What is Inquiry Learning?

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Inquiry learning is an umbrella term for a variety of closely related pedagogical methods in which students formulate questions, investigate to find answers, collaborate and share discoveries, come to recognize their misconceptions, build new understandings, meanings, strategies, and knowledge, communicate their learnings to others, and self-assess their work. 

Three common types of teaching and learning practices that utilize a disposition of inquiry learning are:

  • problem-based learning: learning that starts with a real world problem or task such as an ill-structured problem or case-study
  • project-based learning: students create a project or presentation as a demonstration of their understanding
  • design-based learning: learning through the working design of a solution to a complex problem.

Each of the above three types of inquiry can be further classified into three more categories, depending on how much autonomy is given to the children during the inquiryand how it is set up by the classroom teacher. The three typical types of organization are usually structured (teacher led), guided (students work collaboratively and with a great deal of independence but negotiate their work with a teacher-leader-faciilitator), or open (child-led and teacher supported).


Leaders give youth a question to answer, a way to answer the question and the necessary materials, but not the expected outcomes. Example: “Let’s investigate how many days it takes a Black Swallowtail to emerge as a butterfly from its pupa.We can raise the larvae we found in the garden to find the answer.”


Youth must figure out a way to answer a question given by the leader. Example: “I notice we see the same kind of butterflies around the garden. How do you think we can increase the variety of butterflies in our garden?”


Youth formulate the question they will investigate and determine ways to answer it. Example: Youth ask “How do the butterflies in my garden at home compare to the butterflies I see at this park?”

The common denominator is that students work on real world or simulated “real” performance tasks that requires them to do “hands on” work and make use of an integrated curriculum that pushes beyond the boundaries of traditional disciplines into seemingly unconnected areas which take a multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary approach.

 Inquiry Planning Template 1       Inquiry Planning Template 2

IntegratedCurriculum                  Performance Tasks

Elements of Strong Inquiry

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Inquiry was primarily developed during the discovery learning movement of the 1960s as a response to traditional forms of instruction where people were required to memorize information. The philosophy of inquiry learning has its antecedents in constructivist learning theories, such as those of Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Paulo Freire, and Jerome Bruner among others.

Bruner’s studies in the field of cognitive psychology led him to theorize that true learning must be spurred by interest in the material rather than tests or punishment, since we learn best when we find the knowledge we're obtaining appealing, interesting, exciting, relevant, important, or necessary. It fits with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. ("A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review,1943’)

In 1967 Bruner, coined the term "scaffolding" to describe the way children often build on the information they have already mastered. A true instructional designer, Bruner's work points out that a learner, even of a very young age, is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organized appropriately. It should follow a loosely sequential process of learning by physical action (doing), developing mental images, and developing abstract or symbolic understanding.

There are eight elements of strong, inquiry-based practice. They are:


2.Deep Understanding

3.Performances of Understanding

4.Assessment, Self-Assessment, and Reflection

5.Appropriate Use of Technology

6.Connecting with Experts

7.Student Success

8.Ethical Citizenship


Steps for Planning Inquiry Instruction

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Planning for integrated instruction usually involves 4 steps:

• Teachers and students select a topic of study based on student interests, curriculum standards, and local resources.
• The teacher finds out what the students already know and helps them generate topics/questions to explore. 
• The teacher provides the students with resources, direct instruction mini-lessons for large or small groups or individuals, and opportunities to do “field work.”
• Students share their work with others in a performance task (culminating activity). Students display their exploration as well as review and evaluate their own and their classmates' projects.

Inquiry Questions  Planning Questions  Planning Resources Links to Resources


Instructional Models Which Promote Inquiry

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There are a variety of instructional models which promote the use of integrated curriculum and inquiry learning. These models include the following:

