Essay “Why Not Inquiry Learning?”

Why is it so hard to implement Learning-Based Inquiry into the classroom?

There is strong evidence to show that inquiry-based teaching benefits learning in the classroom.  An impressively long list of studies and research can be found to corroborate this support.  Barron & Darling-Hammond (2008) cite numerous examples supporting the benefits.  Teachers who have used this approach, sing its praises (Scanlon et al, 2009; Tamim & Grant, 2013) and although inquiry learning per se isn’t mentioned, “developing inquiry skills” and “questioning using inquiry” propagates the Australian Curriculum.  However, despite such support and acclaim found for the research it has been observed as having little impact on teaching practice (Levy et al, 2011; Trautmann, Makinster & Avery, 2004).

A plethora of definitions and labels for inquiry learning is considered to be an impediment to its implementation at a practical level  Put simply, having so many interpretations within the conversation surrounding inquiry has teachers uncertain as to what it actually means (Levy et al, 2011).  Some of this confusion lays in a traditional understanding of inquiry as being within a scientific model and so dismissing its relevance to other areas of teaching (Colburn, 2000).  Trautmann, Makinster & Avery (2004) found that teachers displaying a wide variety of conceptions about inquiry produced a wide variety of teaching practices in the classroom. Some conveyed it as learning that is driven by questioning from the teacher or students, but many thought it included any sort of hands-on activity.

Whilst definition is problematic, the level of understanding and acceptance of the theoretical foundations which reinforces an inquiry method also influences teaching practice. As Kuhlthau (2007) states, “Every educator has a theory of learning that forms the basis of the instruction and the learning environment he or she provides for students” (p.13). At a pedagogical level, therefore, teachers either need to reconsider their base conceptualization of what inquiry learning is so that they can adjust their teaching methods accordingly or educate themselves on the sound and important educational theories which confirm the value of learning inquiry as pedagogical practice.

However, Grant (2002) found that even though teachers, at a knowledge level, understood the theory of constructivism, as an essential component of inquiry learning, they were still not able to translate this into the classroom. This indicates that for teachers, knowledge isn’t enough. As stressed by Lakkala et al. (2005), the teacher does not deliver knowledge, but provides context and conditions. They found that while teachers in the first instance promoted purposeful inquiry, they did not know how to scaffold students learning. Instead, some teachers gave up, turning back to defined school tasks, such as assignments because of the unnerving feeling of having ideas left ‘hanging’ instead of an accomplished task. In a further understanding of the barriers faced by classroom teachers in implementing changes to teaching practices, Noack et al. (2013) found teachers left on their own, suffered from feelings of overload, tension, uncertainty and in some cases inadequacy. The clear message to take from this is teachers need support and teachers need practice so they know what to expect, what to do and how to cope.

In a similar vein, teacher’s fears of managing the students in the classroom and curriculum has been identified as further constraints on teacher’s practice of inquiry learning. Concerns about not having control over the classroom, belief students are not capable of carrying out inquiry activities and not enough time to cover the required curriculum were all found to be active barriers to implementation (Assay & Orgill, 2010). Curriculum is also considered problematic where standardized high stakes testing results in teaching practices which are at odds with those advocated by inquiry learning (Hume & Coll, 2008).   Pressures on teachers for specific results, as is the case for NAPLAN testing in Australia, forces teachers make students get the ‘culturally desired results’. The right answer is considered the goal and not how the answer is learned which is antithetical to the philosophy which is Inquiry-based learning.

While theory, belief, values and understanding are of critical importance in the practice of inquiry learning, of equal importance is the political and cultural aspects of schooling.   The support from parents, teachers and managers is vital; pedagogical frameworks developed and collaboration, essential. For the inquiry process to be enabled, the library needs to become a focal point. As identified via studies by Kuhlthau (2003), “In successful programs, the school library is recognized as the essential component in inquiry-based learning” (p.5). If trying to piece together the puzzle of why inquiry learning isn’t implemented in schools, surely this must be one of the largest pieces missing. As a 2011 parliamentary inquiry into school libraries and teacher librarians in Australian schools (House of Representatives) revealed, school libraries are under-funded and teacher-librarian appointments declining.

