What does inquiry learning look like?

Our PYP evaluation went really well and it was gratifying to hear the evaluators’ positive observations of our school.

They talked about our dynamic learning spaces, the energy of our teachers and learners and the respect that is evident between staff and students. They were impressed by how articulate our students are and the openness of our teachers. It was clear to them that the entire school community has a deep understanding of the PYP philosophy and that we have a strong culture of learning.

Almost all their recommendations are things on which we are either working already or have identified for action through the self study.

There’s only one thing I found jarring in their feedback and it relates to my beliefs about inquiry learning. They noted that neither students nor teachers seem able to identify what particular inquiry cycles we follow. They said the children to whom they spoke didn’t seem to be aware of the specific ‘stages’ of inquiry and that most teachers couldn’t articulate how an inquiry cycle directs our planning.

To be honest, I’m glad.

If it’s something we need to clarify, we will, of course, and perhaps it will be helpful for newer teachers to be aware of some of the inquiry cycles we have visited along the way. Over time, we have worked with both Kath Murdoch’s and Kathy Short’s inquiry cycles and examined some others. But I’m proud of the fact that most of us no longer need to use a specific inquiry model to guide our planning for inquiry – our planning looks more like this and this.

We’ve worked hard to develop an understanding that inquiry learning is messy and NOT limited to a step by step approach. True inquiry learning is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather moves back and forth between the different stages identified by most of the inquiry models.

Kath Murdoch herself, whose inquiry cycle is slavishly followed in many schools writes this – ‘ 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.’ (Read the whole post here.)

Interestingly, I remember that educators who did the IB workshop leader training with me, when engaging in our own inquiries, all noticed that our learning journeys did not follow the inquiry models on which we were supposed to base our inquiries. Participants realised that the inquiry process moves back and forth between asking, investigating, reflecting, connecting and constructing meaning. Some groups found they even shifted between more than one ‘model’. I recall that some of the high school teachers in particular, less familiar with this kind of learning, admitted to feeling a degree of discomfort. But it’s the kind of positive tension that leads to authentic learning.

If anything, I rather like the star shaped model, based on the work of Barbara Stripling, which Dave Truss of the Inquiry Hub wrote about a while ago. I like the idea of ‘inquiry points’ much more than the more common models of ‘inquiry cycles’. Inquiry can start at any of the points and bounce between them, rather than moving in a defined order. Too often in (so called) inquiry learning contexts, teaching and learning follow a prescribed order, as per one or another inquiry model.

I’m proud to work in a school where inquiry is a natural, non-linear process and teachers are encouraged to listen to the children’s learning and plan responsively, rather than follow a prescribed path that has been set in advance. This is true inquiry. It has no map, no set pattern and it can be messy…

32 thoughts on “What does inquiry learning look like?

    1. It is silly to expect teachers, schools, learners to use ‘one’ inquiry cycle and be able to parrot the different phases of one particular cycle. We dont think or learn that way. We dont talk that way. A cycle that might be identified as working for one learner may not fit another learner. Its abstract. I dont think learning can be neatly packaged into stages, often its all over the place, ebb and flow.Can we really ask our learners “What stage of inquiry are you in …” …and expect a correct answer and ..whose answer, idea, cycle or whatever would be deemed as a ‘valid’ answer? I also dont agree on adopting a school wide Inquiry cycle and posting inquiry cycles all over the school. Meaningless. Dont get me wrong Im all for reflection, visible thinking but lets keep things in perspective….Planning the entire inquiry out on a planner from Tuning in to Taking Action.. handcuffed to one inquiry model may not be helpful. I dont think we should be asking our children about specific stages of an inquiry cycle but asking them what they learned, how they learned, what wonderings that had or still have and what they might do about finding out more.


  1. Edna, this is one of the best quotes I’ve read regarding inquiry in a long time:

    “We’ve worked hard to develop an understanding that inquiry learning is messy and NOT limited to a step by step approach. True inquiry learning is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather moves back and forth between the different stages identified by most of the inquiry models.”

    Well said Ed! 🙂

    Looking back at the last two years at Inquiry Hub, I think that we have embraced this ‘messiness’. That said, I think we need to get better at helping students through the process, not necessarily pointing out where they are on a linear or cyclical path, but helping them understand where they are at the moment… In other words not, ‘You are here and need to get there’, but rather, ‘You are here, what does this mean, and what should you be doing?’
    It might seem like semantics (especially since I’m not sure I articulated the difference well enough) but it is more than that. It is about embracing the messiness and rather than pushing students on, supporting them and helping them in their current struggle/learning. This is hard… Too much support and you’ve robbed them of learning opportunities, not enough support and they might flounder.

    Messy? Yes. With an inherent richness if done well!