  • The BSCS 5e instructional model (Bybee, 1987),
  • The Dimensions of Learning Framework (Robert Marzano, 1992b),
  • Understanding by Design® and W.H.E.R.E.T.O. (Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe, 1998),
  • The Inquiry Path (Joanna Villavicencio, 2000),
  • The Story-Model Framework (Susan Drake, 1993, and Kieran Egan, 1986)
  • The UIUC cyclic model of inquiry (Bertram “Chip” Bruce, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003),
  • The Three-Part Mathematics Lesson (John A. Van de Walle, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2003),
  • 4C-ID Model (Jeroen van Merriënboer)
  • Algo-Heuristic Theory (Lev Landa)
  • ADDIE Model | Analysis > Design > Development > Implementation > Evaluation Weaknesses of the ADDIE model
  • ARCS (John Keller)
  • ASSURE (Heinich, Molenda, Russel, and Smaldino)
  • Backward Design (Wiggins & McTighe)
  • Conditions of Learning (Robert Gagne)
  • Component Display Theory (David Merrill)
  • Criterion Referenced Instruction (Robert Mager)
  • Dick and Carey
  • Elaboration Theory
  • Gerlach-Ely Model
  • Hannafin-Peck Model
  • Kirk and Gustafson Model
  • ILE Framework (Instructional Learning Environments) - Lauren Resnick
  • Instructional Systems Design ISD
  • Integrative Learning Design Framework for Online Learning (Debbaugh)
  • Iterative Design
  • Spiral Model (Boehm)
  • Rapid Prototyping (Tripp & Bichelmeyer)
  • Kemp Design Model (Morrison, Ross, and Kemp)
  • Organizational Elements Model (OEM) (Roger Kaufman)
  • Transactional Distance (Michael Moore)
  • Cognitive Apprenticeship
  • Discovery Learning
  • Empathic instructional design
  • Goal-based scenarios
  • The Plan: Building on Children's Interests (Hiliary Jo Seitz, The Plan: Building on Children's Interests, Young Children on the Web, National Association for the Education of Young Children, March 2006 ), and,
  • The four-part “Inquiry Process in the Early Learning–Kindergarten Classrooms” (Ontario Ministry of Education, The Full-Day Early Learning – Kindergarten Program, draft, p15, 2010-11).

IntegratedCurriculum Performance Tasks Inquiry Questions

Planning Questions Planning Resources Links to Resources

Inquiry Planning Template 1

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or click the link below:



Stage 1: Desired Results

Curriculum Designer(s)/Teachers:

Unit Plan Title:




Subject/Discipline Areas:


Time Required:

Include unit planning date, begin of unit and end of unit dates.

Library and Media Centre use dates and other

Include computer lab, in-class and media center use dates.

Curriculum Content Expectations/ Standards: What are the state standards/provincial expectations addressed by this unit?  Be sure to include all subject-area standards.




Enduring Understanding: What is the “big idea” or conceptual issue that is worth student inquiry? This idea should transcend all content areas. Instead, the disciplines should be used as tools to explore the critical issue.



Over-Arching Essential Question (Transdisiplinary): frame an essential question that engages and promotes higher-order thinking that relates to the critical transdisciplinary concept or issue.



Essential questions are provocative and make students think about the lessons within a greater context. Example: How can we explain the things that happen around us?

  • They can be Unit specific questions which focus attention on the important objectives of the project. Example: Are there rules that affect the ways things move? What rules affect whether an object floats or sinks? ~or
  • Content questions lead to fundamental and specific answers. Example: How are density, buoyancy, and displacement related? How can you measure volume of irregular solids?



Knowledge and Skills: what are the discrete objectives that students need to know and be able to do for effective performance?



Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence

Determine acceptable evidence of understanding (Student learning goals): What should students be able to know and do or express when they understand the learning objectives?

q  Students will be able to…

Performance Task & Rubrics (e.g. Goal, Role, Audience, Scenario/Situation, Product/Performance and Standard/Criteria: G.R.A.S.P.S., Role, Audience, Format and Task: R.A.F.T.)





Other Evidence (e.g. test, quiz, common assessments)





Self Assessment








Stage 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction

Learning Experiences: Plan instructional activities that address the learning objectives. Couch learning activities in simulations or authentic tasks that put students in charge of their learning. Plan work samples, performance tasks and other forms of formative assessment that allow students to express understanding of the learning objectives. These experiences should be designed via a gradual-release-of-responsibility continuum (immersion, guided practice and commitment/application).









Plan for information, media and technology (See Checklist of Integrated Technologies) The realistic nature of project work naturally leads students to use technology as they collaborate, solve problems, and share their work with others. How can technology support learning in this project?









Plan for Resources (Print and Non-Print): What books, periodicals, technologies and web resources will help meet the needs of this lesson?








PROCEDURE: Steps in the task – based on lesson plan w/responsibilities (example below):


Media Specialist will:

Classroom teacher will:

(Other content-area)

________________teacher will:























Inquiry Planning Template 2

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or click on the link below:



BSCS 5E Unit/Lesson Planning Template



Subject  / grade level:



Essential Curriculum Expectations/Standards, Clarifying Objectives, and Enduring Unerstandings



Lesson objective(s) by day:



Differentiation strategies to meet diverse learner needs:




  • Describe how the teacher will capture students’ interest.
  • What kind of questions should the students ask themselves after the engagement?




