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Fecha: 26 de mayo de 2015

Inquiry is the key to learning

By Elaine Gallagher, PhD What is Inquiry-based learning? The old saying, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand”,  describes the core of inquiry-based learning. Inquiry is the process of seeking truth, information, or knowledge by questioning. questioning is the key! So what’s inquiry learning? Inquiry-based learning is […]

Elaine Gallagher 13 cegBy Elaine Gallagher, PhD

What is Inquiry-based learning? The old saying, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand”,  describes the core of inquiry-based learning.

Inquiry is the process of seeking truth, information, or knowledge by questioning. questioning is the key!

So what’s inquiry learning?

Inquiry-based learning is about asking questions in order to promote learning. There are many kinds of questions: rhetorical questions, Socratic questions, convergent or divergent questions, open or closed questions, even low level – high level questions, with profundity determined by which of the six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy the questioner is using.

“Essential Questions” are questions which, usually, the teacher poses and models. They are questions that get to the heart of the lesson or unit, for example: “What were some social and economic reasons for the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and what effects did these reasons have on the general population?”

Sometimes the “Essential Question” is called “The Big Idea”, (Sugata Mintra), so that the teacher and students focus on an essential factor in the lesson or unit of study.

CONSTRUCTIVE INTERACTION or THINK, PAIR, SHARE are similar techniques with 4 steps. The purpose is to construct critical thinking and collaborative discussions.

  • The teacher presents to students a pertinent or essential question, such as “What factors form your personality?”
  • Individually, students respond by writing what they think….brief comments, not an essay. Usually, in 5 minutes they can complete this step.
  • In pairs, each student will read his/her comments to their partner.
  • Now the students form into small teams of 4 or 5 students, to discuss what the pairs had discussed, and to arrive at a few conclusions or a basic summary of the topic.
  • The entire class converges to hear about ideas that emerged from the various teams. Topics are shared with the entire class…then the teacher moves on. One of the goals of this activity is to provoke students to think, and to develop awareness of various topics.

There are also “Foundation Questions”: These are generally the «what is» questions. Students create the foundation questions by brainstorming topics and ideas in order to provoke questions.

Through investigation and research of factual information, students work toward answering the Essential Question or Big Idea by developing a series of “Foundation Questions”, such as “What were the dates of the Mexican Revolution?” or “”Who were the instigators and leaders of the Revolution?” “What motivated them?”  “How did the revolution end? Who won? What do we mean when we say “win’?”

These kinds of questions, which students can ask, in order to form an outline of study, are part of the Inquiry Method of teaching/learning. Teachers need to model these questions so that the students, too, will learn how to use them, answer them, or investigate the answers if the questions pose questions with answers that are unknown by students.

Real learning takes place when students WANT to know something because interesting questions have been presented, by the teacher as well as by other students.



Use a prompt to stimulate student interest in the topic for exploration.

Do an experiment and analyze the results. Present a provocative question, an essential question, or a Big Idea. Students are then in a position to generate their own questions about the topic.

IMPORTANT: It’s when students ask their own questions that they become empowered learners. 



After students explore ideas through hands-on experiences or Internet research, they formulate a question and create a plan for investigating their question.

They also predict what they think their results will be. Working in cooperative learning groups, the students design an action plan to investigate their questions and predict the outcome.

Prior to beginning the inquiry, students are introduced to the topic.

  • The teacher helps the students to generate questions by modeling questioning: How did you come to that conclusion? What are some other possibilities?
  • Students create a list of resources to answer their questions and communicate their findings. These resources may include: computer, Internet, brainstorming software, multimedia tools, etc. They also create a list of keywords for research, acquiring e-mail addresses of experts, and identifying local personnel who may provide information.  The teacher’s role is to guide them, not to provide the answers.



The teacher facilitates the process by gathering resources and asking open-ended questions during the team investigations.

Students have the opportunity to move around the room to see what other groups are doing. This generates other ideas that can be incorporated in their own investigations. Students keep records or logs to be used when compiling information. This log also provides them with information on what worked during the investigation and what didn’t; which questions have been answered and which have not.

Not all knowledge that is needed during investigations can be acquired by inquiry. It is important for a teacher to say «no» to investigations that are costly or have safety concerns, investigations that sway from the goals of the lesson, or investigations that are not relevant to answering the essential question. Students, redirected by the teacher, stay focused on appropriate questions and investigations.



