Inquiry learning: Pitfalls and perspectives part #2

In my previous post, I shared the importance of staying open-minded to other perspectives on inquiry learning, particularly the conclusions drawn from research that suggests it is ineffective.  I singled out work on cognitive load theory and on episodic and semantic memory in particular but can, of course, add Hattie’s work on the low “ effect size” of inquiry learning. To reiterate, these posts are not about defending inquiry nor critiquing the research itself – there is plenty of that out there! Rather I am sharing the benefits I receive from approaching criticism with curiosity and asking myself: what can I learn here?   

 In this and the next post, I will share some lessons we can learn from those who argue the case against inquiry learning. 

 1.    Engagement does not necessarily mean learning. 

I know this is not a new idea. But it is worth us reminding ourselves that it IS easy to mistake the delight, connection and interest so beautifully generated by inquiry for learning itself. The compelling nature of inquiry is both a strength - and a challenge.  We’ve all been guilty of designing fabulous, hands-on investigative experiences that lead to little more than a fond memory.  The lesson for us is not to forgo the engaging tasks - far from it - but to remain keenly aware of the conceptual understandings and skills the task should be helping the learner develop.  If we are evaluating the merit of tasks simply on whether “the kids loved it” (which I hear all too often) we deserve the criticism!  Inquiry IS engaging and engagement is the first step towards learning, but it is insufficient in itself. 

2.    Beware the trap of style over substance

Related to the issue of engagement, we inquiry teachers are known for our elaborate “provocations” (a term with problematic use) designed to cultivate curiosity, stir up emotions and deliberately raise questions. I have facilitated many myself.  However, such experiences run the risk of being memorable but not for the reason we hoped.  It is argued that our memory of compelling experiences can be more ‘episodic’ than semantic and, therefore, they fail to contribute to deeper, conceptual learning.  We can certainly activate interest in a new inquiry through a provocative experience BUT the relationship between the experience and the conceptual understandings we are working towards can be easily lost or overlooked. Worse still, the experience may be more distracting than helpful. 

 I remember many years ago, beginning an inquiry into how we use the earth’s natural resources with an activity that required children to ‘mine’ chocolate chips from a cookie while trying to keep the cookie itself intact. The children certainly remembered it.  I understood the connection – but did they?  When reflecting on their learning later in the unit, they failed to make any connection with the concept of sustainability that supposedly underpinned the inquiry! They talked a lot about the ‘cool cookie activity’ but made no real links to the focus of the unit (I imagine some of them might to this day refer to it as ‘the cookie unit’).  The way I framed the task meant it was more distracting than helpful. The medium outstripped the message. Launching an inquiry journey this way is well intentioned and can be a powerful way to motivate and activate curiosity (the research on curiosity would suggest it is really important to do so) but the purpose and link to the big ideas being explored needs to be clear. Re-visiting the thinking generated by the experience over the course of an inquiry means it is more likely to shift learning from shallow to deep.

3.    background knowledge helps us inquire into new things. You don’t know what you don’t know.

A persistent theme in the discourse against inquiry is that teachers neglect the importance of background knowledge necessary for successful independent investigation.  As the saying goes “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  Somewhat ironically, this actually informed the development of my cycle of inquiry many years ago. The ‘Finding out and sorting out’ phases of the process are most often collective/shared experiences where  (particularly older) learners are investigating something together in order to then figure out what needs to be more specifically inquired into by individuals or small groups (‘going further’). The point of difference for me is that ‘building background knowledge’ can still be done in a more inquiry based way rather than the often suggested: “teacher tells - then students inquire.”  Before learners construct questions for further investigation, taking time to pause and establish tentative conclusions as result of our shared inquiry ensures a much stronger base from which to move into new investigations.  This also helps explain why we can become frustrated with the quality of learners’ questions – we may simply be inviting them too early in the process, particularly when the inquiry is taking learners into quite new, challenging territory. 

 4.    Prior knowledge has a significant impact on the effectiveness of new learning 

Coupled with the challenge that inquiry fails to acknowledge the importance of background knowledge is the claim that it does not help students gain depth of understanding. This criticism can help us improve a part of the process good inquiry teachers already use. We just need to do it better. 

 One of the staple strategies of the inquiry teacher is, in fact, to deliberately activate prior knowledge in order to facilitate new learning (cue ‘brainstorm’/KWL chart).  Too often, however, strategies designed to activate the ‘known’ are superficial and lack explicit attention by both teachers and learners. Tuning- in or ‘activating prior knowledge’ is seen as a step in a recipe rather than an important way to manage cognitive load. Information in long term memory is stored in ‘schema’ which help us organise and accommodate new information Filling in a ‘KWL’ chart, for example, may do very  little to help integrate new and existing knowledge. And learners are not even aware that this prior knowledge is being activated! Simply asking learners to vaguely list things they know keeps the learning shallow and is only a vague nod to the activation of existing schema.

To support the learner in moving from shallow to deep understanding, take time to really tune in (indeed to inquire into) the learners’ current ways of seeing the concept/s you plan to explore more fully.  And make the purpose of this tuning in time explicit to students. Slowing down and spending time on our current ‘working theories’ around a concept prepares the way for new learning.  It lightens the cognitive load by retrieving stored information to allow new connections.  This work also offers important base line data for assessment of progress over time. By taking time to engage with learner’s ways of seeing something (listening and observing, analysing evidence of thinking)  we honour a core principle of inquiry learning which is about truly valuing the learner’s perspective. And to strengthen this even further – we need to keep doing it throughout an inquiry journey.  Routines such as Ritchhart’s ‘I use to think but now I think’ are ideal for this purpose.  

