For the purpose of this article 'inquiry' will be taken to mean 'a language act in which one attempts to elicit another's help in going beyond his or her present understanding.' (Lindfors 1999)

Wendy Arnold, Teacher, Trainer, Hong Kong
  • Developmental theories
  • The coverage dilemma
  • Why inquiry?
  • Profile of a learner
  • The unit planner and the curriculum model
  • Internationalism
  • Conclusions

Developmental theories
As I'm not attempting to reinvent the wheel, it would seem appropriate to start with identifying the developmental theories that have had a considerable effect on education. These three theorists value social interaction, with language used as the 'tool' to communicate in order to negotiate meaning and extend knowledge.

  • Piaget's theory outlines sequential stages whereby cognition progresses by understanding, adapting and continually modifying. There is also differentiation between 'learning' and 'development', the former being taught knowledge and the latter being independently acquired.
  • Vygotsky's theory that learning is ahead of development. The term zone of proximal development (ZPD) seems to mean that a gap is created between what a person has learnt from experience and problem solving, and what they could achieve with the help of a more knowledgeable peer.
  • Bruner's theory of scaffolding which appears to define the role of the more knowledgeable peer in Vygotsky's ZPD theory. Furthermore, Bruner seems to believe that an important element is to 'learn how to learn', whereby learning skills are transferred from one situation to another.

I believe that negotiating understanding in the ways described above is a crucial part of cognition and this in turn is a key part of structured inquiry.

The coverage dilemma
From my observations the current trend in education for broad coverage has led to an overcrowded curriculum where the goal, to teach for understanding, is reduced because of time constraints in the classroom. I agree with Gardner, who says '… one must move towards "uncoverage" … or …embrace the principle that "less is more" …' (1993).

This is where I believe a teaching philosophy which focuses on thinking and not solely on content is very attractive. Knowledge is changing rapidly, memorising facts and figures which could shortly be outdated does not seem wise, however, learning how to access knowledge quickly, effectively and evaluating it as structured inquiry does, seems much wiser.

Why inquiry?
In essence because it focuses on the 'why' and 'how' and not the 'what' of knowledge. It attempts to:

  • show what is and isn't known about concepts
  • allow misconceptions to emerge
  • activate and motivate learning
  • build life-long independent learners
  • encourage risk taking
  • develop respect for other opinions and understandings
  • develop flexible and adaptive thinkers
  • allow for different learning styles
  • show that we are all learning: teachers and students alike

Profile of a learner
Let's focus for a moment on what attributes our ideal learner should have, and the concept of shifting from knowledge-driven to critical and analytical thinkers

  • Inquirer - asks questions to learn and know more
  • Thinker -considers a variety of ideas, programmes, strategies
  • Communicator - listens and shares openly
  • Risk-taker - willing to try new things regardless of the outcome
  • Knowledgeable - develops understandings from a variety of resources
  • Principled - honest, respectful, fair
  • Caring - compassionate
  • Open-minded - considers different points of view; takes positive advantage of diversity
  • Well-balanced - promotes value of work, play and rest
  • Reflective - proactive; learns from successes and failures, plans for future

In effect learners who do not take knowledge at face value but who ask themselves how it fits into the scheme of their specific needs whilst having an acute awareness of its possible future impact.  

The unit planner and the curriculum model
In structured inquiry learning teachers develop their lessons around a framework for planning units of work (and this could be national curriculum designated) which include:

  1. What is our purpose?
  2. What do we want to learn?
  3. How will we know what we have learned?
  4. How best will we learn?
  5. What resources will we use?
  6. How will we take action?
  7. To what extent did we achieve our purpose?
  • The curriculum model includes;
    • a commitment to structured inquiry as the leading vehicle for learning.
    • guidelines on what students should learn; students develop an understanding of important concepts, acquire essential skills and knowledge, attitudes and learn to take appropriate responsible action.
  • An example of a unit of work might be
    What? Learning How a plant grows
    Why? Concept Understanding what a plant needs to grow i.e. Water, soil, sun and
    How? Essential skill and knowledge Knowledge. The sequence of putting the seed into the soil and then adding water and the effect of the sun
    Why? Attitudes/responsible action Understanding why living beings need plants for oxygen, food, shade, aesthetic reasons, furniture, paper etc. And similarly what happens if we don't have them e.g. starvation, impact of deforestation etc.

Internationalism should permeate all areas of the curriculum and school structure. Many teachers might well be asking themselves 'What on earth has internationalism got to do with me?'

It is my belief that as educators in whatever area of education, that is to say national, international or specific subject, we should be embedding and explicitly identifying tolerance of other cultures and societies alongside the critical thinking or structured inquiry strategies outlined above. In the unit identified here this could be recognising that some areas of the world live with the threat of starvation because they are not able to feed themselves due to drought and poverty etc., and it is the responsibility of others to take care of them.

In essence 'structured inquiry' is a framework which can be applied in any willing global context.

  • Structured inquiry is inclusive.
  • Structured inquiry takes positive advantage of diversity.
  • Structured inquiry places a focus on critical thinking, person responsibility for learning, student inquiry and social service.
  • Attention is paid to a range of national curriculum and standards.
  • It changes the focus from teaching through subjects or teaching through themes to teaching through a need to understand (Inquiry).

It is not just a new fashion, it has simply pulled together the threads of existing theories and methodologies in a meaningful way in an attempt to create better citizens for our future society!

I would like to acknowledge Maggie Lopez and Jillian Fullarton of Phonetics International School ESF Educational Services Ltd for explaining these concepts so clearly at a presentation I attended in Hong Kong. The idea of 'structured inquiry' borrows heavily on the ideas and framework of the Primary Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate Organization.

Further reading
IB Learner Profile Booklet (2006). International Baccalaureate Organization.
A Basis for Practice: The Primary Years Programme (2002). International Baccalaureate Organization.
Making the PYP Happen (2001 and 2007). International Baccalaureate Organization.
Lindfors, J W (1999) Children's Inquiry: Using Language to make sense of the World. US: Teachers College Press
Maybin, J, Mercer N, Stierer B (1992) "Scaffolding" Learning in the Classroom'. In K. Norman (ed) Thinking voices. The Work of the National Oracy Project. London: Hodder & Stoughton
Vygotsky, L.S (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Great Britain: Harvard University Press
Williams, M. & Burden R.L (1997) Psychology for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press

See also the web site of the International Baccalaureate Organization:


Submitted by haitam on Tue, 05/08/2018 - 20:44


hi i m so greatfull to the british council ,they really provide students,teachers and teacher trainers with much help,trully they ease the burden task of teaching ,and d a good source for students to develop and be able to speak english. apart from this ,i would like the staff of the british council to provide me,if possible ,with some videos and informations about international bacalaureat(ib). or some good sources such as websites or sth .thank you. i m looking forward to hearing from you. many thanks

Hello haitam, Thanks for your comment and we are glad to hear you enjoy using the site. A good place to start finding out more about the International baccalaureate is the IB official website - Thanks, Cath TE Team

Submitted by haitam on Wed, 05/09/2018 - 21:25

In reply to by Cath McLellan


hello thank you ,i appreciate your help,

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