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- Dorothy Parker -

“Curiosity is the cure for boredom. There is no cure for curiosity.”

Inquiry-Based Learning

This page provides an overview of inquiry-based learning, relevant to all subjects and grade levels.

I like my units the way they are. Should I give up my plans and resources that work really well and have taken a long time to develop.

How difficult will it be to change to inquiry-based learning? I have no time to learn something new and adapt everything I have.

There is so much time pressure already. How will I be able cover all the of the required curriculum content?

How will I be able to supervise so many students doing so many different things? It will be chaos!

How will I be able to assess such different projects and products?

My students are too diverse for inquiry.

My students are too young for inquiry.

My students are too old for inquiry.

What is inquiry, anyway?

These are all valid questions, concerns and fears. Read on for answers and ideas.


What is inquiry, anyway?

Inquiry is not a teaching method - it is “a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world. ...


"Inquiry is based on the belief that understanding is constructed in the process of people working and conversing together as they pose and solve the problems, make discoveries and rigorously testing the discoveries that arise in the course of shared activity. ...


"Inquiry is a study into a worthy question, issue, problem or idea" through authentic work within the discipline (Galileo Educational Network, 2004).

Then what is inquiry-based learning?

"Inquiry-based learning is a process where students are involved in their learning, formulate questions, investigate widely and then build new understandings, meanings and knowledge ... to answer a question, to develop a solution or to support a position or point of view. The knowledge is usually presented to others and may result in some sort of action" (Alberta Learning, 2008, p. 1).

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What are the defining characteristics of inquiry-based learning?

What is inquiry-based learning, anyway?

What are some models for inquiry-based learning?

There are a lot of variations models showing the process of inquiry-based learning. The common elements are:

  • Wondering, questioning and initial planning of ideas

  • Exploring, researching, investigating the chosen topic

  • Synthesising or processing information to construct understanding

  • Creating some way to share or express conclusions to original questions

  • Self-evaluation and reflecting on the process (ongoing, iterative design)

The following are the inquiry models from Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, respectively (Saskatchewan Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 10; Alberta Learning, 2004, p. 10; BCTLA Info Lit Task Force., 2011, p. 2).

Click on the image to go to the original - and very helpful - original inquiry documents.

Sask Inquiry Model.jpg
Alberta Inquiry Model.jpg
BC inquiry model.jpg

To a certain extent, it does not matter which model is chosen, so long as it is followed consistently throughout the school. This is because “[w]ithout learning an inquiry process, students often develop a very limited and narrow view of inquiry. They may think that inquiry is finding the answer to other people’s questions for the satisfaction of their teacher, rather than understanding inquiry as the process of being puzzled about something, generating their own questions and using information to satisfy their own interests and to develop their own knowledge.” (Alberta Learning, 2004, p. 8) Students become familiar with the terms, processes, and expectations, and less teaching is required about how to conduct and inquiry, although mini lessons on inquiry skills are still beneficial, and more time can be devoted to the inquiry itself.

What are the different types of inquiry?


There are many different ways to divide and define the types of inquiry, but generally, between the way Mackenzie and Bathurst-Hunt (2016) illustrate the types of student inquiry (see image below) and Harvey and Daniels (2015) describe inquiry, four general types are:

types of student inquiry.png
  • Structured Inquiry

  • Controlled Inquiry

  • Guided Inquiry

  • Open (or Free) Inquiry 

Mackenzie, T., & Bathurst-Hunt, R. (2016). Dive into Inquiry [images]. Retrieved from

Harvey & Daniels go further by describing four different types of guided and open inquiry: 

Mini - Mini inquiries are often done as a form of guided inquiry. Harvey and Daniels describe mini inquiries as “quick [...] investigations of authentic questions that come from kids, from teachers, or from the curriculum” (2015, p. 194). Mini inquiries allow students a chance to practice doing research, honour students’ wonder, and helps satisfy curiosity about small topics. They do not take a lot of time to complete, often lasting only a few minutes to several days.

Curricular - Curricular inquiries are also often done as a form of guided inquiry. As the name suggests, they are done under the umbrella of the curriculum, and are investigations related to specific curriculum outcomes. Instead of having students learn about curriculum outcomes from lecture or textbooks, they can perform thoughtful investigations while the teacher is a “guide from the side” (Harvey and Daniels, 2015, p. 210). The teacher can carefully choose parts of curriculum that are interesting to students, important to the heart of the discipline being investigated, and in need of a richer understanding. Student voice and choice are integrated with the curriculum to create interesting opportunities for research. These types of inquiries can last for days or weeks. 

Literature Circle - Harvey and Daniels define literature circles as “small, peer-led reading discussion groups” (2015, p. 246). In small groups, students will all read the same book and come together to discuss the reading as it unfolded. Literature circles traditionally were only used for novels, however now a days they are used for everything from short stories and poems to plays and nonfiction texts as well. There has been a de-emphasis over the years on the traditional “role sheets” and a re-emphasis on taking responsibility for capturing their reading processes with annotations, sticky notes, and journals. These can be as short as a period to as long as several days or more.

