Busting some myths about ‘the inquiry cycle’

(This post first appeared last month on my blog http://justwonderingblog.com)

I once read an interview with a hero of my early teaching days – Donald Graves. He was asked about the way people had misinterpreted his ‘process writing’ model and replied that sometimes he wished he’d never written it down!

Years later I understand the frustration behind that sentiment. It’s hard to do justice to the complexities and nuances of inquiry in writing. So much gets lost. Something that is rich, layered and multidimensional can come across as flat, linear and recipe-like. Over the years, I have published several books that share a ‘cycle of inquiry’ and the kinds of learning engagements that we might design within a cycle. I have seen hundreds of interpretations of this idea in classrooms. Many have been gratifying and exciting. Teachers who really ‘get’ the intention, understand the complexity and invite their students into the learning have blown me away with what they have done. And I have also seen (and heard) many bewildering versions or iterations of the cycle that are such a long way off the original conceptualization and intent! Ironically, I have seen slavish adherence to a cycle actually impede rather than enhance inquiry.

So why even ‘have’ such a cycle?
Articulating a model or framework for the process of inquiry is a helpful way to support and guide our practice. The intention of the ‘cycle’ is to guide the teacher’s (and learner’s) thinking beyond simply coming up with ‘activities’ and towards a more thoughtful process that assists students to move from the known to the new. The need to ‘name’ some kind of process was first revealed to me as a young teacher by my fabulous mentors Marilyn Woolley and Keith Pigdon. They helped me move beyond thematic planning and into a more rigorous way of thinking about how to guide learning. Once I understood constructivism – it made sense to me to describe what was such a natural process of building understanding over time. My job as a teacher was to help design experiences for learners that would support the brain’s best inclinations to wonder, look for patterns, seek new information, link to prior learning and transfer. While it has changed over time, the cycle I now use owes much to Woolley and Pigdon’s visionary work.

Here are some of the more common misconceptions about ‘the cycle’ and my response to them. I hope it is as useful to read as it has been to write!!

Misconception 1: Inquiry is all about ‘the cycle’. We DO the cycle….therefore, we DO inquiry.
Simply using an inquiry cycle does not make us inquiry teachers. As I have written before, inquiry is a ‘way of being’ in the classroom. Yes, there are planning frameworks that can support the ways in which we design learning experiences for and with students but this is only part of the inquiry story. An inquiry teacher knows how to question students in ways that enhance and deepen thinking, how to offer choice and honour voice, how to seize an unexpected moment for investigation and how to embed learning in purposeful context It’s a pedagogy – not just a planning framework.

Misconception 2: The cycle is a recipe. We need to follow the stages in sequence for it to ‘work out’ in the end.
Nope. It’s a flexible framework. Not a recipe. Essentially, inquiry cycles provide labels for a process that is common to many disciplines. Most people agree that inquiry : involves time to establish your current thinking, your needs and questions, some ‘hunting and gathering’ of information/ideas/ data, some sorting organizing and meaning making and some kind of creation/application/transfer/use. And most agree that this process is cyclical in nature. New discoveries lead to new questions and so on. But this process is much neater on paper than it is in practice. True inquiry is often messy and recursive. We gather and sort then realize we have new questions so we return to some more gathering. In the cycle I use, I place great emphasis on the role of ‘tuning in’ to students’ thinking to establish pathways for investigation. While it often sits at the ‘start’ of the process – I return to ‘tuning in’ regularly. These are phases more than they are stages, elements more than they are steps. There is nothing contained, neat or particularly orderly about a lot of inquiry BUT having a relatively simple iteration of it in the form of this cycle can help us think more clearly and actually better manage the messiness without getting overwhelmed!

#Misconception 3: All inquiries go through the same phases over a similar time frame.
Much as it would be convenient, no two inquiries are the same. Although most journeys will contain elements of this cycle, starting points, emphases and time frames vary from context to context and depend on the group of students, their age level and what they bring to the journey in the first place. I have seen some beautiful inquiry journeys travelled within an hour. I have seen some that last a year. I have seen some that really don’t involve much ‘action’ but are highly worthwhile and engaging and others that are really all about the action.

# Misconception 4: Using a ‘cycle’ as a guide, we can plan a complete unit of inquiry for students
I think this is the most troubling use of the cycle I see. The cycle should INFORM planning, guide it but it doesn’t mean we can create the whole thing before we start. When I use a planner with the elements of the cycle in it – I see that planner as a guide throughout the process – not as a template to be filled in one sitting. The cycle is emergent….how kids ‘sort out’ the ideas information depends on what they gather – and that is not something we can determine in detail. The cycle unfolds.

#Misconception 5: The cycle is for teachers.
Students benefit from having some ‘meta-language’ to attach to processes they use as inquirers. Some kind of framework should be developed for and WITH students that helps everyone gain a shared language. Making this visible to students helps them think about how journeys of inquiry are both similar and different. It is really useful to display the cycle but only if it is referred to, analysed, played with and critiqued!

#Misconception 6: The cycle only applies to ‘units of inquiry’ in disciplines like science and social studies.
I see many examples of this cycle in action in a range of disciplines and contexts. Some ‘tweaking’ is needed at times to best fit the nature of the discipline but it is interesting to explore this kind of transfer. Check out for example – the great work done on http://www.iphys-ed.com about inquiry based PE or Bruce Ferrington’s application of the cycle to math inquiry – http://authenticinquirymaths.blogspot.co.at/

# Misconception 7: It’s my way or the highway or ‘there is only one cycle’….
There are many versions of a ‘cycle of inquiry’. The fact that there ARE many versions is healthy and affirming. I love the different emphases, language and uses of these cycles and think that, together, they help offer us lots to consider as we continue to clarify this intriguing process in our own minds . Explore various cycles. Look for patterns…where do they all agree? Find one that works for you and your students. Create your own – but be consistent. Shared language across a school has great benefits.

A cycle of inquiry helps us plan and teach with intention. When it is understood, it pushes us beyond simply coming up with ‘activities’ and challenges us to think about how skills and concepts can be developed and deepened over time. It gives us some shared ‘meta’ language to use with students and colleagues

How do YOU use a cycle of inquiry to inform your work as an inquiry teacher?

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6 Responses to Busting some myths about ‘the inquiry cycle’

  1. dscetto says:

    I liked reading your most recent post about the inquiry cycle. Do you have any current examples of the use of Inquiry with language learning, namely, French in the core strand! Many thanks, Daniella

    Sent from my iPad


    • kath Murdoch says:

      There are an increasing number of teachers – particularly in international schools – exploring ways to make language teaching more inquiry based. This sometimes involves the development of a long term inquiry using the cycle but can also be about using more inquiry-based practices on a lesson by lesson basis. Digital resources (such as skype, translation apps etc) means it is increasingly possible for students to be active investigators into a new language. All the best.


  2. jaclynfre says:

    Can you give a few examples of what this looks like in action–comparing different inquiry “cycles?”


  3. Carole says:

    Thanks for the clarification of what is and isn’t inquiry learning. Very helpful.
    Are these misconceptions a reason for John Hattie’s criticisms of inquiry learning? How do you respond to his comments?


  4. kath Murdoch says:

    Good question! If inquiry is the word we use to describe a loose, unstructured approach that positions the teacher as a passive guide on the side who rarely scaffolds students and has few clear intentions then it deserves all the criticism it gets! What I find interesting about Hattie’s work in relation to inquiry is that the practices he describes as being most effective ARE practices used by informed, contemporary inquiry teachers.


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

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