I keep coming back to this, but I think that it’s important.  As teachers, we explore different ways of setting up learning experiences for students.  We play with pedagogies, keep ideas that work, and discard those that don’t.  We’re often faced with concepts that resurface after years of disfavour and we look at them again with new eyes in an ever-changing context.

The ideas that are most applicable to me as someone that works in a school library learning commons and teaches a STEM-focused cohort of grade ten students include:

  • Inquiry
  • Design Thinking
  • Problem Based Learning
  • Project Based Learning

Each of these approaches has specific goals and advocates.  Each has its benefits and each has its weaknesses.  Each has its supporters and each has its detractors.  But all are used as ways of engaging students in learning in an experiential manner that hopefully, or by design, connects them with ideas of relevance to them.  A little bit about each pedagogy and then something about how they intersect.

As a teacher librarian, inquiry is probably closest to my heart.  I love it when I work with students engaging in research (yes, inquiry and research are equivalent terms) that is inspiring, engaging and meaningful to them.  When a student is spending time researching problems, ideas, or issues that they want to engage in with rigour and enthusiasm, I think that there is no better learning experience.  This is what we want each of our students not only to be able to to do as they graduate and move on in life, but we also want them to have such positive experiences with inquiry that they are inclined to pursue their own lines of inquiry on their own time as they see it being relevant to their lives.

I also bristle when I hear educators use phrases like, “we’re going to do some inquiry.”  While inquiry and research are somewhat interchangeable terms, I feel like there is a large number of teachers who like the idea of inquiry but use the idea in a very broad and undefined sense insinuating that perhaps inquiry is too specific to a particular exploration that we can’t really teach any one approach or that inquiry is organic and students can just Google and that’s pretty much all there is to it.  When we hear terms like, “we’re going to do some inquiry”, I feel like this indicates a lack of structure and depth to the practice and abdicates any role the teacher has in supporting that learning.  While I’m sure that this is an unfair judgment in some cases, I know it to be true in many others.


see guidedinquirydesign.com

So what is the structure for inquiry?  There are many frameworks out there, from the Big Six to Stripling’s Model of Inquiry; from Kath Murdoch to every customized, branded model for every provincial/state educational board.  One must recognize that all of these models are attempts to codify what an effective researcher does and rarely if ever do researchers actually think of walking through a model in a linear, step by step process.  But for teaching purposes, it is important that a model exists so that the student is cognisant of the process and the different types of activities involved in inquiry.  This is the same with all of the pedagogies listed above.  My favourite inquiry model is Guided Inquiry Design based on the research of Carol Kuhlthau and extended by Leslie Maniotes.  I like that it emphasizes the initial stages of research before the specific topic is identified and that it circles back to evaluate the product and process.  Many models do a great job of parsing the middle steps of inquiry but omit one or the other end of the process.


Design thinking models were originally created to describe the design process by looking at what great designers do.  This was not a process any different than how inquiry/research models originated.  My favourite illustration of this evolution in design thinking is Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work by Nigel Cross.  Again, there are many popular models for design thinking.


from infocus.emc.com

Likely the most commonly used model in education is Stanford/IDEO’s model primarily because of the title of the first phase.  Rather than focusing on research or understand, this model uses the term empathize emphasizing a deeper understanding of the needs of those that have the issue/problem/challenge that is being tackled.  It is interesting and important that this model was not developed with K12 education in mind.  While my recollection of the exact purpose of the model is foggy, I believe that it was developed as a way of refining the design process in industry and in post-secondary design schools.  It has since been adopted by K12 educators for use as young as the primary grades.

from bie.org

Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning are often lumped together under the same PBL acronym.  While I haven’t researched the origins and details of each as much as I have Guided Inquiry Design and Design Thinking, it feels to me to be a big mistake to label these two approaches as the same thing.  Project Based Learning is the brainchild of the Buck Institute and is, in a nutshell, an approach to inquiry where the project that is being created is the focus of the entire project.  In a simplified form, the teacher says, “we need to make X, figure out how to do that.”  In as much as this creates a clear goal for the inquiry, it doesn’t necessarily generate relevance and it doesn’t necessarily structure the inquiry portion of the work outside of focusing it on a common goal.  (I’m careful to use the word necessarily here as good teachers are likely to address these issue regardless of what the model itself may or may not dictate).  Problem Based Learning places the focus at the opposite end of the inquiry.  It looks at a problem that needs to be solved and it is the problem that guides the inquiry and dictates what the end product will look like.  Again, the inquiry is not necessarily structured, although, I would argue that personal relevance is more likely to be engendered in these environments.

The crux of the issue for the teacher then becomes, how do we use these models and when are they appropriate.  Teachers should be steeped in knowledge and experience in all of these structures so that they can be deliberate with how and when they apply them with students and how overt they need to be in using and teaching the models to the students.  Younger students need to be more aware of the structures that they are using so that they can be more purposeful in their use of the models (or parts of the models) as they take ownership of their own learning.  I don’t think teachers, especially those working with younger students, should simply “do inquiry” nor do I think that when pedagogical models that inherently include inquiry as part of their process are used that the inquiry part should simply be left up to the students.  I feel like this is akin to the myth of the digital native.  Just because a student was born with a smartphone in hand, it doesn’t mean that she can search effectively using Google, knows what tools to use to search for what kinds of information, or how to evaluate and use information.  These ideas need to be part of core curriculum and not simply left up to individual teachers/students to deal with if and when they see fit.

