If you are looking for the, quintessential overview of Guided Inquiry, look no further.  You should be reading Carol Kuhlthau, Leslie Maniotes, and Ann Caspari’s books on the topic Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century which is awaiting it’s newest edition and deals with the theory and research behind the model, while Guided Inquiry Design looks at a practical approach for implementing the model in your class or school.  What you will read below, assuming that you haven’t simply bee-lined it for the two books mentioned above and aren’t actually reading them right now, is my summary of the model in preparation for a meeting I have with a team at my school who is investigating Guided Inquiry as a key pedagogical practice to be potentially implemented in the coming year(s).  This group will be lucky enough to be travelling to Boston (please, snow, go away…) to tour two schools that have implemented the approach and meet with Leslie Maniotes to guide our discussion and inquiry.  Yes, you are guinea pigs.  Thank you for that!

Guided Inquiry is an approach to inquiry that addresses the problem that we seem to have in education whenever we deal with “research” projects that are often conducted in our school libraries, and more recently, from anywhere with access to a Google search bar.  Traditionally, a teacher gives a research topic to a class, often in the form of a clearly worded thesis statement or research question.  Sometimes, the students are presented with a handful of said statements or questions and the students are required to choose one (this is an attempt to personalize the research experience).  This usually results in a large number of students begrudgingly slogging through the process of answering the same question that, except in the odd case, has no relevance to their lives.  Not to mention how painful it must be for the poor teacher to read class sets of, essentially, the same essay.

Some teachers have recognized that the traditional method doesn’t work.  (I will assume that, as with any method, there are certain situations where this approach might be effective, but generally I don’t think that it is.)  So they attempt to build student autonomy and relevance into the assignment and tell the students that their research topic is much broader.  We then get assignments about “Immigration” or “French Culture” or “Racism.”  But these tend to be so broad as to be overwhelming.  The well-meaning teacher gives free-reign and lets them get to work for three weeks when the assignment is due.  They can present their new knowledge to the class in any way they see fit on any topic within a broad category that interests them.  Yeah!  Student autonomy!  But bring on the procrastination, distraction, and frustration as students flounder in unstructured choice.

Guided Inquiry sits somewhere in between.  It embraces personal relevance of learning in students, but creates structures and formative-assessment systems that scaffold the students along the way.  It is a flexible model that can address our Primary grade initial explorations of the world through to our deep dives into very specific academic topics in a graduation capstone project.  Following are the key elements to this model.

The process of Guided Inquiry design is an eight-phase process.  It starts with the Open, Immerse and Explore phases as ways of opening up thinking around a topic and building the broad, surface understanding that is required before one digs deeper.  These three phases are what I see as perhaps the most powerful aspect of the model.  We often get student research assignments that are chalk full of Wikipedia (or other encyclopedia) references or cut and paste passages out of other sources.  This tells me that the basic, surface understanding of the topic is not yet there.  Students are grappling with the fundamentals rather than being able to go beyond and dig deeper into a subject.  It is no wonder that Schmoop and Sparks Notes are their key sources, because these are the types of sources that are perhaps the best for the kind of information that they are needing at that time.  Open, Immerse, and Explore create the relevance around the subject being studied and allow for the building of a common understanding of the surface concepts that are key to what will come later.

The next three phases are Identify, Gather, and Create.  I love the word Identify.  It is used to create the idea that a student will select a particular question or set of questions that have emerged from the previous three phases.  We have established a mood of curious engagement with the topic that is free from conversations about evaluation or project requirements and it is now that we identify those areas that are of particular interest to pursue.  We then go in to a second phase of research that involves gathering resources around that particular aspect of the topic that we have identified.  It is here that we can start to find genuine source of information that address our deeper inquiry and those sources typically aren’t of the broad nature that topic summary sites and encyclopedia are.  Here we’re gathering primary sources, specific data and higher level academic perspective on topics to try to understand the nuances of a path of inquiry before we focus on creating whatever it is that we need to create to communicate our new understanding back to our learning community.  While the object of create can be prescriptive, as in an essay of a specified length, it can also organically come out of the nature of the inquiry where a video, a game, a graphic or a debate might be more effective at communicate the deeper understanding.

The final phases of the process are Share and Evaluate.  We are familiar with Share.  It often means that the teacher will share their final essay with their teacher who will mark it and hand it back.  But the nature of Guided Inquiry is that we have established a community with a genuine interest and understanding of the broad topic.  At the end of the process, we aim to have a community who are curious about each others’ work and who want to learn more about their topic through the work of their colleagues.  This share experience is not the endless repetition of the same student powerpoints where the prominent discussion is around student behaviour (“keep quiet”, “respect your classmates”), not the subject of the inquiry.  It aims to be an energetic and enthusiastic discussion around a topic by keen learners.  The evaluation process is also more than simply a teacher giving a mark, but it is about students reviewing their own process, and about extrapolating where further research, if time allowed, could go.

