Inquiry as a process and instructional method



This article explores inquiry. The dimensions of what happens when we inquire. Different kinds of inquiry and their procedures with references to detailed information for educators to facilitate inquiry instructional methods and assisting learners to become better inquirers, critical thinkers, decision makers, problem solvers, investigators, experimenters, and creative thinkers.


We Constantly Make Decisions.

We often say:
Let me think about that?
What should I think about that idea?
How do I solve that problem?

Sometimes we say:
I will inquire about that.
I can investigate, explore, research, and see what that means.

This is the process of inquiry.


As educators we want to know...

What do people need to know and do to inquire? And how do we get better at it?

First - What is inquiry?

There isn't a simple answer since there are different ways people use the term.

However, let's start by thinking about inquiry from a global perspective and look at a general procedure (heuristic) for inquiring. Then we'll look at the different dimensions of inquiry and reference the major uses of inquiry: critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, investigating, experimenting, and creative thinking. Lastly we will explore how inquiry is used as an instructional method and some planning suggestions.

General procedure (heuristic) of inquiry

After establishing a goal, the steps (heuristic) and related skills or abilities generally include:

  • Gather information / data - observe; measure; estimate; reference skills; create questions; ask questions; comprehend speech, read/ understand text, drawings, illustrations, pictures, charts, graphs, maps; hypothesize; use technology to gather information
  • Organize the information / data - classify, order, recognize, control, and interpret variables' effects, and use technology to organize data
  • Process the information / data - draw, chart, graph, determine patterns, predict, infer, explain observations, find relationships, hypothesize, use technology to process data
  • Communicate the information / data and/or results of the processing. - draw, report, write, chart, graph, discuss, use technology to communicate critical responses.

Now let's look at the dimensions of inquiry

When inquiry happens there are several things that come together to make it happen. Those things can be considered the dimensions of inquiry. Like the dimensions of space, this infers a relationship of interdependency and uniqueness among the dimensions. Dimensions to consider when we inquire and when we try to facilitate better inquiry.

Dimensions of Inquiry

  1. Cognitive process of how the brain thinks. The biophysical functions of the brain to make sense of the natural and social world. This is a biophysically-determined and socially-mediated process.
  2. Dispositions, attitudes, values, habits of mind a person has when engaged in inquiry or prompted with an investigation, problem, decision, and creative opportunity.
  3. Process of inquiry is how we understand and make decisions. This is often referred to as: critical thinking, problem solving, investigating, and creative thinking.
  4. Inquiry skills are the abilities a person develops and uses to think, reason, solve problems, and make decisions.
  5. Ways to learn described as a kind of self instruction or way to facilitate instruction with others.

Each time we inquiry, there is an integration of all five dimensions. A mental cognitive process begins with a process of inquiry that searches a person's memory for skills and experiences to use to solve a problem, learn, make decisions or create something. All of which depends on the disposition of the learner to initiate inquiry, set goals for what to achieve, and desire to persevere to achieve their goal. Goals of inquiry such as:

  1. Critical thinking to make better decisions and create new understandings.
  2. Problem solving or decision making to resolve an unknown.
  3. Investigate to organize ideas with observable evidence, experimenting, reasoning, changing conditions, creating explanations and models.
  4. Creative thinking to generate new ideas or objects.

Dimensions examples

Before exploring the different types or goals of inquiry. Let's explore the dimensions of inquiry with a concrete example. An example, which could be used with critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, investigation, and creating. An example for anything that requires measurement to achieve a goal that involves knowing the location, relative position, size, scale, and other measurements. Goals related to exploring our environment, mapping, construction of clothes, furniture, or any other object. Each dimension is required to be successful.