Collaboration is key in programming and implementing the inquiry learning process. “Collaboration in inquiry involves planning, teaching and evaluating student learning across the curriculum and providing an instructional team as expert in the content and context of the teacher-librarian as the expert in the resources and process” (Kuhlthau, 2003, p.5). Teachers simply cannot do this alone and if the question is why not inquiry learning, one of the answers must be because teachers have been left to attempt inquiry alone and in the confines of one classroom. Clearly, as the above evidence supports, being left to fend for themselves, the classroom teacher in the face of many constraints, will, if for no other reason but self-preservation resort to other models of teaching. For inquiry learning to work, an organized guided inquiry learning team is essential (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2012).

In asking why inquiry-learning is predominantly not used in the classroom, I have identified:

  1. Teacher beliefs, values and understanding
  2. Insufficient professional and ongoing development
  3. Insufficient personal support
  4. Curriculum where high stakes, standardized testing is valued
  5. School politics
  6. Insufficient funding for libraries
  7. Libraries and librarians are undervalued and under-utilised
  8. Insufficient or no collaboration within and outside of the school community.

Instead of asking why not, I now ask why?


Asay, L. D., & Orgill, M. (2010). Analysis of essential features of inquiry found in articles published in the science teacher, 1998–2007. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 21(1), 57-79. doi:10.1007/s10972-009-9152-

ACARA Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (n.d.). The Australian Curriculum Capabilities. Retrieved on 24th August 2012 from

Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008) Teaching for meaningful learning: a review of research on inquiry-based and co-operative learning. Retrieved from

Colburn, A. (2000). An inquiry primer. Science Scope, 23(6), 42. Retrieved from

Grant, Michael (2002). Getting a grip on project-based learning: theory, cases and recommendations. Retrieved from

House of Representatives. Standing Committee on Education and Employment (2011). School libraries and teacher librarians in 21st century Australia. Canberrra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 23 August, 2014 from

Hume, A., & Coll, R. (2008). Student experiences of carrying out a practical science investigation under direction. International Journal of Science Education, 30(9), 1201-1228. doi:10.1080/09500690701445052

Kuhlthau, C. C. (2003). Rethinking libraries for the information age school: Vital roles in inquiry learning. School Libraries in Canada, 22(4), 3-5. Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, Carol C. ; Maniotes, Leslie K. & Caspari, Ann K, (2007). Chapter 2: The Theory and Research Basis for Guided Inquiry. In Kuhlthau, Carol C. ; Maniotes, Leslie K. & Caspari, Ann K, Guided inquiry : learning in the 21st century, (pp.13 – 28). Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited

Kuhlthau, Carol (2010). Guided inquiry : school libraries in the 21st century., School Libraries Worldwide 16 (1) pp.1-12

Kuhlthau, C.; Maniotes, L. and Caspari, A, (2012). Chapter 1 : Guided Inquiry Design: The Process, the Learning, and the Team. In Kuhlthau, C.; Maniotes, L. and Caspari, A, Guided inquiry design : a framework for inquiry in your school, (pp.1 – 15). Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited

Lakkala, M., Lallimo, J., & Hakkarainen, K. (2005). Teachers’ pedagogical designs for technology-supported collective inquiry: A national case study. Computers & Education, 45(3), 337-356. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2005.04.010

Levy, P., Lameras, P., McKinney, P., Ford, N. (2011). The Pathway to Inquiry Based Science Teaching

Noack, M., Mulholland, J., & Warren, E. (2013). Voices of reform from the classroom: Teachers’ approaches to change. Teachers and Teaching : Theory and Practice, 19(4), 449.

Scanlon, E.; Littleton, K.; Gaved, M.; Kerawalla, L.; Mulholland, P.; Collins, T.; Conole, G.; Jones, A.; Clough, G.; Blake, C. and Twiner, A. (2009). Support for evidence-based inquiry learning: teachers, tools and phases of inquiry. In: European Association for Research in Learning and Instruction Conference, August 2009, Amsterdam.

Tamim, S. R., & Grant, M. M. (2013). Definitions and uses: Case study of teachers implementing project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based  Learning, 7(2) doi:10.7771/1541-5015.1323

Trautmann, N., MaKinster, J., Avery, L. (2004, April). What makes inquiry so hard? (And why is it worth it?). Proceedings of the NARST 2004 Annual Meeting. Retreived from












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