What is Inquiry Learning?

Inquiry Learning is how people learn when problems move beyond memorizing simple facts and practicing rote skills.  It includes:

  • A spirit of inquiry (Curiosity)
  • The educational philosophy that children learn through building their own understanding (Discovery)
  • A curriculum framework that helps children use the skills of inquiry to solve worthy problems (Problem Solving)

A Spirit of Inquiry

You know about the importance of fostering children’s curiosity – and how traditional education does the opposite. If you haven’t seen Dr. Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, “Do Schools Kills Creativity?” you can watch it here. The need for nurturing children’s curiosity has been in the news for decades, including in a 2010 Newsweek article which noted:

“Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day … By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking.”

We can support our children’s creativity by allowing them time to explore, imagine and ponder; by engaging with their questions; and by asking them higher level questions which don’t have one right answer.

Instead of asking a preschooler, “How many birds are in the picture?” we can ask, “Where do you think the birds are going?”

In school, fostering curiosity is sometimes called Engagement Learning.  It can be low level engagement, trying to link basic skills to a child’s interests:

I had my elementary students make up stories about math computation problems before beginning their work.  What could 2 times 3 mean?  When might you want to know what 73 minus 56 is?  The students would tell stories about 2 friends eating 3 chocolate chip cookies each, or a pack of 73 dinosaurs, 56 of which were herbivores.

Of course, higher level engagement is better:  encouraging children to seek answers for questions that are important to them.

Educational Philosophy:  Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) looks at questions that don’t have easy answers. It believes that children learn by synthesizing complex and divergent ideas, basic skills, and concepts, to create their own understanding. Children don’t need IBL to learn their math facts (although thinking about 2 plus 2 as a story can build number awareness). Children do need IBL to analyze information, to create something new, and to solve problems that go beyond a single right answer.

Learning this way is not new. As Socrates wrote:

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” 

Teachers might use IBL in tandem with traditional academics:

A second grade teacher might have students practice double-digit multiplication by sketching a dream home and finding the area of each room.

To learn more about the three educational philosophies, go here.

Curriculum Framework:  Inquiry Learning Projects

Every school, no matter its educational philosophy, does “projects.”

  • In schools with a more Skill-Based philosophy, projects are step-by-step assignments that demonstrate knowledge of predetermined content or skills a child is supposed to know. The final product might be a report, poster, or diorama, or dressing up like a historical figure and acting in character.
  • In schools with a more Inquiry-Based philosophy, projects are open-ended assignments that involve children solving a complex problem, using skills and knowledge they gained before or during the project. They might produce products like a multi-media presentation or display.

Inquiry Learning Projects involve:

  • Finding a worthy problem to solve: with younger children or students who are new to Inquiry Learning Projects, the teacher identifies the problem and engages a child’s curiosity; more experienced students find their own worthy problems
  • Gaining the necessary skills and knowledge to solve the problem through research, direct instruction, and exploration
  • Collaborating with peers: sometimes a student will work completely independently, but more often schools have students work with a team, simulating the world of work they will grow into
  • Designing a possible solution, testing it, and revising as needed
  • Presenting the solution and evaluating both the process of solving the problem and the final product

Here are some of the curriculum frameworks schools use to help students create Inquiry Learning Projects:


Design Thinking  

Framework for 21st Century Learning  

Genius Hour 

Passion Projects  

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