Monday, 10 November 2014

What IS inquiry anyway?

As is the case with any field, be it fashion, music, art, or film – education too has terms that are “in”, or currently all the rage. Mention “inquiry” and the eyes of anyone in education will suddenly light up – and for good reason too! I couldn’t be happier to see inquiry come to the forefront of current educational discussions as I truly believe in the value of an inquiry approach, not just for early learners, but for all learners. Hallmarks of inquiry such as honouring students’ wonders and involving the teacher as a facilitator of knowledge rather than the sole source of knowledge have always a large part of my own philosophies as a teacher. It’s no surprise to me that I’ve found inquiry an easy fit for what I like to do in a classroom. But, inquiry isn’t natural for everyone – and that’s ok. We all have different experiences, beliefs, and journeys. Before I clarify what inquiry is to me, I am going to point out what it isn’t. This is by no means to shame anyone, but rather point out how I have seen the term being misused, and to encourage all educators to continue their own life long learning.

So…let’s start with this.

Inquiry is not:

When you students are interested in spiders so you Google/Pintrest/Facebook/Twitter search spider themed activities and place them at every learning centre. You can call it “inquiry” all you want, but it’s just theme based learning in disguise.

So, with that in mind? What IS inquiry?

Inquiry is:

          -       unpredictable
          -       scary
          -       giving up control
          -       honouring student wonders
          -       exciting
          -       rewarding
          -       fun
          -       saying “I’m not quite sure, let’s find out together”
          -       purposeful
          -       process driven
          -       unique, no two inquiries are alike
          -       fluid
          -       flexible
          -       ever-changing
          -       cyclical
          -       a journey for student AND teacher
          -       a pursuit of knowledge
          -       a construction of knowledge
          -       a reformation of knowledge
          -       completely natural in an early learning setting

That last point – inquiry is natural – is, in my opinion, maybe the most important for teachers looking to try an inquiry approach in their own settings for the first time. We all come with different teaching backgrounds, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that perhaps you’ve never done any true inquiry in your classroom. The joy of teaching is that we as educators get to educate ourselves and learn about/try out new approaches. For anyone looking to try out inquiry, know this – it is truly natural for children to ask questions, seek knowledge, and build understanding through hands-on exploration. To put it quite simply, inquiry just works.

Wondering where to start? First, let go of control. Instead of planning every single minute of your day, sit and listen: What are your students interested in?  What are they noticing? What are they talking about? When and if something emerges, resist the temptation to look up lesson plans on that topic. Instead, ask them – what do they want to know? Yes, asking other teachers online for advice is great, but your own students are your very best resource. The classroom down the hall may be doing inquiry on a similar topic, but no two inquires look alike if they are truly guided by the unique students in your room. Once some juicy wonders have developed – time to find your answers! You yourself may not know these answers right away…that’s great! Teachers are learners too. Together with your students go through the research stage, and model how to seek out information in this increasingly digital world. Learning HOW to learn is far more important for your students (and will serve them better in later years) than memorizing facts and statistics or filling out some premade worksheet on the topic. Along the way, more questions may emerge – and quite possibly some questions can’t be answered – that’s a piece of learning too. Along the way, document, document, document! The best part of inquiry isn’t even what you find out at the end, it’s the learning journey you went on to get there. Above all else, have fun.


  1. Thank you for this - I really like your list. I think we're very accustomed to things we can boil down to a few buzzwords and inquiry definitely ISN'T that!

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. I agree that inquiry is much, much more than a buzzword - it's hard to predict what it will look like, and different every time!

  2. Joel any chance you could contact me at thanks