Open -  Free or open inquiries are the peak of the inquiry mountain. In these types of inquiries, the role of the teacher and students are very different from the traditional methods of teaching. Student curiosity and questioning takes center stage. Students and teachers learn together and the teachers become facilitators who help students progress through their inquiry process and offer guidance and assistant at key points along the way. Students will use their skills in comprehension, collaboration, and investigation to build understanding and conduct research. When given the opportunity and provided with thoughtful guidance, students will lean towards topics of significance. Students really want to know! Open inquiries can take weeks to months to complete, due to their in-depth nature. (Harvey & Daniels, 2015, p. 273)

How does inquiry-based learning fit with the curriculum?

This is a key question, and specific requirements differ between provinces and countries. An inquiry model of learning fits all of these criteria! Some provinces and countries will have curricula that specifically discuss inquiry-based learning, while others do not, but inquiry can still be a model that is used which includes or incorporates what the curriculum requires.


As an example, much of Alberta's new curriculum was influenced by the Inspiring Education steering committee which met to envision changes to education in Alberta through until 2030. At the core of these changes was the idea that “children and youth should have meaningful learning opportunities appropriate to each learner's developmental stage, including learning that is experiential, multi-disciplinary, community based, and self-paced.” (Alberta Education, 2010, p.31).

Another example is from the Calgary Board of Education’s (2016) Divisional Goals for Instructional Design and Leadership, which are:


  • "student agency and intellectual engagement 

  • assessment that informs teaching and learning

  • active and meaningful tasks designed for student interests and learning needs

  • students knowing what they know, how they know it, how they show it, and what they need next" (p.1)


All four of these goals can be met through, or together with, inquiry-based learning. It seeks to engage and challenge students with deeper thinking, and get them to take the lead, reflect, and make decisions individually and collaboratively


Intellectual engagement is a natural by-product of the active, meaningful, and personally interesting tasks that inquiry-based learning can lead to. In fact, three of the main principles of Inquiry Circles include

  • “choice of topics based on genuine student curiosity, questions and interests”,

  • “[d]igging deeply into complex, authentic topics that matter to kids”, and

  • “[g]oing beyond fact finding to synthesizing ideas and building and acquiring knowledge” (Harvey & Daniels, 2015, p. 16). 

How does inquiry work in a community of students with diverse learning needs?

The inquiry model lends itself to differentiated instruction and can easily be tailored to the needs and abilities of individual students, including our students with special needs and those for whom English is not their first language. Harvey and Daniels (2015) suggest that “[w]ell-structured small-group inquiries can provide extraordinary opportunities for kids with special needs not just to join in but to shine. Indeed, inquiry circles can be a crucible of inclusion when we commit to heterogeneous membership, diverse along every dimension--gender, learning style, special needs, home language, and more. Diversity is an asset” (p. 111).


Individual learning needs are easily accommodated as students choose what interests them and construct their pathway through the inquiry cycle. Inquiry is not a one-size-fits-all model, but is inherently tailored to each specific learner. Harvey and Daniels state that “[h]elping kids find texts and resources that are at their level and of interest to them is one of our top priorities in inquiry-based classrooms” (2015, p. 113). This is also one of the ways that teacher-librarians can be so useful to inquiry in the classroom.

Also, active and meaningful tasks are authentic and relevant to learners. Harvey and Daniels argue for inquiry-based classrooms where “[a]uthenticity reigns supreme” because “[w}hen learning is authentic, it is almost always more relevant. When learners can relate to what they are studying or investigating, learning is more seamless and enjoyable” (Harvey & Daniels, 2015, p. 116). This can be a great support to students all across the spectrum of learning styles and needs.

Is inquiry-based learning actually an effective form of learning?

Inquiry is demonstrated through numerous research studies to be effective for student learning. In one example from Dr. Brigid Barron and Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (2008) of Stanford University, 2,128 students across 23 schools had “significantly higher achievement on challenging tasks when they were taught with inquiry-based teaching, showing that involvement leads to understanding. These practices were found to have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and prior achievement” (Barron & Darling-Hammond, October 8, 2008, para. 4).

Student agency, or taking control of one’s own learning experience, is taught through the inquiry model as the skills of reflection and self-analysis are reiterated at every step of the inquiry cycle. In inquiry-based and cooperative learning, ongoing assessment is important for “the development of students’ capacity to assess their own work, so that they internalize standards and become aware of and thoughtful about their own learning” ( Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 3). Looking at the research, Barron and Darling-Hammond point out that:

The power of these approaches has been illustrated in many studies, including a comparison group study that evaluated the impact of self-assessment on student learning in twelve inquiry-based middle school science classrooms. The experimental groups spent half of their time in discussion structured to promote self- and peer assessment of cognitive goals and processes, while the control group used this time for general discussion of the concept. The study found that students involved in self-assessment showed significantly larger gains on both a conceptual physics test and on project scores, and that students with low pretest scores showed the largest gain on all of the outcome measures. Another analysis of formal and informal self-evaluation processes concluded that an integrated practice of self-assessment led students to assume greater responsibility for their own learning. (2008, p. 3)

Are skills learned through inquiry useful for life beyond the classroom?

