Balancing inquiry -open, guided or structured?

One of the issues I constantly grapple with is the balance of open, guided and structured inquiry in an early childhood (3-7 years) setting. At three and four years old, children are hard-wired as inquirers; they engage in self initiated inquiries as they go about their daily business of constructing meaning from the world around them. I find a strong emphasis on free inquiry, with some guided inquiry is developmentally appropriate. As children develop and mature, I find the balance changes. In a classroom with seven year olds I offer more opportunities for structured and guided inquiries while at the same time trying to ensure I leave enough time for open inquiry. (I think often we remove opportunities for open inquiry far to early in children’s developmental journeys.)

I am currently working with five year olds. I find that this particular group of children seems to need a lot of open inquiry. When I suggest a framework, the children often reject my ideas in favor of pursuing their own lines of inquiry. As part of our math curriculum, we have been focusing on sorting and categorizing objects. I felt that the children’s open inquiries had come to a standstill. I thought that a structured group inquiry might be the best way to challenge and extend the children’s thinking. I wasn’t sure how the session would go, given the children’s clear preference for open inquiry. The video clip below shows a five minute section of our sorting session.

As you watch the video look out for:

  • the concentration on each child’s face as they select shoes for their set
  • the concentration on the faces of the children watching as they problem-solve to work out the sorting criteria
  • the way the teacher thinks out loud to model problem solving strategies
  • the children’s admiration when someone works out the criteria
  • the way children explain their thinking
  • the way children agree or disagree with, and build on, other people’s theories
  • the “ah ha!” exclamations when a child thinks they’ve figured it out
  • the “oh no!” exclamations when they realize that their theory cannot be correct
  • the children’s delight when the criteria is revealed


I felt the session went well and met the developmental needs of the children. However the purpose of the structured inquiry was to extend the children’s thinking. I can’t tell if I have achieved that. Over the next weeks I shall be observing the children as they go about their open and guided in inquiries, looking for evidence of transfer from our structured inquiry.

I am interested to know how other people manage the balance of open, guided and structured inquiry with different grade levels.

About tasha cowdy

PYP coordinator; Reggio inspired early childhood teacher; Workshop leader; Using technology to flatten classrooms; Involving parents in children's learning; Switzerland
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2 Responses to Balancing inquiry -open, guided or structured?

  1. Pingback: Teaching Without A Plan….What?? | sonya terborg

  2. Mike says:

    From my experience the students always like to do free inquiry and it should be encouraged. I was working on a central idea that talked about balance with my Year 3/4 class. For the free inquiry I just got some scales out and put them on the table. I didn’t say a thing and I let the students have at it. Once and awhile I would put something else on their desk to balance out.

    They loved it and it was a reminder to me of how much the older students do like to inquire on their own.


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