Introduction to Inquiry Based Learning

by Neil Stephenson : @neilstephenson

Popular discussion on education as well as recent findings in the learning sciences tell a similar story. The model of education typical of 20th century classrooms was effective for that era of human history, but the ‘knowledge society’ we now live in requires new thinking about what constitutes effective and engaging teaching and learning. Teachers are now faced with the challenge that “former conceptions of knowledge, minds and learning no longer serve a world where what we know is less important that what we are able to do with knowledge in different contexts.” (Dr. Sharon Friesen)

The power of an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning is its potential to increase intellectual engagement and foster deep understanding through the development of a hands-on, minds-on and ‘research-based disposition’ towards teaching and learning. Inquiry honours the complex, interconnected nature of knowledge construction, striving to provide opportunities for both teachers and students to collaboratively build, test and reflect on their learning.

As in introduction to inquiry, this video tells the story of grade 4 students from the Calgary Science School engaged in a month-long study of fruit decomposition. As you watch, consider all the knowledge, skills and ways of thinking that students would develop through a study such as this:

It is crucial to recognize that inquiry-based teaching should not be viewed as a technique or instructional practice or method used to teach a subject. Rather, inquiry starts with teachers as engaged learners and researchers with the foundational belief that the topics they teach are rich, living and generous places for wonder and exploration.

Inquiry is not merely ‘having students do projects’ but rather strives to nurture deep, discipline-based way of thinking and doing with students. 

As as entry point, inquiry involves learners:

    1. tackling real-world questions, issues and controversies

    2. developing questioning, research and communication skills

    3. solving problems or creating solutions

    4. collaborating within and beyond the classroom

    5. developing deep understanding of content knowledge

    6. participating in the public creation and improvement of ideas and knowledge

“The meaning of ‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it.”

(National Research Council, 2007)

Inquiry is a umbrella term that covers a number of other approaches to teaching and learning. Teaching practices that utilize a disposition of inquiry learning include:

    1. problem-based learning: learning that starts with an ill-structured problem or case-study

    2. project-based learning: students create a project or presentation as a demonstration of their understanding

    3. design-based learning: learning through the working design of a solution to a complex problem

  1. As contrasted with more traditional forms of teaching and learning, inquiry emphasizes the process of learning in order to develop deep understanding in students in addition to the intended acquisition of content knowledge and skills. Inquiry draws upon a constructivist learning theories where understanding is built through the active development of conceptual mental frameworks by the learner. This approach is supported and enhanced by a broad research base which has identified three key implications for effective instructional practices:

  1. 1.Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about the world. This means teaching practices must draw out and work with students preexisting understandings and make student ‘thinking’ visible and central to the learning.

  2. 2.Competence in an area of study requires factual knowledge organized around conceptual frameworks to facilitate knowledge retrieval and application. Classroom activities should be designed to develop understanding through in-depth study of curriculum topics.

  3. 3.Meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) helps students take control of their learning. Opportunities for students to define learning goals and monitor their own understanding need to be embedded into classroom tasks.

Classroom tasks that are worthy of students time and attention, relevant, connected to the world and organized around the ‘big ideas’ of a subject can develop understanding, intellectual interest and engagement with students.

If we are to make use of these important findings from the learning sciences, inquiry should be viewed as a highly-structured and thoughtfully designed-endeavour. As contrasted with ‘minimal-guided’ inquiry which has been shown to be marginally effective as a teaching technique, (Hattie) classroom tasks that are worthy of students time and attention, relevant, connected to the world and organized around the ‘big ideas’ of a subject can develop understanding and intellectual interest and engagement with students.

For inquiry to be effective requires significant intellectual investment on the part of teachers to design learning tasks that are connected to the disciplines, to their students’ lives, and to the world, while focused toward clear and achievable learning targets. It requires that teachers see themselves as learners and researchers of both the subjects they teach and their professional practice as a whole.

Inquiry as Playing the “Whole Game”

One way to conceptualize inquiry based learning is the notion of “playing the whole game,” an idea by David Perkins, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Perkins begins with the belief that teachers generally approach the complexity of teaching in one of two ways:


1.  Students learn isolated skills and knowledge, starting with the simple building blocks of a         particular topic and then building to more complex ideas. While this appeals to common sense (think of the efficiency of a automobile assembly line), the problem with this approach is the removal of any context to the learning, making deep understanding of the content less likely. Perkins calls this approach elementitis, where learning is structured exclusively around disconnected skills and fragmented pieces of information.

2.  Students learn about a particular topic. This approach is frequently utilized in history and science classes, where students are taught about other people’s ideas but rarely if ever given the opportunity to produce and refine their own ideas. Perkins calls this aboutitis where learning is equated with consuming knowledge or information, without developing the critical thinking or creative, knowledge-building skills necessary to transfer knowledge to novel situations.

