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From boring to brilliant - moving to an inquiry based classroom

By Sam Di Sano on 31 July 2018NSWstaffroomPedagogy

Delving into some scholarly work on inquiry based learning strategies, I stumbled over this gem from one author:

Any handful of these approaches will morph your classroom from passive to sparkling, from boring to brilliant.

That’s sure to bring the crowds back I thought. A quick scan of the methodology led to - 'hmm maybe I am a boring teacher after all. Flip your classroom; listen when students speak; don’t answer every question; let them find out for themselves; spend time on projects; don’t just lecture’ and so on. I was starting to shift a little uncomfortably in my seat.

Time to bring it to life a little. Even NESA, in their most recent 2017 curriculum overhaul, acknowledged the need to move towards a more inquiry and project based learning pedagogy.

So let’s start at the start - before we look at a few hows, let’s work out what...

What is inquiry based learning?

Essentially, it is classroom praxis that prioritises student questioning, ideas and thought. Its aim is to enhance problem-solving and critical thinking skills, providing opportunities to generate ideas, to formulate questions and develop strategies in order to justify answers. In a nutshell, it is deeper learning where students:

  • develop their own questions to guide their learning
  • research sources of information
  • synthesise new ideas
  • share evidence of their understanding
  • reflect on their learning

Let’s look at it from both a teacher and student perspective in order to tease it out a little more.

  1. From the student perspective, inquiry based learning is investigating an open question or problem using reasoning and creative problem-solving to reach a conclusion.
  2. From a teacher’s perspective, it is a focus on moving students towards a real depth in their learning by utilising skills which emphasise critical thinking, questioning and investigations.

Using methods such as guided research, analysis and question-and-answer sessions, you can run any number of inquiry activities that aim to challenge students. Tasks and activities could include:

  • Case studies
  • Group projects
  • Research projects
  • Field work, especially for subjects with a practical element
  • Or any other exercises tailored to your students

Types of inquiry based learning

Not all inquiry-based learning is the same though, with different methods employing more or less structure and direction from the teacher and suiting different contexts. Whichever approach you employ, the aim of inquiry-based learning should remain the same - effectively to tap into the higher order Blooms Taxonomy skills - analyse, synthesise and evaluate.

What does the research say?

Research suggests that using inquiry-based learning with students can help them become more creative, more positive and more independent (Kühne, 1995). Other academic research shows that inquiry-based learning improves student achievement (GLEF, 2001). Much of the research involves school libraries, which are often the hub of inquiry-based learning. An interesting sidelight for school leaders I discovered is that much of the research links to managing change when re-shaping school culture (see Falk & Drayton, 2001; Fullan, 1991; Kuhlthau, 2001).

Where do I start when implementing inquiry based teaching?

While the approach is very much a student-centred one, the set up is all teacher led. While inquiry based learning should always start with a challenging task, context is king. Knowing your students, their skill and ability level is absolutely essential when using inquiry-based methods. Teachers need to set the pace, deciding on when it is appropriate to shift into inquiry mode. Importantly you also need to demonstrate some of the skills, especially the collaboration and questioning phases. A good checklist may look like this:

  1. Initiate the inquiry process - set the challenge
  2. Promote student questioning - what do we want to research and what questions are we going to ask
  3. Coordinate small group activities and lead the transition between modes;
  4. Interject with care, knowing when to intervene to confirm content understanding
  5. Apply evidence and justification to the research

Knowing your role as the teacher is essential in the inquiry based classroom - balancing between facilitator and leader. Set appropriate parameters and ground rules then hover, gently observing and intervene only when necessary. Often it’s to get an update, confirm each step, where they are at, what their next steps might be, what obstacles they have met, how they have sought to overcome them. The more guidance you provide, as opposed to linear direction, the more your students will benefit in developing independent research skills.

Why bother?

At the end of the day, the fundamental goal is maximising student engagement in their own learning process. According to the National (USA) Academy of Sciences (1995), when students learn through inquiry, they learn how to:

  1. Question
  2. Investigate
  3. Incorporate evidence to describe, explain, and predict
  4. Collaborate
  5. Share

When students engage in inquiry, they utilise such a broad range of skills. There is a richness in seeing your students engaged, genuinely collaborating with their peers, enthused by collecting and interpreting data, proud to share their findings with others. One of the greater joys is seeing peer learning at its best when witnessing students of different ability levels and learning styles working together.


One of the challenges for teachers is to develop within their students an appreciation of the skills required to generate their own inquiries and to guide, rather than direct what follows. If you are like me, it can be a real battle and exercise in self restraint. At times too it has been an uphill battle in convincing your cohort of the inherent value of this approach, rather than relying on you alone for all the answers. Remember, regardless of how involved you are as the teacher, the fundamental goal of inquiry is active learning and increased student engagement.

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