Inquiry learning is an investigation into a topic, idea, problem, or issue with a focus on students constructing their own learning and meanings. Inquiry enables students to learn through curiosity, discovery, and collaboration rather than being presented with facts through direct instruction.
It is based on the constructivist theory of learning, which puts emphasis on the skills, attitudes, and understandings that students develop as they discover and construct new knowledge for themselves.
How inquiry learning benefits students
A student-centred approach is a key feature of inquiry-based learning. Using an inquiry approach, students learn how to learn. They can often transfer or apply the essential inquiry learning skills, dispositions, and attitudes to new situations.
Metacognitive processes can be an important part of inquiry learning. This might include strategies for developing students' thinking skills and understanding how they learn. Inquiry learning includes reflecting on the learning process and new knowledge gained. This sometimes leads to further questions and a new inquiry.
Inquiry learning helps students develop information skills, such as reading, finding, evaluating, using, creating, and sharing information.
Learner agency and engagement
When students can bring their natural curiosity to an inquiry and are able to make decisions about their own learning, they can be more engaged, motivated, and confident. They can also gain a deeper understanding.
Inquiry learning helps students develop their ability to:
- ask meaningful questions
- think critically (including analysing and evaluating information)
- form opinions or theories
- solve problems.
Inquiry learning encourages students to work collaboratively and cooperatively alongside other students, teachers, and the wider community.
Students develop their ability to communicate effectively about their inquiry findings. This might include taking action as a result of their new knowledge or understanding.
Inquiry learning and the curriculum
Students can apply inquiry learning to any topic, context, or learning area of the curriculum.
- focus on one learning area or be cross-curricular
- support development of key competencies, principles, and values
- use and develop information, critical, and digital literacies
- explore situations, issues, or problems that students may encounter outside the classroom
- focus on local, national, or global topics
- reflect an area of interest for the student.
Models and approaches for inquiry learning
A wide range of inquiry models or approaches exist. Some are universal and adaptable. Others are developed by individual schools to meet their specific needs.
Each inquiry model has a set of steps or stages. The terms used to describe each step or stage may differ. Inquiry learning can follow a sequential process or can be cyclical as new understandings or new areas of interest emerge.
Guided inquiry as a framework
Guided inquiry provides a framework for student learning and for collaborations between school library staff and teachers. It leads students through 8 stages or phases in their learning. It also recognises students' feelings at each stage.
- Open: an invitation to inquiry — interest.
- Immerse: build background knowledge — curiosity.
- Explore: explore ideas that interest the students — uncertainty.
- Identify: identify an inquiry question and decide a direction for the inquiry — optimism.
- Gather: find information from a broad range of sources and think about it broadly and deeply — confusion, frustration, doubt.
- Create: reflect on, make meaning, and create communications from the information — clarity, a sense of direction, confidence.
- Share: present the learning and learn from others — satisfaction, or disappointment.
- Evaluate: assess what was learned and whether learning goals were achieved, and reflect on the content and process — reflection.
Guided inquiry design — Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari are advocates for this team approach to designing and implementing inquiry learning.
Some other models of inquiry
Other approaches to inquiry learning
- Project-based learning — encourages students to explore real-world problems and challenges. It also encourages them to gain deeper knowledge.
- Genius hour — developed by Google and others, this approach encourages students to follow their passions by choosing what they learn during a set period of time during school.
- Design thinking — resources that offer a variety of ways for students to tackle real-world problems in inquiry-based learning.
Inquiry learning and your school
Inquiry-based learning can become a powerful force for learning when embraced by the whole school, including the library.
Schools can choose to use or adapt an established inquiry model or develop their own. If you develop your own model, it should:
- consider your school vision and goals
- reflect your school community or special character
- meet the needs of all learners
- utilise the fundamental skills, processes, and attributes of inquiry learning
- establish a common language of learning that is consistent throughout the school
- promote the vision, principles, values, and key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum.
School libraries and inquiry learning
Find out more
Focus on inquiry — an overview of inquiry-based learning and implementation for learning from the Galileo Educational Network.
Inquiry-based learning — information on Edutopia.
Inquiry learning — from knowledge to understanding — a video case study of inquiry learning at Windsor School in Christchurch from Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI).
Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L.K., & Caspari, A.K. (2007). Guided inquiry: Learning in the 21st century. Greenwood Publishing Group.