To understand when to use which aspects of which model, or when to use a particular model as the basis for working on a certain line of inquiry, one really needs to understand how these models relate to each other.  To the right is my quick sketch of how these models might interrelate.  The orange boxes on the top are Guided Inquiry Design phases with the blue circles representing the stages of Design Thinking.  While the Buck Institute’s Gold Standard PBL elements relate to both models, as they are not stages or phases in a process in the same way, I have not mapped them to the other two models.  It is interesting to note that these Gold Standards apply equally well to great Guided Inquiry units and great educational application of Design Thinking.  I have graphically represented Project and Problem Based learning at either end of the spectrum as the emphasis on each is at the impetus or the goal of the learning experience.

Observations that I make from this graphic include the fact that Empathize is a specific way of understanding the topic or problem.  It stresses needs of a user, but is, as much as Open/Immerse/Explore do, an approach to get to a point where the topic/problem is understood deeply enough to be able to make an educated statement about what it is about.  Identify is about being able to write a thesis statement if this were moving toward writing an academic paper.  In a design problem, we would write a definition statement that might be phrased in the form of “How might we…?” or “[User] needs to [need] because [rationale]”.  Either way, this is where the topic/problem is focused.  In a Problem Based Learning Paradigm, so far, this process works beautifully.  In a Project Based Learning situation, this process might be skipped or it might be used to support the understanding given that the project is likely defined by the teacher, not the student.

The differences in the next step are interesting.  This, I think, is where the models truly distinguish themselves.  In Guided Inquiry, we get to work gathering the information that we need to be able to think through the topic.  The product is really a synthesis of ideas that are coming from outside experts.  In Design Thinking, the Ideation phase is about brainstorming as many possible solutions to the definition statement as possible.  One could think of this difference as the distinction between gathering external ideas and generating internal ideas, but when one thinks this distinction through, it becomes clear that there are elements of each in both processes.  In ideation, external ideas might be overtly researched, or ideas that one has previously been exposed to will have influence.  Gathering ideas from others is necessarily is a process of using one’s own ideas and knowledge of the topic to inform the direction of inquiry.  The test/share/evaluation process is similar in each.  While Design Thinking doesn’t explicitly state sharing as a part of the process, it is necessarily part of the process as one has to go back to the “client” with the product to ensure that the needs identified in the Empathize phase are met.

As one explores the models and sees where they line up and where they diverge, it becomes easy to identify which model might work best for which problem or when to borrow ideas from one model to support another.  I tend to use Design Thinking to support my students’ STEM projects.  It is a great model that comes specifically from STE(A)M fields.  Having said that, I find that the Empathize phase doesn’t fully support the research ideas needed.  With projects that link to specific scientific and mathematical concepts, it is essential that Explore/Immerse becomes part of the Empathize stage.  Likewise, as Ideate/Prototype occurs, it will likely be important to get out and Gather specific information to support design issues that occur along the way.

At the end of the day, being informed about what models are available that emphasize different parts of the learning is essential to supporting student inquiry.  If there is one beef that I have with the current popularity of inquiry in education is that it is the assumption that students somehow are born with the skills to research.  As I said before, Googling isn’t inquiry.  Googling is information search, which is one small part of the process.  And even then, we all know how bad many of us are at finding credible information online!

I would love further discussion on this.  My ideas are continuing to percolate, formulate, and morph.  Questioning, challenging, and extending is more than welcome as I continue my inquiry inquiry.

2 thoughts on “Design Inquiry Learning Thinking

  1. I’m so glad you continue to apply your theoretical understanding along with your practical experience to articulate this. I hear many educators ‘doing inquiry’ and yet this can be as shallow as a lesson level getting students to question. There is a much needed shift many educators have to make and perhaps a leap to see how Inquiry and research are connected. If students ask questions but have little time to research to learn about them, then they may wonder why bother ask the deeper questions that I’m really curious about, when school offers no structure to pursue those questions.
    As you know, I love playing around with how these models interact and intersect in real time and how they can improve all learning environments to achieve deeper learning and critical thinking required of us all today. Thank you for this conversation and sharing your insights here!
    So glad to see Guided Inquiry a useful part of your repertoire and being used so thoughtfully within all these contexts to inform your instructional decision making.
    Leslie Maniotes

    1. Amen, Leslie! One of the things that I love about Guided Inquiry Design, is that it is a structure that generates freedom. I’m not one that gets too hung up on structure and I would prefer a world where folks could just “do inquiry.” But the reality is that students need some framework to be able to learn the skills of effective inquiry (information literacy). Also, in a world where teachers are required to teach specific content, skills, and competencies, a framework of some sort is needed to in order to ensure that that curriculum is the starting point for inquiry or it will be get forgotten and left behind…

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