Skip to main content

Seek and ye shall find the answers

Enquiry-based learning uses questions as a springboard for deeper exploration. But as Helen Ward reports, not everyone is a fan

Enquiry-based learning uses questions as a springboard for deeper exploration. But as Helen Ward reports, not everyone is a fan

We should start with a question, because that is what this approach is all about. What exactly is enquiry-based learning?

In the broadest sense, it is about stepping back. It is about letting pupils find out about the world through asking questions - and sometimes failing. In practice, teaching through enquiry-based learning means starting off with something children know and then using their interest to focus an enquiry on learning something new. What is important is the question. This can come from the teacher, but it needs to capture the interest of the children.

"It's an attitude," said Roger Sutcliffe, director of education consultancy Dialogue Works. "I don't think there is an agreed definition, but it differs from problem-based learning and most project-based learning.

"Both of those present learners with pre-determined problems or topics to which there are (often) pre-determined solutions. The spirit of enquiry- based learning is that the learners are given not only the opportunity, but also the encouragement to form their own questions and develop their own interests."

There is a wealth of theories behind the idea. It has roots in constructivism: Jean Piaget's theory that people construct knowledge from their experiences and ideas, John Dewey's ideas of experiential learning and Matthew Lipman's work on philosophy for children and communities of enquiry. If you follow the line of enquiry back far enough, it reaches the Socratic method of asking questions to encourage not just answers, but also insight.

It may also be the future. Enquiry-based learning as we now know it today was conceptualised by psychologist Jerome Bruner. In 1959, Bruner, then professor of psychology at Harvard University, was asked to chair a conference of 35 experts in science, education and psychology at Woods Hole on Cape Cod. The event was about the science curriculum and it led to Professor Bruner's landmark book The Process of Education.

This set out the idea that children need to learn how to connect ideas and teachers need to provide guidance in how to accelerate thinking. In a later article, "The Process of Education Revisited", he describes how: "At Woods Hole and after there was a great emphasis on active learning, poking into things yourself, an emphasis on active discovery rather than upon the passive consumption of knowledge."

The approach does not pretend to have all the answers, but it quickly spread and became popular to the extent that enquiry-based learning is just part of good teaching.

Bill Lucas, co-director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at Winchester University, agrees that every teacher is likely to use the idea to some extent - but not necessarily in a rigorous way. "Enquiry-based learning is more than a method. It is an overarching attitude to knowledge in the classroom. And these attitudes are visible through the behaviour and language of everybody in that room, especially the teacher," he says.

Professor Lucas and his co-director Guy Claxton think the idea is on the way up. They have just launched a national initiative on enquiry-based learning for teachers, called the Expansive Education Network, which will offer training and opportunities for action research in enquiry-based and related fields.

Kirsty Golds is a Years 3 and 4 (P3 and 4) teacher at Tangmere Primary in West Sussex, which uses the Open Futures curriculum. She says that the opportunities for using enquiry-based learning arise naturally once she begins looking for them.

"There are some lessons where you do need to show the children how to do something - a method in maths, for example," she says. "I don't do a separate portion of the week on enquiry-based learning. It's more that if a real opportunity for working in that way comes up, then we go off timetable for the day and immerse ourselves in that."

But enquiry-based learning is about principles, rather than off-the-shelf resources.

David Leat, professor of curriculum innovation at Newcastle University - who evaluated the Open Futures curriculum, says: "Every school does it differently. There is no model or template to follow. It is very hard to know what students have learnt, because it is a divergent process, whereas most teaching is convergent - it is heading towards particular objectives. We have a culture that values what can be counted, that measures the easy stuff - and the hard stuff that is more important tends to get lost."

A key to successful enquiry-based learning is creating an atmosphere in which children feel confident asking questions. Research from the effective provision of pre-school, primary and secondary education (EPPSE) project found that a classroom climate in which children felt happy to ask questions and risk getting things wrong marked out excellent teaching.

Eileen Scanlon, associate director of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University (OU), and Mike Sharples, now also at the OU but formerly professor of learning sciences at Nottingham University, have just completed a project on how technology can support enquiry-based learning in science and geography (with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).

"We've developed software called nQuire that maps out the stages and phases of enquiry and allows teachers to monitor what the young people are doing and support that," says Professor Scanlon. "There are known issues that learners need support with - things like identifying a hypothesis that could be tested. That is quite a difficult thing to work out.

"The enquiry learning cycle sounds very cut and dried: you do one thing, then the next. But when you look at what people do, they start off with a plan, but when they get into more detail they have to backtrack and revise that plan. We wanted to see how technology could address that."

The software sets out eight stages of enquiry (see panel) based on the literature on enquiry-based learning. Students were given portable netbooks with built-in cameras, location sensors and voice recorders, as well as data probes for measuring atmospheric conditions. They enquired into topics such as why urban areas are hotter than the surrounding countryside and looked at microclimates. It was discovered that children not only learnt about the topic, but also enjoyed the scientific process. nQuire software is now freely available for download.

But enquiry-based learning is not without controversy. Some academics have deep doubts about its value. In 2006, the journal Educational Psychologist published a paper which claimed that the approach simply does not work. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark argue empirical research has found that minimal guidance during instruction is a less effective way of learning and propose it always will be, because it ignores how the human mind works.

"Enquiry-based instruction requires the learner to search a problem space for problem-relevant information. All problem-based searching makes heavy demands on working memory," they argue. "That working memory load does not contribute to the accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory, because while working memory is being used to search for problem solutions, it is not available and cannot be used to learn."

In response, a group of psychologists at Rutgers University, US, pointed out that enquiry learning and problem-based learning, unlike discovery learning, are not minimally guided but involve a lot of support from teachers. They cite studies where students have shown significant gains using enquiry-based approaches, and argue that simply asking "does it work?" is the wrong question.

They state: "It requires one to also consider the goals of education - including not only learning content but also learning `softer skills'. that are not measured on achievement tests but are important for being lifelong learners and citizens in a knowledge society."

Mary Pavard, headteacher of Tangmere Primary, says this is why she backs the approach. "We have certainly noticed that children's engagement with learning and attitudes to learning have shifted massively. They talk with enthusiasm about learning," she says. "This is something children are brilliant at in the foundation stage - they ask questions and find things out - but if we are not careful, as they go further up school, they lose those skills.

"Then suddenly in key stage 4 (S4-6) they are asked to go and do a project for their GCSE and they struggle with that way of working. I think it is important that we build in that way of working throughout school."

nquire resources

Personal Inquiry project:


Littleton, K. Scanlon, E. and Sharples, M. Orchestrating Inquiry Learning, Routledge. Due at the end of the year

"Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching" (2006). Educational Psychologist: 41:2; 75-86

"Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: a response to Kirschner, Sweller and Clark" (2006). Educational Psychologist: 42:2; 99-107

"Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques Do Not Work: a reply to commentaries", Educational Psychologist (2007). 42:2; 115-121

Bruner, J. The Process of Education (1962). Harvard University Press

nquire stages

- Find a topic;

- Decide on an enquiry question or hypothesis;

- Plan methods, equipment and actions;

- Collect evidence;

- Analyse and represent evidence;

- Conclusions;

- Share and discuss the enquiry;

- Reflect on the progress made.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you