  1. Cognitive process (brain) biophysically-determined and socially-mediated development to represent 3-D space, objects in space, conservation of number, conservation of length, volume, mass, area, and measurement as a socially created system.
  2. Dispositions, attitudes, values, habits of mind affect the behaviors a person chooses related to their value for measurement. Don't shy away from measuring and using measurements to communicate, make decisions, and solve problems.
  3. Process of inquiry decide when to measure, what to measure, how to use measurement to solve problems and make decisions.
  4. Inquiry skills and/ or abilities in selection of appropriate type of measurement, units, and understand and iteration of units and perform accurately.
  5. Ways to learn these dimensions and the what, when, and how of inquiry. Example. Measurement teaches us new ways of explaining our world more accurately as we use measurement personally. As teachers we can provide experiences to facilitate inquiry lessons for learners. For example. Learners about 7-8 years old, could be given different sized objects to use to measure similar items of equal lengths. The find all are different lengths and invent a need for a standard unit of measurement.

Before we look at each of these in more detail let's review a simple inquiry process (heuristic).

Cognitive Process Dimension

What does the brain have to do with inquiry?

  • Does the brain encourage inquiry?
  • Does the brain hinder inquiry?
  • How can understanding the brain cause better inquiry?
  • How will it help better inquiry?

Humans inherit their cognitive capacities through DNA that has been encoded through years of evolution. That encoding creates infants and children with seemingly unbound able curiosity to explore their environment, recognize patterns, and develop higher levels of thinking and communicating.

This biophysically based capacity develops fairly predictably with nurturing and a variety of rich experiences. See

Inquiry begins and develops through play which is the foundation of: mathematical abilities, science abilities, reasoning abilities, all literacies, reading readiness, and basically all thought processes.

Let's review:
The development of ALL inquiry begins with and relies on physical manipulation during children's play. See more on the importance of play supported by Brookings research in: A New Path to Education Reform: Playful Learning Promotes 21st Century Skills in Schools & Beyond

Disposition, attitudes, values, dimension

While exploring and discovering patterns in the world a child is experiencing emotional feelings as a result of the kind of exploration and discovery he or she encounters. These feelings become the foundation for the attitudes, dispositions, values, know as habits of mind the child will take to school and into the world as an adult.

Obviously different combinations of attitudes, dispositions, and values can create a range of behaviors from avoidance of inquiry to actively seeking inquiry and a range of feelings from anxiety to enthusiastic anticipation.

Knowing different ways to inquire isn't sufficient to adopt and use them. In order for that to happen learners must accept and adopt the values and attitudes necessary for inquiry. Examples that promote inquiry

  • Curiosity - wonderment, observant, questioning, desire to understand natural and social world.
  • Respect for evidence - listen, insistent that evidence be accurate, referenced or observed, open to consider alternative suggestions, desire to replicate experiments to confirm or reject data, skeptical, desire considerable observational evidence or credible sources.
  • Flexibility - open to review of process and ideas, recognize that ideas are tentative, tolerate ambiguity, willing to consider other ideas and revise decisions based on additional evidence.
  • Persistent - continue to question and seek additional evidence, stronger explanations, more accurate models, and related conclusions that go beyond present understanding.
  • Stewardship - feel responsibility for the care of people, the environment, and the Earth.
  • See additional dispositions

Process of inquiry

While the goal of inquiry is to generally think critically to discover something, make a decision, solve a problem, create a solution - idea or physical object or system the kind of information and goal can require different kinds of inquiry processes. Processes of inquiry that require:

  • Critical thinking
  • Decision making
  • Problem solving
  • Investigating & experimenting
  • Creative thinking


Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is
"Reasonably and reflectively deciding what to believe or do." Ennis (1985)


  • Critical thinking - introduction, historical information, curriculum goals & outcomes, assessment specifications, dispositions, outcomes, abilities, summary, critical thinking attributes, quality standards, end notes

Decision making

Problem solving

Investigation & experimentation

What is scientific inquiry?

Scientific inquiry is any of the diverse ways people study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their observation. The different ways of investigation and the skills used in asking questions, making observations, and reasoning with evidence to create explanations. Scientific investigation is usually thought of as experimental investigation with controlled variables and manipulated variables in an attempt to eliminate or identify causal variables for the purpose of understanding the natural world. However, scientific investigations can also include ethnographic or descriptive investigations where observations are collected with the purpose of better understanding the properties and interactions of objects, events, or related objects. Another type of investigation is the collection of information to sort and group the information by different properties with the purpose of identifying relationships and defining properties, objects, events, and related objects. See also - scientific inquiry unpacked with its related processes.

