and may result in some sort of action. (p.1)

I am often asked how inquiry is different from other teaching models and why it would be an important framework to examine.  In work that I have done with several schools, we have taken a look at the following chart to begin our discussion.  Many teachers find that they are not exclusively landing on one side of the table or the other, but implement a mix of the two.

I have found that by looking at this chart, we have a starting place to discuss ways to shift from coverage style teaching to a more inquiry based method.  It does a good job of breaking down a ‘hard to articulate’ concept to some identifiable concepts and perhaps bite-sized pieces in the journey to further understanding and potential implementation.

As a next step in the conversation when we reach the stage of “how do I go about doing this and how will I know when?”, I have used questions to promote brainstorming. The document Focus on Inquiry (2004) poses several questions for teachers to consider when thinking about adopting an inquiry model for their teaching:

  • Will inquiry-based learning increase my students’ understanding of the learning outcomes mandated by the curriculum I must cover?
  • Will inquiry-based learning increase my students’ ability to read, write and reason?
  • If I allow students to spend time on inquiry-based learning, what do I remove from my program? How do I make time?
  • Which strategies are the most effective in teaching inquiry- based learning?
  • What are the biggest obstacles I must overcome to implement inquiry-based learning?
  • When is inquiry-based learning worth doing?
  • Will inquiry-based learning help me meet the curriculum standards?
  • How do I manage an inquiry-based learning activity by myself?
  • Will inquiry-based learning improve my students’ test scores? (p. X/Foreward)

How to Begin?

Taking the first steps towards inquiry sometimes feels like standing at the edge of a cliff and contemplating leaping off.  Even when you intellectually understand the goals and importance of the shift to inquiry learning, actually making the shift can feel daunting.  How can you dip your toe in?  How do you recognize a natural place to begin an inquiry?  I can only encourage people to try.  It will be worth it. There is no paint-by-numbers answer to those questions, unfortunately.  The following quotation from Clifford and Marinucci (2008) really resonates for me and I plan to share it with colleagues:

Good inquiries sometimes begin, as in this case, when the world itself has something so powerful to say that students and teachers are compelled to pay attention. But questions can also arrive in other ways. Teachers oriented toward inquiry will sometimes set up precisely the kinds of problems, labs, or events that provoke wonder. “How is this possible?” a student might ask, venturing into territory that seemed, at first, simple and obvious. “I didn’t know this would happen!” Teachers know that a well-chosen problem, lab, or story can evoke precisely this sense of wonder or puzzlement. So even if a tsunami or controversial local event does not disrupt students’ ordinary, taken-for-granted understandings, teachers can make it happen. (p. 678)

If you haven’t yet tried a shift in your teaching from a completely teacher-directed and coverage-based approach, I would encourage you to try!


Clifford, P. & Marinucci, S. (2008). Testing the waters: Three elements of classroom inquiry. Harvard Educational Review, 78(4), 675-688. Retrieved from http://library1.ucalgary.ca/u.php?id=3209

Focus on inquiry: a teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning. (2004). Edmonton: Alberta Learning. Retrieved from http://education.alberta.ca/media/313361/focusoninquiry.pdf

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Together for learning: School libraries and the emergence of the learning commons. (2010). Toronto: Ontario School Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.accessola.com/data/6/rec_docs/677_OLATogetherforLearning.pdf


Author: ephansen

I am passionate about library learning commons and the intersection of information seeking, co-creation and sharing of knowledge. Trans-literacy, inquiry and digital citizenship are also areas of exploration. Emphasis is K-12, but this is important for learners of all ages...

One thought on “Why Inquiry?

  1. Love the table! It compares and contrasts the information in a simple way that can lead to a deeper discussion.

    I think there is deep value in considering epistemologies that differ from our own. How do we know that we know? How do we know that our ways of learning are valid? How can “ways of knowing” be judged at all? Just some food for thought….

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