Students record and communicate their findings in this stage of inquiry learning. They can report their findings in a variety of ways. Whatever means they use, they restate the question and predictions, describe the investigation, and interpret the results. The cooperative groups report their findings.



In the reflecting phase, students revisit the phenomenon and plan further investigations. New questions may occur as a result of the inquiry and the process is repeated. Students reflect by revisiting the essential and foundation questions.

If the information gathered does not answer the essential question, then more foundation questions may need to be formulated and investigated.

When students reflect on their own achievement and identify the skills and knowledge they applied in the process, students can answer the question for themselves, «Why are we doing this?»  They are able to make a more authentic connection between their schoolwork and the value of what it is they’re learning.

Another important facet is connecting with the world outside the classroom.



First, you need to know that Inquiry is not a specific lesson or method. It’s a technique that teachers may use periodically when there’s a topic or lesson that has extensive depth or necessity of research. It’s a technique that may take two or three weeks to complete on a specific topic. A wide variety of questioning tools need to be used in ALL lessons to stimulate critical thinking.

This topic was discussed in a previous article, entitled “Teaching and Learning Strategies”. INQUIRY is an extension of good questioning, by which the students are supported, guided, and encouraged to learn from producing their own questions, resulting in answers that they will remember much better than if they had read material assigned by the teachers, then completing answers to questions provided by the teacher. INQUIRY is student-based learning resulting from student-based questions.






  • “What gave Shakespeare his ideas for the wide variety of play and sonnets he wrote?”
  • “How do ramps help us?”
  • “What caused the disease Kuru, killing off about 1/3 of the Fore tribe in Papua, New Guinea in the 1950’s?”



Students come up with FOUNDATION QUESTIONS.


  • When did Shakespeare live?
  • Was he married? Did he have kids?
  • Who else was famous at the same time as Shakespeare?
  • Was he famous while he was alive?
  • Did he travel to to get ideas for his writings?


  • Who invented the ramp? Do we know?
  • Did early humans understand physical laws of the earth?
  • Were there physicists before Sir Isaac Newton?
  • What was Isaac Newton knighted? Who made that decision/


  • Where is Papua, New Guinea?
  • What is Kuru like? How do people react when they have it?
  • How do people get Kuru?
  • What is the Fore tribe like?…Customs, languags, food, holidays,religión.
  • Is there are cure for Kuru?



Teacher advises students about resources and investigative tools that are available, IF students are using limited resources. Teacher should make public, posting on the wall, for example, a rubric which will be used to assess the final project of each team.



Students work collaboratively to arrive at answers and ideas based on the ESSENTIAL QUESTION / THE BIG IDEA. As students are investigating, the teacher circulates, to add support and guidance to students’ questions. Students are planning and predicting the outcome of some of their questions. ALL discussions need to be in English, if this is an English class. Teacher can help guide students to the oral fluency needed to creat the questions.



Students are organizing data, preparing notes, an outline, and reports of their results.  They are reflecting on the correct ness of answers, and the data they are accumulating.



The final presentation of the results are being planned. Power Point presentations, oral team reports, posters, musical, acting roles, photographs, an original video, etc, serve as a culminating exhibition of the work completed during the inquiry project. A rubric scoring chart will be used for each team’s final Project, plus individual studnst will be assessed for the positive, active participation during the Inquiry Project.

A self-assessment should be used, too, so that studnets refl;ect on what they did, how they felt about their personal contribution to the Project, and, most important of all, WHAT DID THEY LEARN ABOUT THE BIG IDEA/ESSENTIAL QUESTION during their inquiry work.



The INQUIRY METHOD is one of many techniques that help build interest in the topic and enhances critical thinking ability. A wide repertoire of techniques that obtain successful results is the signature of an excellent teacher. Ask wise, open, high level questions. Encourage studnet collaboarative work.

Use INQUIRY when you have a profound Essential Question or Big Idea.

The technique will help your students to learn how to learn, which is the hallmark of an educated person.


It’s when students ask their own questions that they become empowered learners. 



P.S. If you are a teacher of primary grades, and want more information about the INQUIRY METHOD for young students, write me at and I’ll send you, via e-mail, an article by a first grade English teacher who successfully developed a physics unit, where students learned much about physics by asking their own questions. When you write, ask for “Facilitating Inquiry”.