An Inquiry Into Inquiry…
by Justin J. Wallace
It is in the answers to the questions we ask that
our knowledge exists.
What is Inquiry?
“Inquiry is an approach to learning that
involves a process of exploring the natural or
material world, that leads to asking questions
and making discoveries in the search for new
(Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry)
4 Levels of Inquiry
Confirmation/Verification – students confirm
a principle through a prescribed activity when
the results are known in advance.
Structured Inquiry – students investigate a
teacher-presented question through a
Guided Inquiry – students investigate a
teacher-presented question using student
Open Inquiry – students investigate topic-
related questions that are student formulated
through student designed/selected procedures.
The Inquiry Process is just that… a Process
It begins with the desire to discover. Meaningful questions are
inspired by genuine curiosity about real-world experiences. A
question or a problem comes into focus at this stage, and the
learner begins to define or describe what it is. Of course,
questions are redefined throughout the learning process. We
never fully leave one stage and go neatly to the next.
Questions naturally lead to the next stage in the process:
At this stage the learner begins to gather information:
researching resources, studying, crafting an experiment,
observing, or interviewing, to name a few.
The learner may recast the question, refine a line of query, or
plunge down a new path that the original question did not-or
The information-gathering stage becomes a self-motivated
process that is wholly owned by the engaged learner.
As the information gathered in the investigation stage begins to
organize, the learner begins to make connections.
The ability at this stage to synthesize meaning is the creative
spark that forms all new knowledge.
The learner now undertakes the creative task of shaping
significant new thoughts, ideas, and theories outside of his/her
At this point, learners share their new ideas with others and
begin to ask others about their own experiences and
Shared knowledge is a community-building process, and the
meaning of their investigation begins to take on greater
relevance in the context of the learner's society.
Comparing notes, discussing conclusions, and sharing
experiences are all examples of this process in action.
Reflection is just that: taking the time to look back at the
question, the research path, and the conclusions made.
The learner steps back, takes inventory, makes observations,
and possibly makes new decisions.
Has a solution been found? Do new questions come into light?
What might those questions be?
And so it begins again; thus the circle of inquiry.
(Molbesh, Dodge, & Bell)
Characteristics of an Inquiry-Based Classroom
Asking questions does not necessarily lead to answering them. Often the
best inquiry leads to more inquiry.
Inquiry does not just mean asking and responding to questions. It also
means exploring possible processes for asking and responding to them.
Strong inquiry-based pedagogy helps students explicitly articulate what
their inquiry processes are and can be.
Inquiry-based learning is not about correct answers and it is not about
problem-solving. It is about problem-posing exploring possible questions,
problems, solutions, viewpoints and providing specific support.
A teacher in an inquiry-based classroom starts with her students–what they
know, what knowledge they have access to, and what knowledge they can
build as they collaborate with each other and with the course materials–
while considering the course and curricular goals.
An inquiry-based classroom is a place where mistakes do not count against
you. Risks are valued and regarded as an integral part of learning and
(Carrick, Giglio, & Kahn)
Challenges of an Inquiry-Based Classroom
Students are not necessarily ‘trained’ to be the kind of student who
creates and thrives in an inquiry-based classroom environment.
Teachers must be patient and guide the way by developing
carefully scaffolded activities. Students may be reactive inquirers in
the beginning of the semester, but if teachers help them develop
strong inquiry skills, they should be more proactive by the end.
Colleagues are not necessarily ‘trained’ to value this kind of
teaching and may accuse you of not doing your job. Be prepared to
support your pedagogical philosophies.
It is as hard not to just ‘answer your own questions’ or become ‘the
question-asker’ when students are silent. Training yourself can be
as challenging as training your students. Inquiry-based teaching
requires different skills than more ‘traditional’ teaching methods.
Inquiry-based classrooms can look and sound chaotic. Don’t panic;
learn to see chaos as both empowering and generative.
CO-INQUIRER - the teacher, like and with her students, explores a
concept, idea or issue with a specific group of people for the very
True Units of Inquiry
Interdisciplinary Unit on Babies
the food groups
paints, & BABIES of many animals
Literature: poems, Social Studies:
stories, chants about caring for babies
babies around the world
Unit of Inquiry on Babies
Developmentally good toys
Toys that are appropriate for different ages
Gender stereotypes in boys and girls
Violence in toys and on television
Public Television Children’s Programming TV viewing habits of boys and girls
Snapshot of the IBPYP
IBPYP Student Profile
IBPYP 3rd Grade Unit of Inquiry
Title: A Balancing Act
Central Idea: Mental and physical health are interdependent.
1. Meanings of mental and physical health
2. Effects on mental and physical health
3. Connections between mental and physical health
Time: Aug. /Sept.
Focus: an exploration of the nature of the self; of our beliefs and
values; of personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual
IBPYP 4th Grade Unit of Inquiry
Title: Author, Author
Central Idea: Authors choose writing strategies and
techniques to effectively communicate.
1. Elaborative techniques used by authors.
3. The use of voice in written expression
4. The relationship between the author and the
Time: Aug. /Sept.
Focus: an exploration of the ways in which we express
our nature, ideas, feelings, beliefs and values
IBPYP 3rd Grade Unit of Inquiry
Title: The World of Work
Central Idea: People work to meet personal, financial
and societal needs.
1. Connections between work, personality and aptitude
2. Effects of society and economic needs on work
3. The value and status of the job
Time: Sept. /Oct.
Focus: an exploration of the world of work, its nature
and its value; of employment and unemployment and
Creating Careers for Characters; A Book
What if one of the characters in the book you've been
reading was looking for a job? What is the character
qualified to do? What skills and experience could the
character bring to a company?—all these questions
are classroom discussion starters which connect
technical writing and literary analysis.
In this activity, students become characters in a novel
or short story they have read and find a job for those
characters. In the process, students read fictional
works, use Internet resources, read and interpret
classified ads, and write application letters and
apply direct and indirect information about a character, noting
the context of the reference.
shape information about the chosen character into a coherent
format (the resume).
explore appropriate resume and job application techniques.
(optional) examine the way that word choice affects meaning by
focusing on using strong, active verbs to describe the
4 - Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual
language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate
effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5 - Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and
use different writing process elements appropriately to
communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
11 - Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative,
and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Ballenger, Bruce. (2003). Characteristics of an inquiry based classroom. Retrieved
July 10, 2005 from http://english.boisestate.edu/bballenger/.
Calkins, Lucy M. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Irwin Publishing, Canada.
Carrick, Tracy H., Giglio, K., & Kahn, S. (2003). Snapshot of an inquiry based
classroom. Retrieved July 10, 2005 from
Gahn, Shelly M. (1996). Creating careers for characters. Retrieved July 11, 2005
Herron, M.D. (1971). The nature of scientific inquiry. School Review, 79(2), 171-
IBPYP. (2005). Curriculum of the ibpyp. Retrieved July 12, 2005 from
Molebash, Philip E., Dodge, B., & Bell, Randy. (2004). The inquiry process.
Retrieved July 10, 2005 from http://edweb.sdsu.edu/wip/WIP_Intro.htm.