A key aspect of Guided Inquiry is the idea of Third Space.  This is defined as the overlapping area, or “sweet-spot” between curricular goals and a students personal experience or life.  It is that space where students find relevance in the curriculum and where curriculum can build on a what students have already learned and find relevant.  In Third Space, students tend to remember and understand better, because they have a reason to and it is there that Guided Inquiry tries to spend as much time as possible.

The Inquiry Community that this model strives to develop is the large group assembled around a unit of study.  Most typically, this would be a class, but could extend beyond traditional brick and mortar rooms.  In our school, our Senior School Social Studies space and Grade 7 community are built around larger potential groupings of students than a single class.  It is possible that an Inquiry Community could be an entire grade.  With connective technology, such as Skype or Google Hangouts, an Inquiry Community need not be confined to a single geographic location.  How powerful would a unit on comparative religion be when the Inquiry Community consisted of a class in Salt Lake City, Amman and Tokyo?

Inquiry Circles are smaller groups that are organized in different ways depending on the phase of the process, but offer opportunities for students to support each other in their quests.  What I love about the concept of these inquiry circles is how they tend to emerge based around the identified areas of learning.  By the time students have identified their specific topic, they are aware of who else in the community share similar interests and circles emerge around these interests.  The inquiry circles can be used as peer-edit groups, research support groups or even as a collaborative group to create a final product.

The key assessment tool in the process are the Inquiry Journals.  These are places where students record absolutely everything about their inquiry, from Open through to Evaluate.  They can be physical diaries or digital blogs and they contain questions, notes, reflections, drawings and anything else related to the process of thinking through their topic.  They provide a way of making thinking visible for the teachers to keep tabs on student progress.  More importantly, they provide a central record for the student to come back and review, codify, and play with their thoughts as they proceed through the process.

Inquiry Logs work alongside the Inquiry Journal and are a log of all resources that a student interacts with through the course of their inquiry.  We are using EasyBib as an Inquiry Log tool and encouraging students to use the annotation feature to record general thoughts about each resource as they go.  The note taking feature could also be used to connect specific notes to each resource.  The power of the Inquiry Log is that a student knows where an idea came from and what resources are worth investigating in the Gather stage when originally used in the Explore phase.

I think that Guided Inquiry will fill an important need in our school’s pedagogical practice.  I see examples of highly scripted research assignments as well as very broad, unscaffolded projects, but very little in between.  We seem to be leaning toward four approaches in Project Based Learning, Direct Instruction, Harkness Discussions and Guided Inquiry.  As I’ve written in the past, I think that Guided Inquiry pairs nicely with Project Based Learning in that PBL focuses more on the end product (the project) while Guided Inquiry focuses more on the inquiry process itself.  They could be used on top of each other or independently with skills being learned in one approach that could be transferred to the other.  I also like the idea (and this is mine, not something that I’ve read in the Guided Inquiry literature) that students can get to a point where their inquiry becomes much less guided as they advance.  I can see an independent capstone project where students have been supported in a Guided Inquiry process over the years and the truly independent inquiry can be successful as students have learned the skills to take ownership of their own learning.

Thank you for being guinea pigs.  While the exact words of my discussion with my group will stray from the script, I think that these are the key concepts that need to be addressed.  I would love feedback from those who are and are not familiar with Guided Inquiry Design.  Have I missed anything key?  Have I glossed over something that needs further explanation?  Have I perhaps beaten a single, less important topic to death?


2 thoughts on “Guided Inquiry – One Overview

  1. Yes…yes…yes. Thank you for examples of how this process can be implemented to guide a student’s own inquiry. I find students benefit when they have a few days/periods to explore a topic and share out what “they think they know/are leaning” before diving into the scenario, product or problem. This also helps students to better identify and evaluate their sources as they share their findings collaboratively at the close of each day. Ensuring closure to each day also helps students and teachers identify mis-steps, myth and misconceptions about a “topic” or content before students go further. How many times have we librarians had to reboot research gone astray when teachers send students to us for more help?

  2. Love your connection to the gradual release of Guided Inquiry, Marc.Our goal in the end is to get students independently using the tools and know how about resources to do this on their own (for college, career and life) A capstone project where they are set free to do so is a perfect opportunity for this. Then feedback on process and product and the inter-relation between the two are meaningful and can really support students to build their own learning style and know what works for them. Most definitely is our ultimate goal. 🙂 Thanks again for such a thoughtful and “right on” reflection on our process. Best, Leslie

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