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What is Inquiry?

Inquiry is a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world. As such, it is a stance that pervades all aspects of life and is essential to the way in which knowledge is created. 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.

Misconception Alert

“Inquiry is not a “method” of doing science, history, or any other subject, in which the obligatory first stage in a fixed, linear sequence is that of students each formulating questions to investigate. Rather, it is an approach to the chosen themes and topics in which the posing of real questions is positively encouraged, whenever they occur and by whoever they are asked. Equally important as the hallmark of an inquiry approach is that all tentative answers are taken seriously and are investigated as rigorously as the circumstances permit.”(1)

Inquiry is a study into a worthy question, issue, problem or idea. It is the authentic, real work that that someone in the community might tackle. It is the type of work that those working in the disciplines actually undertake to create or build knowledge. Therefore, inquiry involves serious engagement and investigation and the active creation and testing of new knowledge.

There are several dimensions of inquiry:


  • The inquiry study emanates from a question, problem or exploration that has meaning to the students.
  • An adult at work or in the community might actually tackle the question, problem, issue or exploration posed by the task/s.
  • The inquiry study originates with an issue, problem, question, exploration or topic that provides opportunities to create or produce something that contributes to the world’s knowledge.
  • The task/s require/s a variety of roles or perspectives.

Academic Rigour

  • The inquiry study leads students to build knowledge that leads to deep understanding.
  • Students are provided with multiple, flexible ways to approach the problem, issue or question under study that use methods of inquiry central to the disciplines that underpin the problem, issue or question.
  • The inquiry study encourages students to develop habits of mind that encourage them to ask questions of
    • evidence (how do we know what we know?)
    • viewpoint (who is speaking?)
    • pattern and connection (what causes what?)
    • supposition (how might things have been different?)
    • why it matters (who cares)


  • On-going assessment is woven into the design of the inquiry study providing timely descriptive feedback and utilizes a range of methods, including peer and self evaluation. Assessment guides student learning and teacher’s instructional planning.
  • The study provides opportunities for students to reflect on their learning using clear criteria that they helped to set. The students use these reflections to set learning goals, establish next steps and develop effective learning strategies.
  • Teachers, peers, adults from outside the classroom and the student are involved in the assessment of the work.

Beyond The School

  • The study requires students to address a semi-structured question, issue or problem, relevant to curriculum outcomes, but grounded in the life and work beyond the school.
  • The study requires students to develop organizational and self management skills in order to complete the study.
  • The study leads students to acquire and use competencies expected in high performance work organizations (eg. team work, problem solving, communications, decision making and project management).

Use of Digital Technologies

  • Technology is used in a purposeful manner that demonstrates an appreciation of new ways of thinking and doing. The technology is essential in accomplishing the task.
  • The study requires students to determine which technologies are most appropriate to the task.
  • The study requires students to conduct research, share information, make decisions, solve problems, create meaning and communicate with various audiences inside and outside the classroom.
  • The study makes excellent use digital resources.
  • Students and parents have on-going, online access to the study as it develops.
  • The study requires sophisticated use of multimedia/hypermedia software, video, conferencing, simulation, databases, programming, etc.

Active Exploration

  • The study requires students to spend significant amounts of time doing field work, design work, labs, interviews, studio work, construction, etc.
  • The study requires students to engage in real, authentic investigations using a variety of media, methods and sources.
  • The study requires students to communicate what they are learning with a variety of audiences through presentation, exhibition, website, wiki, blog, etc.

Connecting With Expertise

  • The study requires students to observe and interact with adults with relevant expertise and experience in a variety of situations.
  • The study requires students to work closely with and get to know at least one adult other than their teacher.
  • The tasks are designed in collaboration with expertise, either directly or indirectly. The inquiry requires adults to collaborate with one another and with students on the design and assessment of the inquiry work.

Elaborated Communication

  • Students have extended opportunities to support, challenge, and respond to each other’s ideas as they negotiate a collective understanding of relevant concepts. Students have opportunities to negotiate the flow of conversation within small and large group discussions.
  • Students have opportunities to choose forms of expression to express their understanding.
  • The inquiry provides opportunities for students to communicate what they are learning with a variety of audiences.

These are taken from the Inquiry Rubric

Misconception Alert

“Inquiry is not to be thought of in terms of isolated projects, undertaken occasionally on an individual basis as part of a traditional transmissionary pedagogy. Nor is it a method to be implemented according to a preformulated script.”(1)

There is a difference between Projects as conventionally understood in education circles and Project-based Learning that fosters inquiry. When using projects within inquiry it is important to note the differences.

ProjectProject-based Learning
loose set of activitiesinquiry-based
supplements the curriculumpart of the regular curriculum and instruction
broad assessmentsmaps to specific outcomes
guided by assessment for learning
no management structureuses project management tools

(1) Wells, Gordon (2001). Action, talk & text: Learning & Teaching Through Inquiry. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.