Productive teaching is inquirybased

Inquiry-based learning

The goal

Successful learners, confident & creative individuals and active & informed citizens

Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, MCEETYA, 2008

The three key Qs below support design for powerful student learning utilising structured teaching using a range of direct as well as indirect, collaborative and experiential (i.e. engaging learners in the phenomenon about which they are learning) approaches.

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a form of indirect teaching. It is sometimes referred to as: guided inquiry, problem-based learning, project-based learning or design-based learning. An IBL classroom requires direct, collaborative and experiential teaching approaches as well.

The term, IBL, is used here to describe a pedagogical approach in which the learner is active and engaged in investigating and understanding real-world phenomena or issues. Taking action, where possible, is a key element of IBL.

On a practical level, the learner in an IBL classroom is equipped with investigative skills, such as posing questions. IBL is an appropriate pedagogical approach within the context of all Australian Curriculum learning areas. Some areas, such as Geography, History and Science, privilege IBL through their own investigative or inquiry skills strand.

IBL is captured below in the explicit use of ‘The IBL 5‘:

#1 BIG questions to drive learning/teaching units
#2 Models of inquiry e.g. TELSTAR to scope and sequence learning/teaching activities
#3 Thinking skills taxonomies e.g. ‘three-storey intellect’ (Bellanca & Fogarty, 1991)
#4 Questioning frameworks e.g. 5Ws + 1H, Socratic questioning, ‘strategic questioning’ (Peavey & Hutchinson, 1993)
#5 A range of IBL strategies which scaffold learners’ active meaning making.


* See learning ajency resource: Design, enact & review: 3 key Qs for details around the questions below.

Question 1

WHAT do my learners need to understand and be able to do?

  • How can I contextualise the curriculum for my learners through the use of a conceptual and connected BIG question1 and sub-questions that will motivate the learners and drive the unit?

Question 2

HOW will my learners demonstrate what they understand and can do in relation to the targeted curriculum?

  • What assessment processes and products will I use that support my learners as inquirers into real world issues and phenomenon?

Question 3

HOW will I support the range of learners in my class to complete assessment tasks successfully?

  • How will I sequence the learning and teaching (e.g. using a model of inquiry2)?
  • How will I ensure a balance between direct (e.g. expository) and indirect teaching?
  • What thinking skills3 and questioning framework/s4 will I use to support intellectual rigour (or critical and creative thinking)?
  • Which specific inquiry-based learning strategies5 will I use to support active inquiry?
1 IBL #1: Productive or generative BIG questions in an IBL classroom are those that are:
—conceptual i.e. beyond descriptive elements, such as wind turbines and coal stations to ‘analytical concepts’, such as global warming
—connected i.e. related to the world and to students’ lives (see examples following).
2 IBL #2: Models of inquiry to scope and sequence learning and teaching, such as:
TELSTAR, which involve the phases: Tune in Explore Look Sort through Test Act Reflect
See a guide to using TELSTAR in the teaching/learning activities section of unit plan
3 IBL #3: Thinking skills taxonomies
e.g. ‘three-storey intellect': ‘gathering’, ‘processing’ and ‘applying’ (Bellanca & Fogarty, 1991)
4 IBL #4: Questioning frameworks
e.g. ‘Socratic questioning': ‘assumption probes’, ‘clarification questions’, ‘reason and evidence probes’ and so on (Paul, 1995)
5 IBL #5: Inquiry-based learning strategies are those which involve learners in active meaning making for themselves (in contrast to a ‘teaching as telling’ approach).


BIG questions that can motivate learners and drive teaching/learning units include:

Prep History: Could your grandmother have planted this tree?
Year 1 Science: Could we live under water?
Year 2 Science: Why don’t worms have wings?
Year 3 Geography: What’s my favourite place and how can I describe it to my friend?
Year 4 History: Who owns Australia?
Year 5 History: Should people who commit crimes be given a second chance?
Year 6 Science: Who made the mess? [forensic science]
Year 7 Science: Which sorts of energy could reduce our global footprints?
Year 8 Mathematics: How can we use linear functions to select the best phone plan?
Year 9 History: Was life great during the Industrial Revolution?
Year 10 English: What would you do for love? [Romeo and Juliet study]


Model of inquiry to scope and sequence teaching/learning activities

Inquiry phase Overview of phase (and generic questions when using this model with students)
Tune in to the topic being studied.
What makes this topic/issue/problem/phenomenon interesting?
What makes this topic an important one for me to investigate?
What makes this an important topic for my community or the wider society?
Explore students’ knowledge, attitudes and questions, as well as the methodology to be used in the inquiry in order to formulate a BIG question (or hypothesis) and sub-questions.
What do I know (or think I know) already about this topic?
What are my feelings or attitudes to this topic?
What do I need/want to find out about this topic?
What questions (BIG and sub-questions) do I need to ask?
How will I go about investigating this topic?
What resources might I need to investigate this topic?
What ideas do I have now about how I will be able to demonstrate my new knowledge, understandings and skills?
Look for information which addresses the questions or hypotheses.
What evidence/information can I find to answer these questions?
What skills can I use to obtain this evidence?
Sort through information gathered to address questions or hypothesis.
How can I process this information critically and constructively to see patterns (e.g. What’s the same or different? What are the consequences?)?
How can I understand complex ideas or concepts more clearly?
What specific plans do I have now for demonstrating my knowledge, understandings and skills?
Test information collected against major questions or hypotheses.
Does my information help me to answer the BIG question?
What evidence can I use to answer my BIG question?
What other information do I still need?
Act on findings.
What real-life action can I take as a result of my findings?
What actions will I take personally, as a member of my family, and as a member of my school/community?
What actions, if any, will I take beyond my school/community?
What values will determine the action I take?
Who will benefit from this action?
Who will not benefit from this action?
How will I continue to act in relation to this topic/issue/phenomenon?
How am I demonstrating my knowledge, understandings and skills?
Reflect on knowledge, attitudes, questions and methodology used.
What did I learn from this investigation?
How did I learn during this investigation?
Which ways of learning were most successful for me?
How can I improve my learning skills?
Have I changed my attitudes or values in relation to this topic?
If so, in what ways have my attitudes changed?

Source of TELSTAR: Queensland Department of Education (1994) and Victorian Ministry of Education (1987).
The generic questions here are modified from Schultz (2007).
Note: ‘I’ is used here but in relation to many investigations, the use of ‘we’ would be appropriate.

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