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is the development of abilities to ...

  • Pose questions.
  • Brainstorm
  • Demonstrate interest in new ideas or the unexpected.
  • Willing to try to create new innovative or original thoughts, patterns, products, and solutions.
  • Willing to take a risk in creating and exploring new ideas and different viewpoints.
  • Desire to generate alternative ideas, possibilities, and viewpoints.
  • Desire to apply ideas, analogies, and models in new contexts.
  • Ready to change ideas or approaches and improvise, as a situation evolves.
  • Willing to work at the edge of one's competence, innovate, and accept confusion and uncertainty.
  • View failure as normal, interesting, and challenging.
  • Willing to set products or ideas aside and come back to later and evaluate them from different points of view as necessary.
  • Motivated intrinsically.

What is inquiry teaching?

Inquiry learning or instructional methodology, refers to an instructional model which involves a series of questions asked of learners in a manner that facilitates the development of understanding, skill, and dispositions to become literate in an area of study. This includes all content areas.

Ways to Facilitate Inquiry

Instruction to support inquiry and learning inquiry skills will:

  • Focus on conceptual learning.
  • Start with the learner's existing knowledge, build on it, challenge it, apply it, and extend it.
  • Encourage learner's curiosity and let their questions direct how to facilitate their learning.
  • Keep learners actively engaged.
  • Encourage learners to self-assess, ask critical questions, reflect, and understand with the use of verifiable evidence.
  • Create and take advantage of collaboration to reach and verify conclusions.
  • Establish a community of learners willing to communication in all dimensions of all subject and other kinds of literacy. Including tentative thinking, and goal setting, as well as significant learnings.
  • Assess all dimensions of the content areas you study with the least emphasis on factual knowledge and procedural knowledge and major emphasis on inquiry and process for conceptual understanding based on observational knowledge and reasoning to facilitate learning.

The challenge is to make common experiences meaningful to learners through the use of inquiry skills so they can create meaningful knowledge.

It is also useful to think about these skills on three different levels: generic, the discipline, and the specific task. Working on the skill such as classification is an example on a generic level. Using certain characteristics, such as hardness, to classify rocks but not using that characteristic to classify leaves is an example of discipline. In a specific task, we need to decide whether a skill such as classification will help us solve the problem we are working with.

Can you describe how other process skills such as, observations, inferences, and explanation fit these categories and how thinking about them in this way deepens both the meaning of science and understanding of science?

How does planning science inquiry skills at the primary age and intermediate-grade levels differ?

In the primary grades children use their five senses to develop their inquiry skills. Teachers of young children should engage children in playful activities that involve pushing, pulling, sliding, and rolling. When young children play, the early inquiry skills they develop are diverse. The emphasis in the primary grades is playful activities and use of the five senses. The emphasis is kindergarten and early elementary grades is using early inquiry skills t explore their local environment.

During the early elementary grades, science lessons, which focus on basic science process skills such as observation, classification, communication, cause, effect, measurement, and explanation build a foundation to build better inquiry skills.

In the intermediate grade teachers identify questions that can be investigated; plan and conduct scientific explorations; use tools and technology to gather analyze and interpret the data; use a range of inquiry skills to develop generalizations and models using data; and communicate scientific procedures for investigations, explanations, and models. The emphasis in the intermediate grades is experiences that give them concrete foundations to create and connect to abstract ideas.

At the middle school level, science lessons focus on the development of higher-level inquiry skills. This emphasis should be evident in 40 percent or more of the science lessons at these grade levels.

How do attitudes and dispositions promote meaningful science learning?

