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Inquiry Learning: Hassles, Problems and Issues.

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Started by Trevor Bond 09 Jun 2011 9:22am () Replies (24)

Let's get real, this thing called 'inquiry learning' is full of challenging issues. here is a place to put those issues out into the open and for people to share their thoughts, ideas, suggestions and solutions.

What are the issues and challenges you have faced or are facing?

What solutions have you tried, and how did it go?

what ideas and thoughts can you offer those who are facing challenges as they implement inquiry in their classrooms?


  • Anne Sturgess (View all users posts) 09 Jun 2011 11:33am ()

    Great idea Trevor. My suggestions are: 1. use a simple inquiry cycle, 2. start with what the learner wants to learn about and/or to do (collaborative groups work well), 3. help the learner develop an open question they REALLY want an answer to (and don't know already. Good questions breed the desire to know the answers), 4. plan/co-construct the inquiry learning programme around this (include process, timeframes, resources, mentor/s, how we'll present what we've learnt to others), 5. get the inquiry underway as soon as possible, 6. review progress regularly & adapt the plan accordingly, 7. ask the learner to visualise what they will see/feel/hear/do when they have achieved their inquiry goal (I've found it important not to do this too early in the process - seems best to do this when they're flagging), 8. inspire, cajole, support, teach skills (just-in-time learning, e.g. CAMPER for the Internet = critical analysis), make suggestions (but not too many), praise, advise - all the things that teachers do..., 9. Complete - Review the process - Evaluate - Present - Celebrate!

    "Too often we give our children anwers to remember rather than problems to solve" - Roger Lewin

    I operate my secondary classes along Inquiry/Action Learning lines and use the Autonomous Learner Model (Betts & Kercher) as a framework for this - start with small inquiries (but follow the inquiry process) and move throughout the year towards In-Depth Studies that make a contribution to society (check out www.teaowhanui.weebly.com). The challenges for me are; being very clear about the purpose and the process to begin with, providing templates for planning, reflecting, reviewing, evaluating (but encouraging learners to adapt these to meet their own needs), being available & prepared for the just-in-time learning or pointing them in the right direction (e.g. ICT tools, other students, mentors, etc), and making sure they own the question, process and the presentation. It's an incredibly busy, but satisfying, way to teach and the learning outcomes have meaning. Another suggestion I have is to have designated 'Self-directed Inquiry Time' and 'Teacher-directed Time' - it doesn't mean inquiry is restricted to these times or that the 'Teacher time' must be used in this way; it's more like a promise to the students that I won't break into their self-directed time without good reason and/or considerable warning, thereby allowing students to be 'in flow'). By the way, there is no disadvantage in terms of NCEA results for these students; if anything, they achieve at higher levels.

  • Trevor Bond (View all users posts) 09 Jun 2011 3:35pm ()

    That’s an awesome first post Anne! Thanks for starting this with something meaty.

    It is wonderful to see this approach being used at secondary level and to hear the attestation that it is having a positive benefit in terms of NCEA results.

    I totally agree with you in terms of collaborative inquiry, I think that knowledge is formed in the space between the ears but understanding is formed in the space between people, and as a result have long been strong on promoting collaborative inquiry.

    Could you outline in a bit more detail your 'Self-directed Inquiry Time' and 'Teacher-directed Time'?

  • Kate Morgan (View all users posts) 09 Jun 2011 6:02pm ()

    Hi there,

    I am excited about these posts. This is going to be an awesome group. The main challenge for me (teaching 5 and 6 year olds), is that when I ask the children what they want to learn about, the more indepth we get, the same old question ALWAYS arises! "How exactly was the world made and how was the first person made?". Because of religious views versus evolution, this is always a controversial issue! I had thought about the children inquiring into the myths and legends of different cultures(looking at others perspectives and ideas.Do you have any other ideas on how to tackle this one? Even if our inquiry seems to be unrelated to the creation of the world, with my top-end kids, this question always seems to come up at some stage (sometimes near the beginning and sometimes as a final question). For example, our children who got heavily into learning about the kiwi and saving them still wanted to know "How EXACTLY did the first kiwi get made?".

