Article | Inquiry – A Learning Process

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Research projects – we’ve all assigned them. They can vary from a read and report biography of a famous person to an in-depth science project. Each is valid and has its place in the education of our students. But, do our projects really engage our students? Do these assignments challenge the children to find new meaning in the information they uncover? Can they make connections between the knowledge and/or skill they now have and the world around them?

Inquiry based learning asks that students not only find out the who what and where of something, but also the how and the why – as in how is this important to me (or my community/country/world) and most essential why is it important to me (or my community/country/world). It is in the making of these connections that real inquiry differs from the old read and report research projects. So – how do we go about teaching students about inquiry? How do we choose topics, set up groups, determine a timeline, evaluate the stages and the final product? For this – and the next two weeks – we will look at the process of inquiry – getting started, helping students organize their ideas and assessing student activity.

There are as many ways of describing inquiry as there are things to be discovered. This diagram shows the 5 components of the inquiry process and the ways in which they are connected. It is taken from the new elementary Social Studies, History and Geography curriculum from the Ministry of Education in Ontario, Canada.

The Inquiry ProcessAs you can see, the inquiry process is not seen as linear, but rather as connected gears in a large wheel. Although formulating questions is usually the first step, this model would indicate that sometimes we begin a new inquiry through the process of working through a previous one. In fact, investigations are not required to involve all five components. For example, a teacher might choose to:

  • provide students with a question, having them gather the data (evidence or information) and analyse it
  • suggest that students start with a particular piece of evidence, analyse it and draw reasonable conclusions from that analysis
  • make a statement as if it was a conclusion and ask students to gather the evidence to prove the argument
  • ask students to work through the entire process.

In order to have students apply the entire process, we must first identify what they know and what they want to know. This is easily done with a K-W-L chart which helps students record the Know and Want to Know sections. The L stands for what students have Learned. This section can be completed at the end of the inquiry process.

KWL chart

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This discussion activates prior knowledge and can be recorded as a chart with the whole class, in small groups or individually depending upon how the inquiry is to be conducted. It should be kept visible whenever the students are working on the inquiry. It serves as a guide throughout the process from forming their search questions to developing their reports and presentations. Keeping the questions visible also reinforces a critical concept embedded in inquiry learning – inquiries will not always provide the “right answer.”

Indeed, not finding a “right answer” easily leads to more inquiry becoming a self-actualizing cycle of questioning, thinking and learning.

Susan Ward

Susan Ward

Retired elementary school principal. Currently a part-time instructor at Faculty of Education, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. I work with teacher candidates placing them in schools and evaluating their teaching skills. I also teach a 20 hour course in social studies curriculum to teacher candidates. I have been an educator for over 35 years and am committed to having the best prepared new teachers we can develop, coming into the field.

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