December 5, 2017, by Rupert Knight

Finding a place for inquiry

The OECD have just published the results of the latest PISA survey on collaborative problem solving.  In the accompanying editorial, its educational director, Andreas Schleicher points to the importance of communication-intensive activities in promoting effective collaboration and thereby preparation for a rapidly changing world of work.

This is echoed by groups like the Partnership for 21st Century Learning who have produced a framework for learning that includes, alongside traditional disciplines, ‘learning and innovation skills’ such as problem solving and collaboration.  Meanwhile, in England, the Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman recently caught the attention of educators with her commentary on the curriculum and her call for schools to move away from an obsession with test preparation and ‘badges and stickers’ to focus on the wider curriculum and the substance of education.  So, what constitutes the ‘substance of education’?

In light of this, Rupert Knight argues in this post that part of any reappraisal and broadening of the scope of school learning might involve finding a place for learning through inquiry.  He considers what all primary educators might learn from an example of a distinctive inquiry-based curriculum.

What do we mean by inquiry?

There are many definitions of what is usually known as inquiry-based learning but we can discern some common themes:

  • The use of pupils’ questions and ideas as a starting point
  • A commitment to pupil autonomy with teacher acting as facilitator or guide
  • The valuing of process (e.g. exploration, problem solving, collaboration) as well as content
  • The use of authentic, often real-world, contexts

This approach is frequently traced back to the early twentieth century writings of John Dewey, who established ‘progressive’ principles, such as learning from experience, relating learning to relevant contexts and allowing learners a degree of expression and freedom (Dewey, 1938).  The ideas of Jerome Bruner (1966) on ensuring pupils’ active involvement in learning and an interest in process, as well as product have also been highly influential.

An example: the IB’s PYP

An ‘extreme’ example of this approach is the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme (PYP): a whole curriculum based around transdisciplinary units of inquiry, as illustrated in this film clip and outlined in great detail in this document.  Inquiry, along with action and reflection, forms the core of PYP learning and is often conducted collaboratively.  The school year is based around six sustained and highly structured units of inquiry, each with some form of principled action as an outcome.  The PYP is fairly prevalent in private international schools globally.  While there are many reasons – not least the National Curriculum and the current testing regime – why this curriculum is very rarely followed in the UK state sector (a recent search suggests just 2 or 3 IB accredited state primary schools), perhaps there are principles that can be taken and adapted in a more moderate form.

Why use inquiry anyway?

Supporters of this style of learning often point to benefits such as: preparing learners with requisite skills for employability, as outlined in this chapter from Brigid Barron & Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University, a sense of personal fulfilment as a learner through creative thinking, as cited by high-profile figures such as Sir Ken Robinson, or collaborative learning as a vehicle for a language-rich classroom, as promoted by Voice 21.

Persuasive though these arguments might be, inquiry-based learning has been strongly challenged, as seen in this article for The Conversation and in this paper by Kirschner et al.  Criticisms centre on the existence of a strong evidence base for techniques based on direct (as opposed to ‘minimally guided’) instruction, chiefly because of the excessive demands placed on working memory by activities like problem-solving and working with new information.  Others, as shown in this report from Canada, have argued that a focus on these generalised skills also risks marginalising the very subject matter and content that learners need as the underpinning for effective thinking and learning.  Often, however, commentators seem to take a polarised view of education as being about either knowledge or skills, instead of considering how elements of inquiry might enhance a content-rich curriculum.

So, how can we strike a balance?  It seems to me that there are three fundamental issues for teachers to resolve:

  • The place of substantive content
    How do we ensure adequate prior knowledge?  Returning to our example of the PYP curriculum (IBO, 2009), lines of inquiry are highly structured and the prescribed planning process places great emphasis on a central idea, key concepts and ‘significant knowledge’.
    However, if inquiry may not be the best way of acquiring new knowledge, perhaps it is better placed as a means of working with that knowledge and thereby developing a solid conceptual understanding.  This has implications for the sequencing of a topic.  Designing packaging for a product might be a fruitful scenario for inquiry but only after the pre-requisite skills such as accurate measuring, properties of 3D shapes, nets and so on have been taught, perhaps in a more directed way. The value of the inquiry would be in applying this knowledge to a new context.  So it’s not a binary decision about content or process, but about the right place for each.  As Dewey (1938: 78) himself reminded us: ’the problem of selection and organisation of subject-matter for learning is fundamental.’
  • The role of the teacher
    The PYP teacher is emphatically a facilitator, attuned to the needs of the individual (IBO, 2009), but does this sort of learning have to be ‘minimally guided’, as characterised in Kirschner et al.’s article above? Pupil ownership of an inquiry is important, but parameters can be set.  For example, one approach is to break inquiry into a series of brief episodes, punctuated by teacher-directed learning.  Rather than a lengthy period with minimal intervention, the teacher can bring the class back together at regular intervals to take stock of progress, draw explicit attention to salient features, offer contingent guidance and move the learning on.  Perhaps what we need to take from the PYP example is the fact that the teacher must ‘value and model’ inquiry: here is an opportunity to apply direct instruction (i.e. modelling) to the inquiry process itself.  Again, we need to move beyond a false dichotomy of inquiry versus direct instruction and see how and where direct instruction can intersect with the inquiry process.
  • The alignment of assessment practices
    How can we assess the inquiry process authentically? The first priority is to make it clear that we value process as well as product and there is plenty of emphasis within the current primary National Curriculum on processes: inquiry is mentioned explicitly within the Science and History framework and in other subjects there is reference to related skills, such as reasoning and problem solving (Mathematics) and designing products for a purpose (Design and Technology). The PYP (IBO, 2009) strongly emphasises frequent observation records and the compilation of pupil portfolios, practices familiar to all early years practitioners.  Above all, ongoing teacher assessment needs to include, alongside more traditional testing, opportunities for ‘performances’ of understanding: applying knowledge to novel contexts, but with clearly specified criteria.

Robin Hood Primary School in Nottingham has been attempting to strike this balance and develop more opportunities for inquiry.  Danielle White, a Year Three teacher shares her experiences and her journey as an educator:

So perhaps incorporating inquiry is not about a wholesale ideological embracing of this form of pedagogy, but about finding a sense of balance and appropriate place within the teacher’s repertoire.  It would be great to hear of any examples you have of making inquiry work for you in the primary classroom, on however small a scale.




Bruner, J. (1966) Towards a theory of instruction, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and education, New York: Touchstone.

International Baccalaureate Organization (2009) Making the PYP happen: a curriculum framework for international primary education, Cardiff: IBO.

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