    Any help with this would be much appreciated.

  • Trevor Bond (View all users posts) 09 Jun 2011 7:26pm ()

    I look forward to reading other responses to this question, here are two starter ideas:

    1: Have a "wondering wall" where the difficult, the unanswerable, the irrelevant questions go. These are the questiions that students can pursue in their own time.

    2: Perhaps even create a display section called unanswerable questions. Have your students create their own criteria for what an unanswerable question may be, and then as these difficult questions arise they can be defused somewhat by having a discussion around our criteria as to the answerability of the questions and then classified and added to the list.


  • Anne Sturgess (View all users posts) 10 Jun 2011 8:19am ()

    A rose by any other name... negotiation, co-construction, differentiation...

    I'm happy to provide some 'tip of the iceberg' information about teacher/self-directed learning.

    The idea of teachers and students negotiating (or co-constructing) learning programmes is not new. At least as early as the 1980s, researchers in gifted and special education have proposed models for differentiation.

    The following framework for negotiating levels of learning and engagement was developed by Donald Treffinger:


    The teacher sets activities for students to carry out & controls the working time, location, end product, and evaluation criteria.

     Student-Directed 1:

    The teacher creates learning activities or project alternatives (e.g. learning centres) from which students make a selection.

     Student-Directed 2:

    Students are more actively involved in creating choices and making decisions about their learning activities, goals, and evaluation.

    Student-Directed 3:

    Students are able to create the choices, select their own learning activities, decide when and where they will work on the project, and evaluate their own progress.


    Students naturally differ in their abilities and experience in directing their own learning. Therefore, the teacher must determine the level of self-directedness for which a student is ready.

    Teachers can differentiate learning activities by taking into account the degree of student input, choice, and self-assessment required when planning programmes. Programmes should also be negotiated in terms of Pace/Level/Content, Procedure/Process, and Product/Outcome (Joyce van Tassel-Baska)

  • Chrissie Butler (View all users posts) 10 Jun 2011 10:50am ()

    Anne, I wonder if we can plunder some of your first-hand stories to illustrate teacher-directed/student 1/2/3. Maybe one's that would give those starting out a picture of how to initiate working in this way with students and also an example that has made a significnat contribution to the community.

  • Trevor Bond (View all users posts) 10 Jun 2011 9:51am ()

    Thanks Anne, Donald's structure is not that dissimiliar to what I often suggest schools implement.

    Teacher Directed: Start with highly engaging teacher directed tasks, which contain choice options.

    Negotiated: There are two types of negotiated tasks involved here. The first is where students have become highly engaged with the teacher set task but have a particular line or aspect they want to pursue. The expectation is that there would then be a negotiated deviation from the teacher's original intent and a task variation is negotiated and implemented. The second is where a student, or group of students, negotiate a task with teacher right from the start.

    There is the third level of student's independently carrying out their own learning. However this tends to be learning that they do outside of the school environment and school hours. I think that, in reality, there will always be a level of negotiation involved in any school based activity. The powerful and exciting outcome though is when we see students applying the skills and strategies they have acquired into their own learning outside the school gate.

  • Chrissie Butler (View all users posts) 10 Jun 2011 10:58am ()

    Hi Trevor, have you been employing an inquiry approach across the curriculum or in specific subject/learning areas? I wonder if you might be able to share a few stories too. Cheers

  • Trevor Bond (View all users posts) 14 Jun 2011 9:53pm ()

    Hi Chrissie. In primary schools the inquiry activities are usually cross curriculum in nature, though occaisionally units may target just one curiculum area.

    When working with high schools most inquiry units are pinned to one particular subject area. but again this is not a steadfast rule. Some high schools I have worked with have been attempting inquiry units that cross two subject areas especially with year 9 and 10 students. It works, but there are often fairly complex infrastructural issues to work through with timetabling etc. For students in years 11 and above most inquiry units have targetted specific subject areas as convert existing NCEA units to worked through under an inquiry based approach.

