Listening to the Learning Voice: Different Inquiry Models

I remember once teaching a lesson when a student arrived at the computer lab keen to research the question “who invented the volcano?”  Clearly this student had been allowed to go ahead with her inquiry without receiving much guidance!  After this I started looking more closely at the type of inquiry being carried out by the students and realised that there is a continuum, from teacher directed inquiry, through teacher guided inquiry, through to independent student inquiry which all the Grade 5 students do as part of the PYP Exhibition.  I observed that many of the inquiries going on were the first sort of inquiry:  teacher directed, and I asked myself the question how could we move the students towards independent inquiry so that they were asking good questions and not just researching the impossible or the ridiculous when left to their own devices.  The more I thought about this, and the more I observed what was going on, I came to realise that the type of inquiry going on was more to do with the teacher than it was to do with the age or maturity of the students.  It wasn’t a case of younger children doing more teacher directed inquiry and older students doing more independent inquiry – it was all to do with the experience and confidence of the teacher using the inquiry process.

When I first started teaching using inquiry myself I was definitely the sort of teacher who did a lot of teacher guided inquiries.   I felt that I was responsible for getting students to ask the “right” questions and helping them to find the “right” answers.  As I became more experienced in using inquiry I started to be more open to students asking their own questions and then using those questions as part of the inquiry.  I stopped thinking that my questions were the ones we had to end up answering and started letting the students’ interests and curiosities drive the direction the inquiries were going, but I think I still worked with students so that they understood what were good questions to ask.  At this point I think the students were working more collaboratively together – because I was listening to their questions and responding better to them, they were listening and responding better to each other too.  Finally I would say that I was able to stand back from the inquiries that were going on and encourage the students to investigate more independently – in many cases I would say I acted more as a mentor or perhaps a manager to groups of students.

Teacher Directed Inquiry – In our units of inquiry we come up with teacher questions that address the lines of inquiry for each unit.  We do encourage student questions and give them many opportunities for asking questions and sharing their thoughts and wonderings.  With teacher directed inquiry, however, if these student questions don’t match up with our learning outcomes what do we do with them?  Often I have seen these posted on “Wonder Walls” where students can add post-it notes or even write their questions on large pieces of paper.  During the course of the unit of inquiry some of these questions will naturally be discussed and answered, but the questions will not all be the focus of the unit.

Teacher Guided Inquiry – With this type of inquiry the students’ questions are more important and will be combined with the teacher questions to decide the direction of the inquiry.  I’ve heard the student questions in this type of inquiry being likened to planets orbiting around the sun of the teacher questions. With this type of inquiry all the students questions are gathered together and then the ones that are similar are grouped together.  Within the group the questions can be combined together into two or three broad questions and the students in the group can begin to see what is interesting and important to the group as a whole and what they want to investigate.  The students can then start to discuss how they will go about answering the questions, time is provided for the students to conduct these inquiries perhaps through doing experiments or using the computers or library to research further.  Often in teacher guided inquiries the students will also have input into how their understanding of the central idea will be assessed, perhaps by the students helping to create the rubric so that they understand what is important for them to know, understand and do.  The summative assessment will be the same for all students but the way they demonstrate their understanding may be different for each group.

Independent Inquiry – While the central idea of the unit of inquiry may be the same for all students, in independent inquiry students may come up with an additional central idea for their own inquiry.  Here the students are working collaboratively to generate their own questions, decide how to organise and carry out their investigations, how they will show their understandings and how these will be assessed.  They will need to manage their own time and decide what resources they need.  In the PYP Exhibitions the teachers who act as mentors meet each group about once a week to discuss their progress and how well they are working – the teachers are monitoring the process of inquiry (formative assessment) and may suggests modifications or improvements and the students are more involved in self- and peer- assessment.

I have not been a homeroom teacher for the bottom part of elementary school, so I have no idea how realistic it really is to expect independent inquiry from our youngest children.  However from about 2nd or 3rd Grade up I would expect that it would be possible to use independent inquiry for 1 or 2 of the 6 units studied each year.  Independent inquiry is hard for many teachers as it involves letting go and this is often completely the opposite of what teachers have been trained to do.  It does involve less control but it also involves more management and it also involves embracing and celebrating the process of learning, rather than just the end product.

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7 Responses to Listening to the Learning Voice: Different Inquiry Models

  1. Kathy Perret says:

    I love the continuum of inquiry you have described! I have worked with teachers in the past on an inquiry based model called The Picture Word Inductive Model from the works of Emily Calhoun. There are three levels of PWIM. ( The goal of the third is an inquiry based model. It uses elements of teacher guided inquiry and independent inquiry. Your levels of inquiry may be a helpful reflective tool for teachers using this model and other inquiry based models. Thank you for sharing your insight with the global learning community!



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  3. Britt Gow says:

    Hi Maggie,
    I agree that it is more the experience of the teacher than the age or experience of the children that determines where on the continuum of inquiry that a project sits. However, different students in a class require different levels of scaffolding and support. While it would be ideal for all students to undertake independent inquiry, some students achieve better outcomes with more structure and guidance. Independent inquiry is far more difficult for me because it relies on knowing each of your students very well and addressing their individual needs in different ways. Another challenge is meeting essential learning standards and assessment and reporting requirements with inquiry learning. This requires deep knowledge of your subject – both knowledge and skills. Perhaps Science Inquiry is quite different to inquiry in other subjects?


  4. Hi Maggie,
    thanks for sharing. I teach 13-16 years old Science/Physics and I realise the higher they go, the more backwards they go in the inquiry continuum. My 13 year olds got to decide what they wanted to measure and explore the challenges that they proposed, my 14 year olds only got to decide what extra juicy bits they wanted to learn after I taught them what they needed to know for their state exams and my 15-16 year olds just get teacher directed stuff. It is always a challenge to believe that they can learn what we want them to learn and even more when we allow them to.


  5. Megan says:

    Maybe the question really was about the type of volcanos that are used in science fair displays. In that context womdering who invented them make sense although I suspect the answer is lost in the midst of time.


  6. Tasha Cowdy says:

    Hi Maggie!
    As an early childhood teacher, currently teaching in Kindergarten, I think it is most definitely realistic to expect young children to inquire independently. Young children have an innate curiosity. They are on a voyage of discovery, inquiring into and constructing meaning from the world that is unfolding around them. Young children can’t always verbalize their thinking or explain their inquiries, but one has only to observe the total absorption and look of deep concentration on a young child’s face as they test, reflect, adapt and retry something again and again, to see that they are involved in some personal and deep inquiry. As an early childhood teacher, my struggle is to find a balance between teacher guided and independent inquiry. I find that allowing sufficient time and content flexibility to follow the children’s interests and personal inquiries is absolutely key.

    We have thought carefully about our programme of inquiry in the early years, and have tried to come up with central ideas that match the children’s natural and authentic inquiries. We focus on the concepts that drive the central ideas and have found that when we let go of our own agendas and follow the children, the learning is deep and meaningful. The children make connections to their own lives and to the concepts, central ideas and trans-disciplinary themes in the programme of inquiry. As the children’s inquiries unfurl, teachers discuss how best to guide the inquiries. Often this is done by the materials we provide, or through class discussions at our morning meetings.

    More and more we see, in the children’s learning, confirmation that it’s okay to let go. As long as we provide a rich and stimulating environment, and are ready to observe closely and reflect on what we see, all we have to do is trust the children and they will lead us on their learning journeys. After all, young children are hard-wired to learn. It’s part of their biological make-up. It’s their nature!


  7. Pingback: Inquiry-Based Staff Orientation – Making Good Humans

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