    1. Hi Dave

      Thanks for weighing in. I value your thought on inquiry, as your journey unfolds. I like ‘‘You are here, what does this mean, and what should you be doing?’… assuming it isn’t the teacher telling them what to do 🙂


  2. I totally agree with you Edna. We love the chaos and what emerges from it. Some children need more structure and we gently guide them through the chaos. I was also surprised to learn that every unit should have 3 teacher questions. Shouldn’t it be the case that it should be on the demands of the central idea and what the children need to unpack it?


    1. I think it’s important to remember that, while the IB has created certain guidelines for a reason, one size doesn’t fit all (learners, teachers, classes, units) and focus on creating opportunities for meaningful learning.


  3. In a workshop I ran in NZ last week, we explored this issue in some detail and the conversation was very fruitful. So this post is timely! While I have long cautioned people against ‘slavish’ adherence to ANY model (including my own) …I also want to acknowledge that models and frameworks can have a really important role to play in helping scaffold thinking (for students and for teachers) – particularly in the earlier stages of moving into a more inquiry based approach. Yes – it can become unnecessarily formulaic and ‘recipe’ like and it is just silly to think that simply parroting stages/phases indicates understanding. However, exploring and even naming the elements that often make up any kind of process (writing/designing/scientific experimentation) can really help both teacher and learner build a shared, meta language and a bigger picture view of what they are doing – that goes beyond simply ‘activity’. Scaffolds and frameworks help us see pattern and form which, in turn, become internalised and can allow stronger innovation and transfer. For a school that is well down the track, less reliance on models makes a great deal of sense. For those early in the journey – it can be really helpful. The people I see that really work powerfully with inquiry are those that have this kind of meta understanding of process. As always, great reading Edna – thank you.


    1. You always say the post is timely – same wavelength!

      You’re right of course – ‘Scaffolds and frameworks help us see pattern and form which, in turn, become internalised and can allow stronger innovation and transfer’… and, EVEN in schools well down the track, every teacher is at a different point in their understanding and practice, so such scaffolds can be very valuable. (But one size doesn’t fit all)

      Looking forward to having you work with us in 2015 🙂


  4. I think the important thing is that students can describe their process of learning in a metacognitive way. This may be different for each student. If inquiry cycles help learners start along the path all the better, but once students learn to identify and describe the way they learn and process information, then having a shared process of learning becomes less important. Nice to see the Stripling models ride again. 🙂


  5. Guiding students through the inquiry process needs a certain amount of structure and I feel the inquiry cycle (any cycle) creates that frame of reference. Also, if we look at the bubble planner, however linear it may seem, it is actually based on the cyclical nature of inquiry and in no way does this mean that you cannot go back and forth and revisit different stages at any time.

    Naini Singh


      1. I am following your discussion with interest. I have just finished teaching a summer course (LLED 469 Resource Based Teaching) here at the University of British Columbia this summer. I simply couldn’t imagine how having access to quality resources and both a teacher and a teacher-librarian could really ever be anything more than a “hunt and gather” exercise without an inquiry underpinning. For a number in the class, this was a new concept. For some educators used to being in control of the learning (its context, questions, directions, resources, outcomes, etc) and for some with learning styles I would describe as “sequential,” this course as inquiry into inquiry was truly both messy and anxiety-producing. It did strike me that, respectfully, for those learners and educators whose style is best implemented within clear bounds, this is more anxiety producing than for other learners more comfortable with randomness. In fact, it my be teachers who are more troubled by implementing inquiry. The old lock-step, sequential, and cyclical models made much more sense to some than models that encourage them to engage in asking good questions, thinking about best direction, shaping and describing the new knowledge, product or outcomes of their learning such that these are consistent with the learning, and dealing with ambiguity. We made it! Fantastic inquiry units emerged, K-12. I guess I would suggest that we have moved on from the lockstep inquiry into creating learning contexts which afford young learners a chance to get into “the flow.”


        1. Hi Moira

          Thanks for continuing the discussion and sharing your reflections. Sounds like great learning in your course! It would be interesting to see reflections from participants. Do you have a blog or website where they can be viewed?


          1. Will be working on that soon. We are busy here in BC. On strike. Government just offered parents $40 per day if strike continues into September. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Paying parents to not educate their kids rather than bargain with teachers? Busy tweeting when i had intended to work on the wiki.



  6. I like what Jason says: “handcuffed to one inquiry model”. I think the learners should develop an understanding of what stage they are at and what to move on to. Start with a simple model for the early years and develop it as reflections become more complex.


  7. Inquiry learning can be messy, fun, purposeful, individualistic, stimulating, exciting, challenging, fraught with tension, all over the place… all this happens!!! However, when ‘all this happens’ around the PYP framework, inquiry looks like something quite indescribable- you can hear, feel and almost touch the kids’ thinking and learning. Our job as our students’ mentors is ‘simply’ (sometimes through blood, sweat and tears) to guide them along the way and support those who might be struggling or lose direction.


  8. I think the best part of all this is questioning practice and not just taking things as per the dictates of others! That’s what makes us PYP teachers. Cheers to that!


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