  • Kate Morgan (View all users posts) 24 Jun 2011 9:30pm ()

    Does anyone have any great ICT tools that students have used throughout their inquiries?  The inquiry team is made up of 6,7and 8 year olds. I would like some good ideas for different stages of the inquiry process and also for recording the process using ICT. I find our wiki a little 'bitsy'.

    Our inquiry team are running their own business next week (a restaurant)and after much discussion, have decided  to raise funds for winter emergency packs for our school in Christchurch (earthquakes in mind!)  As the children said "It is pretty miserable standing out in the rain with no shelter and no food and waiting for your parents to come". We hope to come up with a handy solution. Some of the suggestions from experts have been large rubbish bins filled with blankets, tarps, barley sugars etc OR backpacks filled with supplies for each class. Any ideas that you have would be much appreciated by the students and I.Laughing

  • Ben Laybourn (View all users posts) 31 Aug 2011 9:55pm ()

    Our college has put our yr 9 and 10 students into homerooms and we are endeavouring to use inquiry in a similar manner to this model,  just wondering if any one has any experience with inquiry at this level of schooling or any advice?  

  • Trevor Bond (View all users posts) 02 Sep 2011 8:36pm ()

    I have done some work with a number of highschools, particularly targetting year 9 and 10 students, where we have introduced an inquiry based approach. It is initially teacher directed and adapts existing NCEA units. The models we have used vary slightly but generally there is a strong focus on the setting of a problem, (teacher) and with students working through a process that includes the following broad steps:

     identifying relevant prior knowledge,

    identifying relevant contextual vocabulary,

    identifying information needs,

    establishing research questions,

    finding the answers,

    applying and using the information to solve the problem,

    sharing the outcomes, decisions and justifications

    evaluating the process and learning.


    It has been a very succesful approach, but teachers do need professional support as they go into it.

    I hope this helps. You can contact me on tbond@clear.net.nz if you want to discuss this further.

  • Diane Mills (View all users posts) 02 Sep 2011 11:59am ()

    My advice would be to dive in and begin.  Of course that does require planning up front.  What will be your approach – cross-curricular or single subject?  Will your topic/theme be teacher or student directed?  Will your interventions or review points be the same for all students or differentiated?  What model of inquiry cycle will you use – structured or loose?  What will happen at the end – formative assessment, summative assessment, opportunities to share, self-reflection and next steps?

    Of course everyone involved in the project needs to have the same understanding, so planning is crucial and will need to be co-constructed with staff and students.  I would start out in a formal structured way the first time around – it is easier to loosen up, but more difficult to pull things back together if you seem to be heading off track.

    For a more structured model you could try STEPS, which stands for Set Scene, Target, Explore, Present, So What.  For further information on inquiry itself try the Galileo site Good examples of questioning techniques can be found on Yoram Harpaz and Adam Lefstein’s  Communities of Thinking or Jamie McKenzie’s From Now On site.

    There is no one right way to do this and you will develop something that fits your particular school and community with probably a few revisions along the way to get a better fit, so my advice is to dive right in and begin the process.

  • Michael Fawcett (View all users posts) 03 Apr 2012 3:32pm ()

    It seems like this group has been asleep for a while.  We're continuing our inquiry focus at school, looking specifically at assessment.  We have a very data driven school curriculum and it is proving difficult to come up with "hard" data to meet management requirements and yet retain the authenticity of student driven inquiry.

  • Trevor Bond (View all users posts) 03 Apr 2012 4:05pm ()

    Hi Michael,

    assessment of inquiry has been a perplexing issue for many schools.

    There are two general approaches that I see in place.

    Firstly an approach where schools aim to assess content learned through the inquiry. 

    Secondly an approach that targets assessment towards the key skills the schools want the students to develop through inquiry. 

    The second approach is the one that I have done the most work with schools on, and we generally tie it back to the competencies. This requires the school to have clearly stated goals, specific skills identified and then a means to assess those skills and track them over time.

