Guided Inquiry

What is Inquiry?
My Research
Key Competencies












Guided Inquiry

Our ultimate aim should be to have students independently carrying out their inquiry from start to finish. However young students and those new to inquiry simply do not have the information literacy or other skills necessary for completely independent inquiry. Scaffolding students and working within their "zone of proximal development" (Vygotsky 1978) are important if students are to successfully develop the skills they need for independent inquiry. Eventually students would have sufficient skills to complete independent inquiries.

Shared Guided and Independent Inquiry

So what is the answer to this?  Learning Experiences can be initiated by either students or teachers, or in some cases a combination of both. Herron's Four Levels of Inquiry provides an excellent model of how this can be carried out.  I like the way this model talks about the levels of inquiry and have made a few modifications to this model to come up with my own version. Barbara Reid clarified this further for me by referring to Shared, Guided and Independent Inquiry. We use this model when teaching reading and written language, why not inquiry?

In a guided inquiry for instance the teacher may, based on the concepts, strategies etc. they wish students to understand and develop, present an activity, display thought-provoking photos or provide some other motivation and then, when discussion ensues, guide the students to develop a rich question arising from that discussion. Because the teacher has provided the initial motivation they will have already been able to provide some suitable resources. Students will of course also be able to find some of their own resources in addition to those supplied by the teacher, but they will have a good resource base to start from. 

Students often need some background in the topic before they can frame a rich question. I have often started with a teacher guided inquiry then branched off onto a more student-directed inquiry which arose from that topic. For example, we were talking about Antarctica and the discussion, guided by me, got round to what there is to do and see in Antarctica. The students investigated this and came up with their ideas on what a tourist visiting Antarctica should go and see. While doing this some students started to have doubts about whether tourists should be allowed to go to Antarctica at all and this led into a separate inquiry topic of which they had full ownership. For more on student ownership of inquiry see the Authenticity page.

In order to guide the inquiry teachers need to be really clear on the purpose of the inquiry. This should be related to the Curriculum and more specifically to their own school curriculum based on the needs and interests of the students and their community. Having a clear purpose will mean teachers can allow for student agency while keeping the inquiry on track to achieve the purpose.

Guided Web Searches

Setting students, especially younger children, loose to search in the books and on the internet before they have the necessary information literacy skills to do this effectively would result in a lot of surfing and not a lot of results. They are also going to waste a lot of time on sites that are not suitable for their age, reading skills and/or developmental level. Safe searching is another issue that needs to be addressed.

Many studies have highlighted the difficulties students have locating, sorting and sifting information from the internet and then applying it to the task (Fidel et al., 1999; Wallace, Kupperman, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2000; Watson, 1998). Salomon & Almog (1998) for example, talk about the ‘butterfly defect’ noting how internet users flit from one page to another. Hirsch (1999) believes that students have trouble finding information that is not an exact fit with the question because they are in Piaget's concrete operational stage.

All this means that as teachers we need to provide guidance for students to enable safe and successful searching. As one of the teachers I interviewed for my research put it:

I believe that for young students we need to provide a combination of filtered internet and teaching of internet safety skills and search strategies. I also like to provide students with weblinks to suitable sites via a Google site, Weebly or blog and use a data projector or large screen tv to model searching strategies. As students' skills develop I gradually withdraw the scaffolding to allow them to develop their independent search skills.

Further Reading

Guided Inquiry: School Libraries in the 21st Century -  Carol Kuhlthau

Carol Kuhlthau and Ross Todd outline six characteristics of guided inquiry. (Word doc)


Fidel, R., Davies, R. Douglass, M., Holder J., Hopkins, C. & Kushner E. et al (1999). A visit to the information mall: Web-searching behavior of high school students.  Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 50(1): p. 24-37.

Salomon, G. & Almog,  T.(1998). Educational psychology and technology: A matter of reciprocal relations. Teachers College Record, 100(2), p. 222-242.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes.

Wallace, R.,  Kupperman, J. Krajcik, J. & Soloway, E. (2000). Science on the Web: Students Online in a Sixth-Grade Classroom. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9(1), p. 75-104. 

Watson (1998). 'If You Don't Have It, You Can't Find It.' A Close Look at Students' Perceptions of Using Technology. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 49(11), p. 1024-1036.


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