How structured should structured inquiry be?

How structured should  inquiry be?
The desire to create an effective pedagogy which enables students to both learn through inquiry and learn to inquire, raises an interesting tension within many
practitioners. The key questions of  ‘How much structure should the teacher provide?’ and ‘How much free inquiry should occur?’ challenge many teachers when planning for inquiry
One way I’ve posed this question in the past is to ask:
“How do we ensure that our scaffolds help build learning without providing a
straight jacket for it.”
The complexities of answering this question touches all areas of inquiry based learning and teaching.
Very Brief Theoretical Background

The concept of scaffolding derives from the work of Jerome Bruner. The term was first used when Bruner was working with Wood.D.J. and Ross.G on the influential 1976 paper: The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 17, 89- 100. In this article, (p90) scaffolding is described as being, “essentially of the adult “controlling” those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence.”
A good summary of Bruner’s work can be found at:
Bruner in developing his views on scaffolding was building on the work of Lev Vygotsky and in particular Vygotsky’s theory of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
The ZPD is “the distance between the actual development level as determined by
independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined
through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable
peers” (Vygotsky 1978 Mind and Society, The development of higher psychological
processes : p86).

So what does this mean in the Classroom?
Implication 1
Teachers and students need to have clarity about the learning intentions of an inquiry.
Given its multiple elements and inquiries complexities it is vital that teachers and students have clarity about the purpose of an inquiry. To put it simply what are we scaffolding towards? Once the purpose of the inquiry is clarified teachers and (increasingly as they become more skilled in the process and autonomous in their learning) students, are aware of what critical points need to be scaffolded to help students reach the desired learning.
Since students do not begin an inquiry with the same combination of knowledge, skills and understanding this leads to the second implication ….

Implication 2
A Inquiring Classroom must be a differentiated classroom
No student embarks upon an inquiry with exactly the same level of mastery and therefore the same requirements for scaffolding. It is vital that effective pre assessment is carried out to ascertain which elements of the inquiry are initially beyond the learners capacity so that inquiry can be scaffolded.
Clearly there is a level of practicality that needs to come in here. Most of us have a life, we can not create unique scaffolds for each student for every task. Careful decisions thus need to be made about the most effective grouping strategies required to meet the diverse learning needs of students.
The key point is that we must not assume that one scaffold fits all. In addition we should be constantly and actively seeking data as to the level of scaffolding a student requires as they move through an inquiry. An inquiry classroom must be a flexible and responsive classroom.
This leads onto the third implication of structured inquiry…
Implication 3
Assessment must play a central role in the Inquiring Classroom
Genuinely formative assessment must be at the heart of the Inquiring Classroom. We must be constantly seeking data to let us know where a student is in their learning journey and how their scaffolding needs to be adjusted. If an assessment does not lead to a refinement in teaching as well as in the students learning its simply not been worth doing.
This leads onto the fourth implication…..

Implication 4
Feedback is key
John Hattie in his latest book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on
Learning (p16) notes “The act of teaching requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there is cognitive change in the student.”
This deliberate teaching act of providing focused feedback, complimented with new input delivered at the optimum time, is essential to effective structured inquiry. The  teacher also needs to be in tune with the feedback they are getting from students, in terms of both the students own learning needs and the impact of the teachers own pedagogy. This focus of feedback both given and received allows the teacher to time and structure teacher interventions to maximise their impact on student learning.

Final Thoughts
Inquiry is a complex and challenging pedagogical approach which requires a teacher to be constantly aware of the purpose of the inquiry, the needs of individual students and the level of independence with which students can successfully engage in an inquiry.
When successful  inquiry leads to the excited,motivated and aware learners I’ve seen in many classrooms.
When done less successfully  inquiry can lead to one of two extremes:
Firstly inquiry with no structure. This often results in students who are working in a disorganised way on ‘busy’ surface level tasks and are lacking the structure to move their inquiries onto a deeper cognitive level.
Secondly structure with no inquiry. Here the ‘inquiry’ is entirely teacher led with students feeling no ownership over their own learning and thus are not making the personal connections with the content that are required to develop understanding.

To finish with thought from Edward de Bono in his 2009 book Think! (p48) “If you are in a locked room,you need a formal key to get out of the room. This key does not determine where you go once you are outside. Structure is your key.”

I look forward to hearing how practitioners around the world have addressed the
challenges inherent in the pedagogy of  inquiry to ensure that they provide every student with effective scaffolds to ensure deep learning in the present and the high levels of motivation, knowledge, skills and understandings required to expand that learning throughout their lives.

About derekpinchbeck

I am currently the Elementary Principal ISS International School Singapore. My website is and twitter @DerekPinchbeck
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3 Responses to How structured should structured inquiry be?

  1. Pingback: How structured should structured inquiry be? #scic… | EducatorAl's Tweets

  2. mikeollerton says:

    Different learners will reach different depths when inquiring about the same idea/task/starting point. Thus the teacher needs to be vigilant and formatively assessing learners engagements with an inquiry. Asking learners further questions based upon where they are at in order to help them go deeper is part of working with differentiated outcomes. Likewise asking learners to to mini presentations to their peers, either to the whole class or within a smaller group, of what they have found out can be used to good effect. A key issue for me is how an inquiry needs to be ‘about’ mathematical content. For example exploring which surds can be formed as sides of right-angled triangles where the two other lengths are if integer value , draws upon knowledge of Pythagoras’ theorem. An extension could be to have one side length with an integer value and a second with a previously found surf value. For example with side lengths 3 and root 2 the third side could be either root 11 or root 7. Regards Mike


  3. Breckenfelder, Donna says:

    Please change this email to:



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