The solution that Perkins offers to the typical classroom experience is what he calls learning by wholes, structuring learning around opportunities to experience or engage in the topic as it would exist outside of school. Using the metaphor of a baseball game, Perkins believes that the experience of most students involves either learning isolated skills (i.e., only ever throwing a ball) or learning about the game (i.e., studying baseball statistics or the history of baseball) without ever getting out onto the field and participating in an actual game. In a classroom setting, this means providing opportunities for students to experience the ‘whole game’ of mathematical thinking or scientific problem solving or historical analysis of primary source artifacts.

An example of ‘learning by wholes’ can be found in my own Cigar Box Project, a year-long, grade 7 study where students explored 5 themes in Canadian history. Inspired by an online exhibit from a national Canadian Museum, students collected and re-mixed primary source images into new cigar labels, which both represented their historical understanding as well as allowing them to experience the disciplines of graphic design and historical analysis.

It is important to note that focusing on the elements of a topic, or learning about a topic are not necessarily bad approaches to teaching and learning. Rather, they are important tools for teachers to use in a classroom environment. However, the issue arises when learning is focused solely on elementitis or aboutitis, the usual practice in most classrooms. With an inquiry-based, or whole-game approach, authenticity and relevant learning tasks such as the decomposition lab or the Cigar Box Project provide the necessary context and engagement into which learning the elements or background information about a topic can be embedded in a more productive way.

This notion by Perkins leads us to an important point, that an inquiry-based approach is most effective when it is carefully designed and structured by teachers.  Inquiry should not be confused with ‘discovery learning’ where students are left to explore and develop understanding on their own. Rather, to be most effective inquiry should be seen as a complex combination of structured learning with intentional opportunities for students to create, design, imagine and develop new possibilities. In fact, both of the examples shared so far were carefully and collaborative planned by a group of educators and mentors.

Inquiry as “Play”

An analogy when considering the design and implementation of inquiry is the notion of play.  Here we might consider play not merely as a childish activity or games but rather in the  way put forth by John Seely Brown; play as the creative tension that exists between rules and freedom, between what is known and unknown.

Just as play requires rules to keep a game going, inquiry needs structure and boundaries to be effective. As compared with more traditional delivery models of teaching and learning that focus only on pre-existing knowledge or skills, inquiry remains open to the unknown, to the ‘not yet.’ As teachers are considering inquiry in a particular topic it becomes helpful to consider how students might ‘play’ within in topic, that is, maintain an emphasis on what is already known (the foundational concepts or key-ideas) while allowing for space for the unknown where students can create, design, interpret or participate.

Structuring Inquiry with Liberating Constraints

Another approach that frames inquiry as a carefully designed experience for students is the notion of liberating or enabling constraints (Davis, Sumara and Luce-Kapler, 2000). “Liberating constraints describes the balance between freedom and constraint that creates conditions for learning and creativity.” (p. 87) This is the act of structuring learning, not in the sense of a pre-determined, closed plan of action, but rather an organic, biological understanding of structure, where organisms respond and adapt to changing conditions. The authors refer to the etymology of structure as “describing how things spread out or pile up in ways that can’t be pre-determined, but that aren’t completely random either.” (p. 49)

Here again we see how powerful learning occurs in the space between what is known and structured and what is yet to be. When designing learning around liberating constraints, teachers should balance the authentic constraints put on a task from within the discipline or topic itself with space for students to participate in the experience through their own creativity and individual voices and experiences.

Moving From Theory to Practice

So far we have addressed inquiry as a complex approach to teaching and learning that strives to foster deep understanding in students by providing opportunities for active involvement in learning. The challenge for teachers is to move inquiry from being a theory or idea to being a disposition that unpins how teachers view their students, subjects and their own teaching practice.

One exemplary organization who focuses on inquiry is the Galileo Educational Network from Calgary, Alberta. In addition to providing research, resources and professional development on teaching and learning from an inquiry stance, the Galileo Network has also created the Galileo Inquiry Rubric. Designed with purpose of making inquiry more concrete and accessible, the Galileo rubric is intended to be used by teachers in the design and evaluation of inquiry-based teaching.

The goal of this document is to explore a modified version of Galileo Inquiry rubric, built around 8 elements of strong, inquiry-based practice:

  1. 1.Authenticity

  1. 2.Deep Understanding

  1. 3.Performances of Understanding

  1. 4.Assessment

  1. 5.Appropriate Use of Technology

  1. 6.Connecting with Experts

  1. 7.Student Success

  1. 8.Ethical Citizenship

The remainder of this document unpack these 8 elements, providing examples, resources, rubrics and guiding questions to assist teacher as they plan inquiry-based learning leading to student engagement and deep understanding.

At the outset we acknowledge that many of the guiding principals and ideas in this document come from a long, mentoring relationship with the Galileo Network and we encourage readers to explore their website for more resources.