The inquiry cycle promotes students’ development of skills in both independent and collaborative planning and decision-making. Inquiry also promotes learning how to learn, self-assessment, self-management, and reflecting at every stage. These are important skills for success in the workplace and life.

In the four stages of inquiry as described by Harvey and Daniels (2015), sometimes students have difficulty getting going or finding their first several reliable sources. However, if they are passionate about their topic, it is more likely the case that they will have difficulty moving past the “investigation” stage into the “coalescing” or “going public” stages because they are so immersed in the exploring and discovering (p. 81). Teachers and teacher-librarians can help teach students to be self-aware and manage their process and progress.

Kuhlthau's model ISP.jpg

Carol Kuhlthau developed the Information Search Process (ISP), which was revolutionary because of its consideration of the thoughts and feelings, and not just the actions, of the information seeker. This provides for a clear foundation for understanding one’s experience while researching during inquiry: 

Even when they begin with great enthusiasm and initial success, many [information seekers] become confused and uncertain as to how to proceed after a short period of time … Rather than a steady increase in confidence from the beginning of a search to the conclusion, as might be expected, a dip in confidence is commonly experienced once an individual has initiated a search and begins to encounter conflicting and inconsistent information.  A person “in the dip” is increasingly uncertain and confused until a focus is formed to provide a path for seeking meaning and criteria for judging relevance.” (Kuhlthau, 2017, para. 33-34)

Students can be taught about the ISP and how to handle this uncertainty and confusion by using their research skills to press through to find a focus. This is so important because “[o]nce students learn this process they can adapt to a wide range of information-laden tasks in life” (Kuhlthau, Maniotes, & Caspari, 2007, p. 17).

But what about assessment?

Inquiry-based learning and the inquiry cycle also encourage assessments that are informative to teachers, students, and the learning process, since the process as well as the product are assessed (Branch, 2004, p. 103). To put it a different way, it is important to assess how learning is occurring as well as what is being learned (p. 102). In fact, “[m]any of the outcomes in an inquiry-based learning activity will be skill and attitude outcomes rather than knowledge” (Branch, 2004, p. 104). Similarly, Barron and Darling-Hammond reviewed research on inquiry-based and cooperative learning and concluded:

Research suggests that inquiry-based learning demands thoughtfully structured performance assessments, both to define the tasks students are engaged in and to properly evaluate what has been learned. Good performance assessments are complex intellectual, physical, and social challenges. They stretch students’ thinking and planning abilities, while also allowing student aptitudes and interests to serve as a springboard for developing competence. (2008, p. 3).

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During inquiry, the overall process and the skills it requires are important for learning and are thus assessed. Students reflect on each stage and skills are taught, reinforced, and assessed along the way. The process is important.

Assessment of, for, and as learning is important throughout the inquiry process. Rubrics checklists are especially useful and collaborating with students to create the assessment criteria to define what is sufficient, proficient or exemplary increases their awareness and understanding of the criteria.

Formative assessment, with all of its impressive potential for learning gains (see research and recommendations here from Galileo Educational Network for research and recommendations for assessment), is a perfect fit when embedded in the inquiry cycle. 

Where does this come from? References and Resources

Alberta Education. (2010). Inspiring education: A dialogue with Albertans. Retrieved from

Alberta Learning. (2004). Focus on inquiry: A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning. Edmonton, AB: Author. Retrieved from

Barron, B. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008, October 8). Powerful learning: Studies show deep understanding derives from collaborative methods. Retrieved from 

Barron, B. and Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Teaching for meaningful learning: A review of research on inquiry-based and cooperative learning. In L. Darling-Hammond, B. Barron, P. D. Pearson, A. H. Schoenfeld, E. K. Stage, T. D. Zimmerman, G. N. Cervetti, and J. Tilson, Powerful learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from 

BCTLA Info Lit Task Force. (2011). The points of inquiry: A framework for information literacy and the 21st century learner. British Columbia Teacher-Librarians' Association. Retrieved from

Branch, J. (2004). Understanding and assessing inquiry based learning. In S. LaMarca & M. Manning (Eds.), Reality bytes: Information literacy for independent learning (pp. 99-113). Carlton, Australia: School Library Association of Victoria.

Calgary Board of Education. (2016). Calgary Board of Education three-year education plan 2016-19. Calgary, AB: Author. Retrieved from 


Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2015). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles for curiosity, engagement, and understanding, Revised ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Kuhlthau, C. (2017). Information Search Process. Retrieved from 


Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K., & Caspari, A. K. (2007).  The theory and research basis for guided inquiry. In Guided inquiry: Learning in the 21st century (pp. 13-28). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Mackenzie, T., & Bathurst-Hunt, R. (2016). Dive into Inquiry [images]. Retrieved from

Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. (2010). Renewed curricula: Understanding outcomes. Retrieved from 

Opening Quotation Reference: Parker, D. as quoted in

Halbert, J. & Kaser, L. (2015). Spirals of inquiry: For equity and quality. Vancouver, BC: BC Principals' & Vice-Principals' Association.

Meme images created with 

All images are Creative Commons and available for reuse without attribution required, unless otherwise cited.

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