To inquire, or not to inquire…that is the question.

6 Jul

Being somewhat ignorant in terms of the practical applications of inquiry-based learning, a myriad of questions begin to flood my thoughts at the end of day as I walked out of my “Inquiry and ICT” class; why has my school not taken a vested interest in this seemingly obvious, natural approach to learning while others have made it a school-wide initiative? Why is it only fairly recently that “inquiry-based learning” has come to the forefront as a buzz word in educational circles? Have I used this approach and not realized it? Should I be using it more? What are its strengths? Just how valid is it?

The questions kept coming, but it was the last one that resonated with me a little louder: Just how valid is it? Maybe it’s just me, maybe it happens with age, in any case, I seem to have become increasingly skeptical as the years have gone by so the phrase “show me, don’t tell me,” comes to mind more often. By the end of the initial readings and class discussions it seemed obvious that one should implement teaching practices to include inquiry; but to what extent? 

There seems to be numerous studies that prove the case for inquiry-based learning.  “For example, sixth graders in a suburban school who were given inquiry-based physics instruction were shown to do better on conceptual physics problems than eleventh and twelfth grade physics students taught by conventional methods in the same school system.” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking 2000)

I needed to explore the flip-side of this coin. What does the opposition have to say? Well, in the article entitled “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” it states:

“Moreno (2004) concluded that there is a growing body of research showing that students learn more deeply from strongly guided learning than from discovery. Similar conclusions were reported by Chall (2000), McKeough, Lupart, and Marini (1995), Schauble (1990), and Singley and Anderson (1989). Klahr and Nigam (2004), in a very important study, not only tested whether science learners learned more via a discovery versus direct instruction route but also, once learning had occurred, whether the quality of learning differed. Specifically, they tested whether those who had learned through discovery were better able to transfer their learning to new contexts. The findings were unambiguous. Direct instruction involving considerable guidance, including examples, resulted in vastly more learning than discovery. “ (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark 2006)

Now I’m confused. It’s surely easier to follow the inquiry bandwagon but as my father used to tell me, “If everyone else jumps off the bridge, would you do that too?”  Do I invest in teaching practices that show mixed reviews or do I stick with the tried, tested, and true methods? “Inquiring” minds want to know!


Bransford, J., Brown, A. & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (pp. 3-78).  Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press (Chapters 1-3).

Retrieved from

Kirschner,P., Sweller, J., Clark, R (2006).  Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.  Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86 Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Retrieved from


5 Responses to “To inquire, or not to inquire…that is the question.”

  1. ephansen July 7, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    Drewek, I appreciate your pursuit of further understanding and clarification of the true nature of inquiry. You ask some vital questions!

    I would like to suggest that you may be comparing apples to oranges here a bit, and comparing/contrasting two extremes in terms of the nature of inquiry. There can be some moderation in understanding the spectrum/continuum of inquiry and its application. While there is no detailed “how to” manual, it is important to note that inquiry does not need to be a wide pendulum swing between the extremes of structure and chaos. Inquiry can flourish with intentional teacher scaffolding. It does not release students “into the wilds” alone with no supports. It does not need to mean that students choose any topic they wish without intentional links to curriculum. The teacher does not become irrelevant. It demands that teachers have deep curricular knowledge and understanding and insight into natural intersections of curriculum and real-world examples. It means capitalizing on student interest in relation to a topic of study, not in the absence of it. It means careful monitoring of the exploration and intentional teaching of skills in a “just-in-time” manner. It is not all or nothing in terms of teaching practice.

    I really like the following quotation that discusses the intentionality of implementing inquiry in the classroom:

    “Changing classrooms to inquiry-based environments demands that teachers develop the attitudes of a scholar: They introduce changes systematically and develop criteria for evaluating their worth, they observe the effects of changed practices on children, and they make their work public. Without such a disposition, teachers often introduce change that is haphazard, poorly constructed, and idiosyncratic. It is territory of the endless bandwagons and fads that have plagued education. Taking the attitude of a scholar, teachers learn to recognize and interpret key moments in the life of their classroom. Second, they have learned to explore, interpret, and share these moments in order to improve their own practice and to contribute to the growing scholarly body of knowledge about inquiry” (Clifford & Friesen, 1993; Jardine, Clifford, & Friesen, 2002; Jardine, Friesen, & Clifford, 2006; Jardine, Clifford, & Friesen, 2008) as cited in Clifford & Marinucci (2008, pp.5-6).

