“Inquiry” has been a central goal of science education for decades and is the hallmark for current science education reform efforts (Quigley ,Marshall, Deaton & Cook, 2011; Abd-el-Khalick et al. 2004; Bell, Smetana, & Binns, 2005). According to Abd-el-Khalick (2004, p. 398) “good science teaching and learning has come to be distinctly and increasingly associated with the term inquiry.” However, educators, practitioners and researchers recognise there are many challenges to authentic inquiry teaching. Effective inquiry-based learning requires a team of professionals to design implement and assess student learning (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari , 2007). One solution to help meet this challenge within a school context is collaboration, particularly between a teacher and teacher-librarian with a common vision.

Contained within current research, (Donham, 2010; Abd-el-Khalick et al., 2004; Zion et al. 2007) is much discussion and debate as to what authentic inquiry learning constitutes and how one would recognise it in a classroom. Part of the confusion stems from the broad spectrum of activities that can be interpreted as inquiry based. These can range from structured and guided inquiry (teacher directed) to open inquiry (student directed). The degree of complexity in an inquiry activity also varies, depending on the level of openness and the cognitive demands required. Rezba, Auldridge, and Rhea, (as cited in Bell et al. 2005, p.33) provide a succinct example of the different levels of inquiry that can be experienced within a science classroom in Table 1.

Figure 3. Levels of inquiry in an effervescent antacid tablet activity. Reprinted with permission from Rezba, Auldridge, and Rhea (1999).


Description and examples


Confirmation—Students confirm a principle through an activity in which the results are known in advance.
“In this investigation you will confirm that the rate of a chemical reaction increases as the temperature of the reacting materials increases. You will use effervescent antacid tablets to verify this principle. Using the following procedure, record the results as indicated, and answer the questions at the end of the activity.”


Structured inquiry—Students investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure.
“In this investigation you will determine the relationship between temperature and the reaction rate of effervescent antacid tablets and water. You will use effervescent antacid tablets and water of varying temperatures. Using the following procedure, record the results as indicated, and answer the questions at the end of the activity.”


Guided inquiry—Students investigate a teacher-presented question using student designed/selected procedures.
“Design an investigation to answer the question: What effect will water temperature have on the rate at which an effervescent antacid tablet will react? Develop each component of the investigation including a hypothesis, procedures, data analysis, and conclusions. Implement your procedure only when it has been approved by your teacher.”


Open inquiry—Students investigate topic-related questions that are student formulated through student designed/selected procedures.
“Design an investigation to explore and research a chemistry topic related to the concepts we have been studying during the current unit on chemical reactions. Implement your procedure only when it has been approved by your teacher.”

Table 1: Levels of Inquiry (Bell et al. 2005, p.33)

Inquiry learning has also become confused with tasks that are merely ‘fact finding’. Gordon (1999) (as cited in Donham 2008, p.1) characterized this problem as “no-inquiry-learning” and stated that reporting has masqueraded as researching for so long that the terms are used interchangeably. However, Inquiry as defined by Kuhlthau et al.(2007,2) is an;

“Approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem or issue. It espouses investigation, exploration, search, quest, research, pursuit and study. It challenges students to connect their world to the curriculum.”

There are many parallels between Kuhlthau’s definition of inquiry and the description from the National Research Council 2000 (as cited in Quigley 2011, p.55) when it sets out the essential features of what the learner will do when inquiring within a scientific framework, including:

  • Engaging with a scientific question,
  • Participating in design of procedures
  • Giving priority to evidence
  • Formulating explanations
  • Connecting explanations to scientific knowledge, and,
  • Communicating and justifying explanations

It is obvious why science educators claim inquiry as essential to their curriculum, the concern amongst researchers however is that most teachers lack a practical framework of inquiry to inform their instruction ( Bell et al. 2005, 30). Research has consistently indicated that what is enacted in classrooms is mostly incommensurate with visions of inquiry put forth in reform documents, ; (Abd-el-Khalick et al., 2004, 398)and teacher understanding of inquiry, including its many pedagogical and curricular nuances, is still problematic (Quigley et al. 2011,55).

The indications here for me as a future teacher-librarian are many. The most important role for me in the inquiry learning process is to be a catalyst for change. To realise that change is a process that takes time and persistence (Olson and Loucks-Horsley, 2000, 157)and that teachers need to be supported through this process both on both an organizational and individual level. Authentic inquiry is an innovation in most classrooms and fortunately, an extensive body of knowledge is available in the form of research papers, books , video clips and kits that provide instructional guides, resources and personal vignettes about both the benefits of inquiry learning and how to introduce it in science classrooms.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., BouJaoude, S., Duschl, R., Lederman, N. G., Mamlok-Naaman, R.,

Hofstein, A., Niaz, M., Treagust, D. and Tuan, H.-l. (2004), Inquiry in scence education: International perspectives. Sci. Ed., 88: 397–419. Retrieved August 12, 2012 from

Bell, R., Smetana, L.,Binns, I. (2005)Simplifying Inquiry Instruction. The Science Teacher. 72 (7) Retrieved August              15, 2012 from

Donham, J (2010) Deep Learning Through Concept- Based Inquiry. School Library Monthly 27 (1) Retrieved                 September 5, 2012 from

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L. And Caspari, A. (2007) Guided Inquiry: learning in the 21st century school. Westport: Greenwood

Olson, S and Loucks-Horsley, S . (Ed.) (2008) Inquiry and the National Science Education

Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning; Committee on the Development of an Addendum to the National Science Education Standards on Scientific Inquiry; National Research Council. Retrieved September2, 2012 from

Quigley, C. , Marshall, J.Deaton, C.Cook, M, & Padilla, M.(2011) Challenges to

Inquiry Teaching and Suggestions for How to Meet Them Science Educator; 20 (1) 55-61 Retrieved August 12, 2012 from 


2 responses »

  1. Wow Jacqui! You have highlighted some very important points with regard to the complexity and controversy surrounding IBL. I agree it is going to take some time and persistence on our part. Another challenge is trying to guide students through the IL process, especially when they have never truly expereinced it before. Many times I have seen students waiting for further direction from the teacher, they expect it, and prefer it.

  2. Pingback: RECOMMENDATIONS « Learning by Inquiring

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