What is Inquiry?

What is Inquiry?
My Research
Key Competencies


Inquiry-based learning is a constructivist approach, in which students have ownership of their learning. It starts with exploration and questioning and leads to investigation into a worthy question, issue, problem or idea.

It involves asking questions, gathering and analysing information, generating solutions, making decisions, justifying conclusions and taking action.


 Based on definitions from Sharon Friesen and www.galileo.org/inquiry-what.html  

“Through the process of inquiry, individuals construct much of their understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds.”



Why Inquiry?

Inquiry-based learning approaches when correctly implemented can help develop higher-order, information literacy and critical thinking skills. They can also develop problem-solving abilities and develop skills for lifelong learning. My experience has shown this approach to engage and motivate students. Students in my classes worked co-operatively and collaboratively to solve problems and I found the depth of understanding to be greater than with other teaching approaches.

Teacher's Role

The teacher's role in inquiry-based learning is one of 'Guide on the side' rather than 'Sage on the stage". This dos not mean the teacher stands back completely. The teacher scaffolds learning for students, gradually removing the scaffolding as students develop their skills. With young children or students new to inquiry it is usually necessary to use a form of guided inquiry.


At the heart of inquiry is a good question. It is often open-ended (has no right or wrong answer) and is higher-order, essential, clever, worthy and/or fertile. Check out the Question page for more on this aspect.

Why Inquiry?

In this video clip which can be found on the excellent edtalks site I talk about what inquiry-based learning means to me.

Inquiry Models

There are a number of inquiry-based models such as Eisenberg and Berkowitz's (2004) Big6™' and Super3 ( a modified Big6 for juniors), Jamie McKenzie's (2000) Research Cycle' , Trevor Bond's (2001)SAUCE' and Gwen Gawith's Action Learning (1988), and 3 Doors to Infoliteracy® (2000).  Many of these were initially developed as information literacy models but fit well with inquiry-based learning.

Problem and project-based learning, Mantle of the Expert, curriculum integration (Beane, 1997) and communities of thinking (Harpaz & Lefstein, 2000) are other variations of inquiry-based learning.

Many schools have developed their own models which are often based on one or more of the existing models but have been adapted to suit the needs of the school and community. As part of my e-fellows' research I asked 23 New Zealand teachers which inquiry models they had heard of and which ones they were using. The results are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Models 23 teachers had heard of and/or used


Heard of


Big 6™



Research Cycle



Action Learning






Problem-based learning



Own school model



Other (various)



Since this research was completed the Maker movement and Genius Hour/20 Time or its variants have become more common and these have an inquiry focus. There is a huge variation in the level of guided inquiry when these approaches are used.

It is important for teachers and students within a school to have a shared understanding of inquiry and developing a school model can be an important part of that process. Inquiry-based learning is, however, a disposition and not a process.

The various inquiry models may have different names for their stages and differing structure but they all in essence follow the learning process. This is the process we all go through when learning new things whether it be a practical, scientific or information-based task.

Start with a task, problem or question

What do we already know, what do we need to find out? What is the best way to find out?

Find out: research, experiment, watch, ask etc.

Apply what you have learnt to the task, problem or question.

I have shared some examples of Inquiry from several schools.

For more information on inquiry see my Student Inquiry Resources page.

"Instead of thinking of a school as a place where 300 young people attend to be provided with an education, try thinking about a school as a research site, populated with 300 small sized researchers."

"Rethinking the role of schools as producers of useful and valuable knowledge opens up many important questions. Equally, it positions schools as an important new resource for the community and provides students with valuable experience in serious knowledge work"

Chris Bigum - Computers in New Zealand Schools July 2003 p. 26

Recommended Reading

Beane, J. (1997). Curriculum Integration. New York: Teachers College Press.

Jan-Marie Kellow 2016
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