    I could share more on this approach if you are interested, perhaps thare are also other ideas out there that group members could also share.



  • Michael Fawcett (View all users posts) 05 Apr 2012 1:00am ()

    Thanks, this has clarified a few issues and we keep saying that it's the process/skills/key comps tha are our learning focus but we are still looking at including curriculum content to show coverage.  We've also been told that content is secondary, though I can't really see how the two can really be separated ... I suppose the separation comes in the assessment focus.  

    Good to get the discussion going. :-)

  • Peter Eaton (View all users posts) 04 Apr 2012 6:33pm ()

    Michael/Trevor - I'm in two minds about this really.  The NZC is pretty relaxed, but still mandates coverage of various curriculum core areas such as the Arts, Science, Technology - often associated with using 'inquiry' to teach.

    I would be concerned if a school measured the 'inquiry skills' without also making sure that they are getting coverage and achievement in the subject area that the inquiry learning is supposed to be in.

    I have been mulling over whether reporting on the inquiry skills is OK, as long as that when children leave school, we know whether they (using overall teacher judgement) are achieving ath the apropriate NZC level.  Each of the science 'strands' is not taught each year, but it is reasonable to expect them to all be covered over the child's time at that school.

    To summarise, if you are using inquiry as a model to teach, you still have to prove that it was effective as a way to teach.  If we can't do that, how can we be sure that it is?  

    (I know that there are other benefits to inquiry and I too value the generic skills, but these can't be instead of delivering to the NZC.  It is too easy to relate these back to Key Competencies and say that the NZC say that teaching Inquiry {capital letter - as in a subject} rather than using inquiry as a way to teach within the NZC is OK).

    Just some ramblings on the subject... Please feel free to ignore - I am far from an expert.  I do get to wear lots of hats which makes my views akward: PRT, Parent, BOT chair, software developer, business owner.... Occasionaly red, blue, black, green....  But never a viking helmet unfortunately!

  • Trevor Bond (View all users posts) 04 Apr 2012 9:07pm ()

    Hi Pete, you raise some very valid points. 

    This approach is not an excuse to provide poor learning experiences within the subject areas like Science, The Arts, Technology, Social Science etc. In the schools I have workied with, we have developed sets of Key Understandings for each of these areas, ensuring that (as stated in the NZ Curriculum) "each strand gets due attention over time". Teachers are expected to use the inquiry based approach to expose the students richly and deeply to the key understandings. Exposure to the key understandings is monitored, over whatever time frme the school sets, to ensure that students have been exposed to the full set of key understandings. Many teachers also do some form of formative assessment to ensure that there is a shift in understanding. 

    You also said "If you are using inquiry as a model to teach, you still have to prove that it was effective as a way to teach.  If we can't do that, how can we be sure that it is? "  I think this is also a key statement. If a school is implementing an inquiry based approach as a method to deliver curriculum then your measure of success will be around curriculum learning and your key assessment should be targeted in that direction. If the school has implemented an inquiry based approach as a means of moving students towards being more capable and effective learners then surely your key assessment should be aimed at identifying progress in the development of the skills and attitudes that the school has identified as being important for a learner. I have concerns about schools that state that they have implemented inquiry as a method to improve students' learning skills, and then do nothing to assess and evaluate if the approach is delivering their claimed underlying goals.  You raise some very important issues that I believe schools should discuss and have clear documentation around within their school curriculum statements.

    What are other schools doing around this?



  • Michael Fawcett (View all users posts) 05 Apr 2012 1:06am ()

    I have spare helmets if you need ;-)


    I think it's important to decide where our assessment focus lies . Which iwe're dour inquiry team is doing this year.  We have a 2 year schedule with very broad themes to ensure curriculum coverage. My hope is that we don't get too bogged down with rigid expectations of learning direction and remove or neuter the engagement and motivation that comes froma genuine student led learning and choice.

  • Michael Fawcett (View all users posts) 05 Apr 2012 1:08am ()

    Excuse my mistypes.these comment boxes are not very iPad friendly.  

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