CSI Literacy NZ

The problem with inquiry learning

The problem with inquiry learning

Let’s not get off on the wrong foot: inquiry learning is good for many reasons.

Students have agency when they choose their inquiry topic; it’s modern learning when they collaborate and research online. But most of all, it’s pretty fun, and happy learners are good learners, right?

Maybe not.

Engagement and achievement researcher Professor John Guthrie showed that engagement is a combination of heart and mind. Simply being happy in our work doesn’t mean we’re actually learning – we also need to be intellectually challenged. 

In other words, student agency alone is not sufficient to drive learning forward.

As a teacher (and now a publisher of learning materials), I’ve learned that too often the quality of a student inquiry is based on the quality of a student’s literacy knowledge, skills and strategies.

I noticed that I’d have my students happily working on inquiries. In history and English, particularly, they were researching, writing and presenting, or perhaps creating and delivering a presentation. They were employing some excellent and useful skills. But I also noticed that the students with the best-developed literacy skills completed the most highly competent inquiries, while the students with low literacy struggled.  

It’s what Professor Keith Stanovich once coined ‘the Matthew Effect’. “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matthew 13:12)

The (literacy) rich get richer and the (literacy) poor get poorer.


The need to teach literacy strategies

The learning for me was that I needed to intervene: my job was to make sure that the students knew what literacy skills and strategies were needed for inquiry learning, and that I taught them before and during the inquiry.

 Influential New Zealand researcher Professor Graham Nuthall put it this way in The Hidden Lives of Learners: ‘Students can be highly motivated and actively engaged in interesting activities, yet not be learning anything new’.

I think that’s scary. Do you?

As teachers, we’re happy when our students are motivated to learn and actively engaged in classroom activities. No wonder the thought that they may not be learning anything new is disconcerting. So what is going on here and how can we address it?

An inquiry learning intervention

What it boils down to is this: motivation and enjoyment are important, but they’re not sufficient to ensure student learning.

We need to intervene to make sure that our students all have the literacy knowledge, skills and strategies they need to be effective learners. We need to throw out the fallacious ‘Learn to read, read to learn’ mantra, and we need to make sure that throughout their lives as learners we provide students with the literacy teaching and learning they need.

It’s a good thing that research evidence tells us how to do this: all students can come to literacy if the texts are engaging, and the teaching and tasks explicit.

Exactly how do we do this in a modern learning environment? There are many ways. Here are five.

Five ways to develop literacy skills with inquiry learning

  1. Keeping with the spirit of student agency, gather your students around and brainstorm the challenges they will face when enquiring. Assign possible solutions for them to research and return within short timeframe. They will get an understanding of what’s ahead and you’ll have a chance to formatively assess and pre-teach essential inquiry skills and strategies.

  2. Explicitly teach the literacy skills and strategies they need in a short, sharp, exciting sequence. Use texts that represent the complexity students will find when online doing their research. You might include questioning, summarising, determining important ideas and detail, using background knowledge, visualising to help remember key information, and drawing inferences. Inferencing is often neglected, but it’s very important when reading informational texts – students need to understand the author’s purpose, motivation and messaging. Of course, you’ll also need to teach students how to monitor and discriminate between material that comes up online. Be on the lookout for fake news!

  3. Have students keep a log of roadblocks they encounter as they move through their inquiry, then have sessions where they can share and discuss them openly.

  4. Be aware of students who may struggle with the inquiry. Give them more time and attention throughout the inquiry period so that their inquiry packs more punch.

  5. If you have a library/information specialist in the school, ask them into your learning space to work with the students on essential information skills and strategies. (If not, invite the principal – but do it early in the morning before they’ve had too much coffee or too many parent meetings!)


If you'd like help explicitly teach reading comprehension strategies with engaging texts – check out our kits.

How do you teach literacy skills as part of inquiry learning? Tell us in the comments.


About the author 

Neale Pitches is the founder of CSI Literacy and a former teacher, principal and CEO of Learning Media. 

Neale presents internationally on literacy and school leadership, and was honoured by the Queen in 2003 for his contributions to New Zealand education.




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