Seek and ye shall find the answers

18th November 2011 at 00:00
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 - surely no one simply stands and talks at their pupils all day in 2011?

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 certainly 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. This builds on a number of initiatives that aim to bring the approach into schools.

Kirsty Golds is a Years 3 and 4 teacher at Tangmere Primary in West Sussex, which uses the Open Futures curriculum (see box, below). 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 - so I would not use it all the time," she says. "But 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 - confirms this. He says: "Every school does it differently. There is no model or template to follow."

And if introducing enquiry-based learning is not as straightforward as opening a textbook, assessing its outcome is even harder.

Professor Leat says: "A critical issue about enquiry is that it doesn't fit well with our system. 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. It is a significant issue. 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."

Difficult yes, but there are some indications that the approach is helpful. For example, 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.

Supporting students who are using an enquiry approach to know how to deal with things when they go wrong is one of the aspects that an ICT project tackled.

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 box, top right) 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. And 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. "Furthermore, 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.

"Indeed it is possible to search for extended periods of time with quite minimal alterations to long-term memory. The goal of instruction is rarely to search for or discover information. The goal is to ... store the result in long-term memory."

The researchers say it is clear why the theory was attractive when it was formulated following the Woods Hole conference - but now that more is known about the mind, it is time to move on. 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 they argued that simply asking "does it work?" is the wrong question.

Rather, research should look at what circumstances are needed to make the approaches effective and what outcomes are required. 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 exactly the reason 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 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."


The Personal Inquiry project run by the Open and Nottingham Universities included an enquiry into how to explore the topic of pollution and wildlife.

One investigation, carried out by Year 8 pupils at Hadden Park High School in Nottingham, looked at the feeding habits of birds. The project was run over four weeks and took up 10 science lessons and a day trip to a nature reserve.

The initial question was: "If you want to find out how noise affects birds' feeding habits, what data do we need to collect?"

- Pupils came up with ideas such as sound data, and a measure of how much food was eaten.

- Pupils collected data in different areas: a nature reserve, in quiet and noisy areas of the school yard and, for a "fair test" experiment, in quiet and noisy areas of a garden.

- Data collected included sound levels, observations of birds, and measurement of food.

- The pupils then shared their data.

- They came up with theories to explain their findings.

- They prepared leaflets as a way of communicating their findings.


Open Futures is not an entire curriculum, but a programme that helps schools develop practical skills. It aims to encourage children and teachers to explore the worlds of gardening, horticulture, cooking and film, and as such has four strands: "ask it", "grow it", "cook it" and "film it".

"Ask it" is about helping children develop their ability to question, reason, hypothesise and communicate.

"Grow it" provides guidance on running a fully fledged edible garden, even in places where little space is available.

"Cook it" teaches pupils to understand where their food comes from and how to create impressive dishes, while "Film it" is an internet video system that allows pupils to upload their work.

All sections are designed to link for cross-curricular teaching.


- 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


Personal Inquiry project:

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

Additional references

"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.

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