5.     ‘If you don't know where you're going, you might wind up someplace else’ (Williams, 2016) 

There remains a common misconception that ‘knowing where we are headed’ is anathema to inquiry and this leads to understandable criticism.  Any teacher who has planned with me will attest to my obsession with clarifying ‘conceptual understanding goals’ - the overarching conceptual understandings we want students to deepen as a through the inquiry. Understanding goals act as vital anchors for teacher decision making about resources, task design and assessment.  When big ideas are shared and indeed constructed with learners (at some point – not always straight away) we also ease unnecessary cognitive load andstrengthen learner agency. Lack of clarity about the big ideas underpinning learning, it is like giving learners a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the lid of the box. Clear conceptual understandings allow for connections to be made across learning areas and lift the quality of questions/prompts teachers use as they work with learners.  Explicitly sharing these big ideas with the learners as an inquiry unfolds further aids robust, long term memory. The clearer we are about where we are headed, the more successfully we can use children’s interests and questions to help forge the learning path. 

6.    Being asked to learn about too many things at once can mean we learn very little at all

A couple of months ago a spent some time in a senior primary classroom in which children were working on individual inquiries into things they were interested in. The teachers were, of course, extremely well intentioned. Students had choice and their interests were being valued and this was working well for some.  I noticed, however, several of the children were seemed lost and overwhelmed by the opportunity. One boy, for example, was inquiring into in ‘black holes’ and had planned to make an animation to explain what they were and how they worked.  As I talked with him it became obvious that he had spent a long, long time jumping from one random website to another, watching youtube clips and copying down a list of facts – none of which he could really explain to me.   When I asked him about his plans for the animation he was vague: “I haven’t actually done one before but they are so cool.”  Put simply, the choice and autonomy offered to this student were compromising rather than enhancing his learning.  The demand was too great – a challenging topic about which he had no prior knowledge, limited skills in determining relevant information and a means of sharing his ‘learning’ that he had not yet mastered.   He was sent off with too many plates spinning at once – and they were all simultaneously crashing! This student needed more support and feedback early in the negotiating phase.  As inquiry teachers we understand  the importance of choice however, choice without sufficient support can be counter-productive. 

As an inquiry teacher I am as concerned about the how of learning as I am about the what. BUT I need to keep this manageable and accessible to avoid unnecessary split attention and cognitive overload. For me, this means using Guy Claxton’s technique of clear, split screen intentions and keeping those intentions specific, manageable and integrated. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of learning are equal players in the inquiry classroom. If we expect learners to focus on a disposition like ‘resourcefulness’(for example)  then we need to make sure we have designed learning experiences  in a way that do, indeed, require resourcefulness. We also need to be mindful that if the content is unfamiliar to the learner then the processes they might use to access or share their learning should be more familiar.  The learning should stretch across the how and the what – but not to the point where it snaps. 

 7.    Finding things out does not mean we understand Them.

 This one is simple. A reminder that engaging learners in ‘finding out’ is insufficient.  Effective inquiry teachers know that the reading, listening to experts, experimenting, interviewing, viewing, testing…all the ways we go about gathering new information are only a part of the process.  It is the analysis, reflection and transfer that leads to deeper understanding.  This is a common pitfall. It can feel like we are learning when we are encountering new information (especially when it is through a direct experience) but we need to ensure there are ample opportunities for processing these experiences in multiple ways.


Ironically, the length of this post may well have made it difficult for you to manage your own cognitive load – so I’ll stop there!!  Suffice to say, there are at least a dozen more thoughts whirling around my inquiring mind - so I may well come back to this theme in a future post. 

It’s easy (and lazy) to quickly dismiss ideas that conflict with our own - and doing so diminishes us. The central learning for me as an educator remains this..

Stay open. Stay curious. Be comfortable with the tensions and the tangles in all the ‘research’ out there.   If I am truly an inquiry teacher, I can do no less than BE an inquirer and continue to seek understanding as I learn and teach. 

 What have you learned about inquiry from those who argue it is ineffective? 

 Just wondering


Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Teaching for meaningful learning: A review of research on inquiry-based and cooperative learning. Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding (pp. 11-70). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Claxton, G. et al (2011) The Learning Powered School. TLO, Bristol. 

Friesan, S. and Scott, D. (2018) Inquiry Based learning: a review of the research Literature, Paper prepared for the Alberta Ministry of Education June 2013 

Hmelo-Silver, C., Duncan, R., & Chinn, C. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42, 99– 107. 

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. 

Rosenshine, B (2012) Principles of Instruction: what every educator should know. American Educator ( Spring)

Williams, D. (2016)

Hattie (2016) 11 Questions to Professor John Hattie, asked by terachers.



(courtesy of. student who participated in an inquiry workshop at Lansdowne Crescent Primary in Hobart earlier this year)

(courtesy of. student who participated in an inquiry workshop at Lansdowne Crescent Primary in Hobart earlier this year)