If you’d asked me in June if I knew what inquiry learning was I would have laughed. “Of course!” I would have said and smiled knowingly at you. However, now 5 months and a lot of learning later, I feel that I while I now know what inquiry learning is I am only beginning to grasp what inquiry learning can do in a classroom and the effect that it can have on the learning and engagement of students.
I have taught what I would have considered to be inquiry learning and inquiry units many times over the past 10 years. As a History and Philosophy teacher I felt that inquiry learning was my bread and butter, it was just what students did. However, looking back on my teaching practice it was not so much guided or open inquiry learning as ‘sink or swim’ assessment – if by sink or swim you mean that the assessment was conducted in the middle of the ocean with no life-jackets or land in sight. My student didn’t know what inquiry was, how to conduct good Boolean searches or how to interrogate information. A fact that was brought home when, during their last year 12 assignment, I caught a student typing in What does Divine Command theory argue about gay marriage? When I gave my kids a brief lesson on how to do a good internet search using Boolean Search terms, the same student complained “Why are we only learning this now?”. I shrugged. I think like a lot of teachers we expect students to intrinsically know how to search. We figure that, as they can use technology, they are technologically literate, when in fact the opposite is often true (Clark, 2016). It’s an assumption that is killing student engagement in our classroom and frustrating students and teachers alike.
This concept about assumed knowledge is important in an age where it is a digital divide that will often limit student’s future career choices. The students of the future are required to “use a growing variety of technical, cognitive, and sociological skills in order to perform tasks and solve problems in digital environments” (Eshet-Alkalai, 2004). Therefore, I really wanted to know how to engage my students in inquiry but, more importantly, how inquiry learning impacted on student achievement as the concept of data, student achievement and value adding is, fortunately or unfortunately, what drives many school initiatives these days.
Although I posed many questions during my initial inquiry, two questions became my driving force. I’ve outlined these questions below and included a brief summary of what I learnt and why they became important in driving not only my first inquiry but my second inquiry as well.
“How effective is inquiry learning in improving student results in the senior secondary classroom?”
This was the first question that I posed as, as mentioned previously, data and results drives much of the pedagogy surrounding education particularly in Senior Subjects where a students’ final result is seen as the be all and end all of learning (I strongly believe that it is not – but that is another discussion for another time). In my research on this question, I found that although some educational researchers such as Hattie (2015) believed that Inquiry Learning had little to no benefit to student education, the data concerning engagement such as: the benefits outside of the classroom environment, narrowing of the gender-divide in results, plus a lift in academic outcomes showed that it was beneficial. This is important for a subject like mine as often, in modern school environments, subjects live or die on the result of a cohort’s academic achievement.
This focus on the improvement of results quickly developed into examining the underlying cause of those results – student engagement.
“How effective is inquiry learning in improving student engagement in secondary schooling?”
The second question was very much a result of the first but also came from a desire to make student’s more engaged with their own personal learning journeys. I teach a subject that’s almost 3000 years old and, to be frank, much of it can be quite dry and boring. Philosophers aren’t generally known for writing in a clear and succinct manner and so there is always the threat of disengaging students by spending too much time in Kuhlthau and Maniotes’ (2005) second space rather than creating a third space between student and teacher worlds.
The question also came about as I began to understand that my ‘sink or swim’ method of teaching inquiry needed to be refined. This was reflected in a third question that was actually posed right at the beginning of my research journey, but one that ultimately formed the second half of my journey from the darkness and ignorance of Plato’s Cave to a better understanding of how inquiry learning can fit into the real world.
How can teachers structure their inquiry subjects so that they can allow students to reach their full potential?
This question was something that I managed to answer in the second stage of my inquiry journey. By analysing a ‘tried and true’ ethics unit, I showed myself both my previous lack of understanding but also how far I had come.
The unit that I chose was selected for a number of reasons, but foremost amongst them was the fact that:
- It had been taught for a number of years with little alteration.
