By Jennifer Branch-Mueller, PhD
University of Alberta
We ask ourselves questions all day every day. From the moment we wake up in the morning we wonder. We wonder about big things – our children’s futures, end of life care for those we love, how to grow our economy, and how to protect our environment for future generations. We wonder about little things – coffee or tea, toast or cereal, pack a lunch or pick up something.
Questions and wonders are the foundation of inquiry and inquiry-based learning comes from the tradition of resource-based instruction and research projects. According to the Galileo Network (2015), “Inquiry is the dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlements and coming to know and understand the world.” Research tells us that students who engage in inquiry become more independent, more creative, and more positive (Kühne, 1995). Focus on Inquiry: A Teacher’s Guide to Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning was published in 2004 by Alberta Learning. It involved consultation with teachers and teacher-librarians across the province and was meant to support teachers to use inquiry-based learning as one component of their teaching practice. This document built on a previous provincial document called Focus on Research: A guide to developing students’ research skills.
The fundamental difference between research and inquiry is that inquiry involves helping students to ask their own questions. For example, a school research project might ask children to do a research report on their favourite animal. Inquiry would help children develop questions they want to know about their favourite animal and then answer those questions. Both research and inquiry require understanding the process that guides you through the stages of your work.
At the heart of inquiry-based learning is a sense of wonder. Now, more than ever, we need children, young adults, and adults to be able to ask good questions and know how to find information to answer those questions. Asking questions also helps children connect to their own learning and develop the knowledge and skills to solve problems they encounter as they grow and develop. Teachers who integrate inquiry into their teaching and learning help children develop their own questions and also frame learning around essential questions that can be answered by young and old like the following:
- How do I make healthy life choices?
- How can I continue to build physical strength and endurance throughout my life?
- How do I use imagery to create pictures in my readers’ minds?
- How do small crawling and flying insects help our world?
- How can I use colour to express my feelings in my art work?
- How does music play a part in our celebrations?
- How do I measure objects in my world?
Here is information from the front matter of the current Social Studies curriculum. It states that:
In social studies, the research process develops learners who are independent, self-motivated problem solvers and co-creators of knowledge. Developing research skills prepares students for the world of work, post-secondary studies, lifelong learning and citizenship in a complex world. These skills also enhance and enrich the process of identity formation as students critically reflect on their sense of self and relationship to others. The foundations of the research process are the application of acquired skills, the selection of appropriate resources and the use of suitable technology. (Alberta Education, 2005, p. 10)
The current social studies curriculum also highlights the importance of active inquiry for democratic life. It notes that:
A focus on issues through deliberation is intrinsic to the multidisciplinary nature of social studies and to democratic life in a pluralistic society. An issues-focused approach presents opportunities to address learning outcomes by engaging students in active inquiry and application of knowledge and critical thinking skills. These skills help students to identify the relevance of an issue by guiding them to develop informed positions and respect for the positions of others. This process enables students to question, validate, expand and express their understanding; to challenge their presuppositions; and to construct their own points of view. (Alberta Education, 2005, pp. 5-6)
Asking students to successfully engage in research/inquiry requires teaching students various skills. It isn’t as simple as asking students to “do research.” The Focus on Inquiry model, for example, includes the stages of planning, retrieving, processing, creating, sharing, and evaluating (Alberta Learning, 2004). The current Social Studies curriculum includes learning outcomes that build skills for successful research/inquiry. In kindergarten, for example, we see students are expected to:
• ask questions to make meaning of a topic
- gather information on a particular topic from a variety of sources, e.g., illustrations, photographs, videos, objects, auditory cues
By grade 3, students are expected to:
- evaluate whether information supports an issue or a research question
- develop questions that reflect a personal information need
- follow a plan to complete an inquiry
- access and retrieve appropriate information from electronic sources for a specific inquiry
- organize information from more than one source
- process information from more than one source to retell what has been discovered
- draw conclusions from organized information
- make predictions based on organized information
- formulate new questions as research progresses
And in grade 6, student learning outcomes in this area also include:
- access and retrieve appropriate information from the Internet by using a specific search path or from given uniform resource locators (URLs)
- organize information, using such tools as a database, spreadsheet or electronic webbing
- use a variety of technologies to organize and synthesize researched information
- reflect on and describe the processes involved in completing a project
These are the skills we use everyday when we have questions that need answers and they are more important than ever because of the large amounts of information available on the Internet. Our students need to be able to ask questions, find quality information, and then share their new understandings with other students, with teachers, with their family and with their community. Building these research/inquiry skills is seen as so important that they are also included in our current Language Arts curriculum. General Outcome 3 helps students build the skills to manage ideas and information. The sections are:
- 3.1 Plan and focus
- 3.2 Select and process
- 3.3 Organize, record and evaluate
- 3.4 Share and review
Learning outcomes include:
- find information on a topic, using a variety of sources, such as simple chapter books, multimedia resources, computers and elders in the community
- use text features, such as illustrations, titles and opening shots in video programs, to access information
- use the library organizational system to locate information
- identify information sources that inform, persuade or entertain, and use such sources appropriately
- review information to determine its usefulness in answering research questions
- skim, scan and read closely to gather information
The new draft Social Studies curriculum and the new draft English Language Arts and Literature curriculum (Alberta Education, 2021) do not include the systematic teaching of research/inquiry skills. To successfully engage in research and/or inquiry, students need to be taught and to practice research/inquiry skills across the curriculum. It is imperative that our new curriculum documents include these skills. It is more important than ever that our children have the skills necessary to ask questions and find answers to them.
Alberta Education. (2021). 2021 draft kindergarten-grade 6 (K-6) curriculum. https://curriculum.learnalberta.ca/curriculum/en
Alberta Education. (2005). Social studies K-6. https://education.alberta.ca/social-studies-k-6/programs-of-study/
Alberta Learning. (2000). English language arts. https://education.alberta.ca/media/160360/ela-pos-k-9.pdf
Alberta Education. Curriculum Support Branch. (1990). Focus on research: A guide to developing students’ research skills. Author.
Alberta Learning. (2004). Focus on inquiry: A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning. Author. https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/032c67af-325c-4039-a0f3-100f44306910/resource/b7585634-fabe-4488-a836-af22f1cbab2a/download/29065832004focusoninquiry.pdf
Galileo Educational Network. (2015). Focus on inquiry. https://inquiry.galileo.org/
Kühne, B. (1995). The Barkestorp project: Investigating school library use. School Libraries Worldwide, 1(1), 13–27.
McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by design framework. ASCD. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf
University of Alberta
Dr. Branch-Mueller teaches and researches in the area of teacher-librarianship education in the Department of Elementary Education in the Faculty of Education. She was a classroom teacher and a teacher-librarian and currently teaches online and face-to-face courses at the undergraduate and graduate level.