  • Describe what hands-on/minds-on activities students will be doing.
  • List “big idea” conceptual questions the teacher will use to encourage and/or focus students’ exploration





  • Student explanations should precede introduction of terms or explanations by the teacher. What questions or techniques will the teacher use to help students connect their exploration to the concept under examination?
  • List higher order thinking questions which teachers will use to solicit student explanations and help them to justify their explanations.





  • Describe how students will develop a more sophisticated understanding of the concept.
  • What vocabulary will be introduced and how will it connect to students’ observations?
  • How is this knowledge applied in our daily lives?





  • How will students demonstrate that they have achieved the lesson objective?
  • This should be embedded throughout the lesson as well as at the end of the lesson



Inquiry Planning Template 3

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or click on the link below:


Understanding by Design Unit Template


Title of Unit



Grade Level






Time Frame



Developed By



Stage 1 - Identify Desired Results


Broad   Areas of Learning

How are the BAL incorporated into this   unit?






Cross   curricular Competencies

How will this unit promote the CCC?








Learning Outcomes

What   relevant goals will this unit address?

(must come from curriculum; include the   designations e.g. IN2.1)











Enduring Understandings

What   understandings about the big ideas are desired?(what you want students to   understand & be able to use several years from now)

What   misunderstandings are predictable?

Essential Questions

What   provocative questions will foster inquiry into the content?(open-ended   questions that stimulate thought and inquiry linked to the content of the   enduring understanding)

Students will understand that...












Related misconceptions…






Content specific….












FNMI,   multicultural, cross-curricular…



What knowledge will student acquire as a   result of this unit?  This content   knowledge may come from the indicators, or might also address pre-requisite   knowledge that students will need for this unit.



What skills will students acquire as a   result of this unit?  List the skills   and/or behaviours that students will be able to exhibit as a result of their   work in this unit.  These will come   from the indicators.

Students   will know...














Students   will be able to…


Stage 3 –   Learning Plan

What teaching and learning experiences   will you use to:

  • achieve the desired results identified in Stage 1?
  • equip students to complete the assessment tasks identified in        Stage 2?

Where are your students headed?    Where have they been?  How will   you make sure the students know where they are going? 

What experiences do the learners bring   to the unit?  How have the interests of   the learners been ascertained?  Have   the learners been part of the pre-planning in any way?  What individual needs do you anticipate   will need to be addressed?

Learning environment:  Where can this learning best occur?  How can the physical environment be   arranged to enhance learning? 







How will you engage   students at the beginning of the unit? (motivational set)







What events will help students experience and explore the enduring understandings   and essential questions in the unit?    How will you equip them with needed skills and knowledge?


Lesson Title

Lesson Activities




















































































































































Assess and Reflect (Stage 4)



Required Areas of Study:

 Is there alignment between outcomes,   performance assessment and learning experiences?






Adaptive Dimension:

Have   I made purposeful adjustments to the curriculum content (not outcomes),   instructional practices, and/or the learning environment to meet the learning   needs and diversities of all my students?

For struggling students:










For students who need a challenge:










Instructional Approaches:

Do   I use a variety of teacher directed and student centered instructional approaches?






Resource Based Learning:

 Do the students have access to various   resources on an ongoing basis?






FNM/I   Content and Perspectives/Gender Equity/Multicultural Education:

Have I nurtured and   promoted diversity while honoring each child’s identity?






From:  Wiggins, Grant and J. McTighe. (1998). Understanding by Design, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, ISBN # 0-87120-313-8 (pbk)

Very short Version of Template 3 above

 UbD Planning Template Version 2

Title of Unit


Grade Level


Curriculum Area


Time Frame


Developed By


Identify Desired Results (Stage 1)

Content Standards



Essential Questions

Overarching Understanding






Related Misconceptions



Students will know…


Students will be able to…



Assessment Evidence (Stage 2)

Performance Task Description













Other Evidence


Learning Plan (Stage 3)

Where are your students headed?  Where have they been?  How will you make sure the students know where they are going?


How will you hook students at the beginning of the unit?


What events will help students experience and explore the big idea and questions in the unit?  How will you equip them with needed skills and knowledge?


How will you cause students to reflect and rethink?  How will you guide them in rehearsing, revising, and refining their work?


How will you help students to exhibit and self-evaluate their growing skills, knowledge, and understanding throughout the unit?


How will you tailor and otherwise personalize the learning plan to optimize the engagement and effectiveness of ALL students, without compromising the goals of the unit?


How will you organize and sequence the learning activities to optimize the engagement and achievement of ALL students?



From:  Wiggins, Grant and J. Mc Tighe. (1998). Understanding by Design, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ISBN # 0-87120-313-8 (ppk)