- Students often struggled with the complexity of the research component of the task even though they said that the unit was one of the most engaging.
- Similar inquiry units are undertaken in Years 11 and 12, which means students need to have a good understanding how to search for and interrogate information.
I also found out, midway through re-writing and restructuring the unit, that this particular Philosophy unit would be taught to the gifted and talented students in Year 9 in 2017. This news spurred me to be more creative and create a unit plan and assessment task that asked students to go beyond the Situated and Generic windows (as outlined by Lupton) that the task normally sits within, and instead create a task that asked students to Transform their own world.
The journey itself has not been an easy one (much like Plato’s philosopher leaving the Cave) and has, if I am honest, results in as many tears and furrowed brows as ‘aha moments’. Instead of moving through Kuhlthau’s (1985) Information Search Process in the manner she suggests where feelings change from uncertainty to confidence, I instead felt like I was going backwards when I started re-writing the unit. Interesting Kuhlthau’s ideas are almost mirrored in the Allegory of Plato’s Cave as when the newly-minted philosopher steps out into the sunshine (knowledge) they want to return to the security of their past experiences.
However, this feeling was not to last. As I gained confidence I also gained a sense of direction. It, like Kuhlthau suggested, became easier to become more focused and re-writing the unit to embed what I had learnt also meant that I became more self-aware.
This self-awareness transformed, much like Lupton’s (2008) GeSTE windows suggested that it would, my teaching practice as I taught my other subjects. I found that I changed my every-day teaching practice of including WALTs and WILFs to incorporate Krathwohl’s (2010) suggestion that they include not only the phrase “Students should be able to” but also the appropriate level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. It also gave me the confidence to speak up in staff meetings as I knew that the arguments that I was making were backed by data and research. When I finally finished my unit I still had some uncertainly but I certainly felt the satisfaction that Kuhlthau mentions in her sixth stage – presentation.
This unit has changed my understanding of inquiry learning and given me a new understanding of the intricacies of inquiry learning – not just tossing students in senior in but guiding them through the process in the younger years so that they are more prepared to tackle their own spelunking research journey in the future.
No philosopher ends their life by saying that all the answers to life’s great questions have been found. Therefore, my own journey out in the sunshine needs more questions to guide it as there are always more questions to find.
Questions for beyond the cave
How can I create successful learning communities of teachers to embed good inquiry pedagogy in senior secondary schooling?
How can I work within the wider school community to create learning activities that access the Transformative or Evaluative Windows and engage students in the wider world?
How do we transform libraries to become spaces where students independently and actively access information outside of the requirements of the curriculum?
Clark, H. (2016). Do Your Students Know How To Search? | Edudemic. Edudemic.com. Retrieved 6 November 2016,
Corwin (2015, November 9). John Hattie on inquiry-based learning
Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2004). Digital literacy: A conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 13(1)
Geier, R., Blumenfeld, P., Marx, R., Krajcik, J., Fishman, B., Soloway, E., & Clay-Chambers, J. (2007). Standardized Test Outcomes for Students Engaged in Inquiry-Based Science Curricula in the Context of Urban Reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(8), 922–939.
Lupton, M. (2016) Inquiry learning. A pedagogical and curriculum framework for information literacy. (preprint) in Sales, Dora & Pinto, Maria (Eds.) Pathways into InformationLiteracy and Communities of Practice: Teaching Approaches and Case Studies. Chandos Publishing. (In Press)]
Kuhlthau, C. (1985). Information search process. Retrieved September 1, 2016
Kuhlthau, C.C., Maniotes, L.K. & Caspan, A.K. (2007), Inquiry Learning in the 21st Century. Libraries unlimited.
Plato. Allegory of the Cave. (T. Sheehan, Trans.) from Stanford University
Summerlee, A., & Murray, J. (2010). The impact of Enquiry-Based learning on academic performance and student engagement. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 40(2), 78–94.