    Hopefully you will continue your exploration of the potential of inquiry. In my humble opinion, we owe it to our students! 😉

    Clifford, P. & Marinucci, S. (2008). Testing the waters: Three elements of classroom inquiry. Harvard Educational Review, 78(4), 675-688. Retrieved from

  2. Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton July 7, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    I like that you are asking questions and challenging what others may take as a given. You are right when you say that critics of this method argue that it is “just another fad”. Is it? The reality is that we do not know. It is one way of teaching. Is it “the best way”? I don’t have the answer (and I’m always suspicious of people who boldly claim that they DO have the answer.)

    Bravo for looking at the other side and asking good questions. Your post is essentially an inquiry into the validity of inquiry. 🙂

    One APA tip: When you are citing direct quotes from a source, include the page number with your citation. Don’t worry about updating this post, but include it for future writings, OK?

    Nice start, Drew. Looking forward to the next one.

  3. kelasher July 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    Your comments on inquiry mirror my own experiences, wonderings and hesitations about this form of learning. It is definitely important to question whether or not inquiry is the right method for you to undertake. I myself feel pressured to adopt an inquiry teaching practices, though I think the pressure I am feeling is in many ways a natural desire to improve my students’ achievement and success in learning.

    In your wonderings about your own teaching and learning experiences, have you been able to identify any which followed or contained elements of the inquiry-based approach? Can you connect with colleagues who practice inquiry in their teaching?

    The confusion you speak of, and your attempts to clarify and extend your understanding through research and self-reflection is itself an inquiry. Good luck on your journey!

  4. sandralbecker July 11, 2012 at 3:14 am #

    As I was reading your post, it harkened me back to the days of “whole language.” The pedagogy behind the whole language movement, that literacy learning should be approached in a holistic way, was solid. However, there were teachers who joined the bandwagon, without pedagogical knowledge. I have spoken with people who were students during this time. They feel they have great gaps in their learning because there was not much teaching going on. This is the danger of jumping on a bandwagon without deep thinking about the pedagogy behind it.
    One thing I like about inquiry, is it requires careful listening to students, so formative assessment is going on continuously.
    I am wondering about one of your sources mention of “discovery learning” vs. inquiry? Do you consider these to be the same?
    I think your overall point is very well taken, but I wonder if our current methods really are “tried, tested, and true.”

  5. Debbie McKibbin July 13, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    Hello Drew,
    A response to: To inquire or not to inquire, that is the question.
    Good question! Looking at the possible negatives or pitfalls of inquiry is an important undertaking. I was surprised to see the number of studies cited that found direct instruction had a greater impact on student learning. I wonder why the learning was not being transferred. Did they evaluate the quality of instruction? Was it true inquiry? I also question what evaluations they used to evaluate student learning. Standardized tests? Mutiple choice? I wonder what the results would have been if they conducted evaluations 6 months or a year later.
    You asked in your first paragraph, why is your school not taking a vested interest in inquiry? You state, “… this seemingly obvious, natural approach to learning…”. I wonder if inquiry is as intuitive we hope. The teaching profession has traditionally attracted left-brain thinkers. I’m getting the impression inquiry requires thinking differently and does not necessarily come naturally for teachers.
    I pondered your last question, “It’s surely easier to follow the bandwagon…” and wondered aloud if inquiry-based learning was really a ‘bandwagon’. As you say, it is not a common culture in our schools, and certainly is not in mine. “Educational leaders are called upon to create new learning environments, and new educational systems to address our contemporary society.” (Friesen & Lock, 2010, p. 3-4). Inquiry takes thoughtfulness, hard work, and creativity. Perhaps it is harder than it sounds.

    Friesen, S. & Lock, J.V. (2010). High Performing Districts in the Application of 21st Century
    Learning Technologies: Review of the Research. Prepared for the College of Alberta School Superintendents. Retrieved from

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