Attitudes and dispositions are affective responses that reflect our feelings and personal likes and dislikes. Attitudes that can be planned for, modeled, and encouraged in a science lesson include curiosity, respect for evidence, flexibility, responsibility to others and the environment, and appreciation of nature. These attitudes are important not only learning science, but also for being a scientifically literate citizen. How to foster each is the following: A teacher encourages curiosity by asking students to explain a discrepant event related a key idea. A teacher encourages flexibility by student willingness to reconsider ideas, recognize that ideas are tentative, and have willingness to consider other methods. A teacher encourages responsibility to others and the environment by exploring and investigating their environment to develop sensitivity. A sense of responsibility occurs when student have an opportunity to know each other and have prior knowledge leading to the experiment. A teacher encourages the value of nature by helping students make value decisions, about their environment and by helping students recognize the beauty of nature in the assignment of value to it.

What are the conditions necessary for effective teaching of science inquiry skills?

Effective teaching involves posing problems, dilemmas, and discrepancies, and raising question involving students in a variety of inquiry activities related to the science content. To have a proactive approach to teaching thinking is questioning, structuring, and modeling.

How do the processes of teaching inquiry skills fit in a classroom lesson?

Inquiry skill learning requires relating the new skill to prerequisite skills, modeling the new skill, becoming aware of its component and practicing and transferring it sufficiently so that it is performed automatically. The learning cycle accomplishes these necessary steps while building students' interest and proficiency. This would include starting with prior knowledge; get students to ask questions; get higher levels of thought; arrange the environment and pose problems. Students should be involved in activities that have data gathering, data organizing, data processing, and communicating.

How can science inquiry skills planned as outcomes during a lesson or unit be assessed?

Record keeping is a must. Appropriate record keeping makes the assessment of skills doable. Providing feedback is essential for methods help assess skill development and task performances. Methods range from being as simple as a check mark to check progress, rubrics use criteria to assess and evaluate learning performance and narrative comments to monitor specific student learning.


The importance of learning inquiry skills and science inquiry skills is a must. They are not only the foundation of science learning and without them science learning would not be meaningful, but they are basically the only way we can understand meaning in our world. everything we know is based on observation and science is observation.

FOUNDATIONS: A monograph for professionals in science, mathematics, and technology education -
Inquiry - Thoughts, Views, and Strategies for the K-5 Classroom

Excellent Monograph

Foundations cover

What is inquiry science lesson?

Inquiry science lessons refer to activities where learners use scientific inquiry to learn science ideas during a lesson. The lesson usually follows a process where learners are either given questions or create their own questions, collect observational information to use to create reasonable explains of the outcomes, or answers to the questions. While the complexity of this procedure can vary according to the complexity of ideas to investigate or the ability of the investigator, all scientific investigations have observational evidence as the basis of any explanation.

The teacher and/or learner can decide the step or steps of the investigation. Looking at who makes the decisions at each step of an investigation, is one way of measuring learner empowerment. If the teacher makes all the decisions, it is low learner empowerment and if the learner makes all the decisions, it would be high student empowerment. A mixture of both is required for ultimate gain. A table can be used to show different combinations of inquiry lessons from low to high student empowerment and matched to methods of instruction. Another table using the same framework can show examples of different lessons for low to high student empowerment.

Lab Forms

Different procedures for scientific investigations are sometimes represented in different lab forms that are often provided by teachers for investigations.

The use of forms is helpful to facilitate students' understanding of steps and ways of thinking when doing scientific inquiry. However, care should be taken to convince students that: 1. there are many ways to conduct scientific inquiry, 2. scientific inquiry is most often conducted as a non linear process, and 3. playing around with materials or ideas is a very good way to conduct scientific inquiry.

A rationalization for the use of procedures or forms would be as a device to assist investigation. To spark ideas for inquiry or to review ideas generated for their comprehensiveness. And most importantly as a communication device. Again, used to review comprehensiveness only now at the conclusion of the investigation as a report creation device. Forms also provide a way to organize information to better report findings as well as assist readers in interpreting the information. Most importantly the forms can be a communication device to provide experimental information for others to replicate and assist in understanding our natural world.

A collection of investigation forms or procedures for different age levels to explore, investigate, experiment... and record notes.

Sample Science Inquiry Plans

Check Sheets, Scoring Guides/Rubrics for Student assessment

Assessment of an Inquiry Classroom Community


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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