Making Sense of Inquiry-Based Learning: An Ontario Perspective

November 30, 2014 — 4 Comments

Where is inquiry in the Ontario curriculum?

Inquiry_and Ontario Curriculum

It is amazing how having a different idea in your head, or lens if you will, can totally change how you interpret and experience a text.  I had this experience today when I re-read the front matter of the Ontario Language Arts Curriculum.  Think about inquiry, and read the following quotes from the language document: 

“this curriculum promotes the integration of the study of language with the study of other subjects”

“language curriculum is also based on the understanding that students learn best when they can identify themselves in their own experience in the material they read and study at school”

“It is also important to give students opportunities to choose what they read and what they write about, in order to encourage the development of their own interests and pursuits.”

“Students develop their literacy skills when they seek out recreational reading materials and multimedia works that relate to their personal interests and to other subject areas, and when they engage in conversations with parents, peers, and teachers about what they are reading, writing, viewing, representing and thinking in their daily lives.”

“Students should be given the kinds of assignments that provide opportunities to produce writing that is interesting and original and that reflects their capacity for independent and critical thought.”

“Students need well-developed language skills to succeed in all subject areas. The development of skills and knowledge in language is often enhanced by learning in other subject areas.”

And, best of all:

“Inquiry is at the heart of learning in all subject areas.”

inquiry is at the heart

Inquiry is at the heart of learning in the Ontario curriculum, everywhere except Native Languages, where the inquiry is nowhere to be found, which I think is puzzling since it is found in the Language and FSL documents.

What is inquiry-based learning?

Perhaps you read my previous post on inquiry after the BIT14 Conference? What is inquiry? I decided that an Ontario teacher could and perhaps should turn to Ontario resources to answer this question. There are two Ministry of Education monographs on the topic of student inquiry Inquiry-Based Learning and Getting Started with Student Inquiry in which inquiry is defined as follows:

Inquiry-based learning is an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the centre of the learning experience.”

For students, the process often involves open-ended investigations into a question or a problem, requiring them to engage in evidence-based reasoning and creative problem-solving, as well as “problem finding.””

For Educators, the process is about being responsible to the students’ learning needs, and most importantly, knowing when and how to introduce students to ideas that will move them forward in their inquiry.”

Inquiry Based Learning and Problem Based Learning

These are two approaches that get me very excited. I am striving to provide experiences for my students that I think are nested under these headings.  I think the essential piece here is that we are making the sometimes smooth and easy (read boring) intellectual terrain of the classroom more rugged, bumpy and interesting by problematizing the curriculum.  Whether we do this by listening, watching, interpreting, reflecting or responding to students or whether we take a more teacher centred approach of setting the problem and inviting students in, the outcome is a richer and deeper learning experience.

Why do I feel it is especially important to think about IBL/PBL in the primary grades now?

I suspect, that our youngest learners at school are going to have different expectations of primary teachers. Our FDK learners will enter grades 1, 2 and 3 having had experiences with play-based learning where their questions were heard and honoured. These students are accustomed to many opportunities for student directed inquiry.

Below is a table from The Full-Day Early Learning – Kindergarten Program (Draft Version 2010-2011)

The Inquiry Process in Early Learning–Kindergarten Classrooms


What is a good model for inquiry-based learning?

Do a quick google search of inquiry models and you will see that inquiry comes in all shapes and sizes and with varying number of steps. What they all have in common is that they are usually circular in nature. Even the FDK model above is recursive. When the teacher listens to the children this is feeding forward to a potentially new investigation or going deeper.  Harvey and Daniels (2009) outline these steps for inquiry: Immerse, Investigate, Coalesce, and Go Public.

Inquiry-Cycle_Harvey and Daniels


Immerse – building curiosity and background knowledge
Investigate – students research the subject matter; they ask questions, look for and find answers
Coalesce – more succinct searching occurs, summarizing, and building new knowledge
Go Public – students share what they have learned with other students

It’s about students posing questions, finding answers and taking action.  Teachers and students are co-authors of the learning in the classroom where we balance student and teacher agendas. Students plan, teachers monitor, and we all reflect.  Students have opportunities to ask questions and share their own theories on the world and how things work. These ideas are tested, fact-checked and then new theories and ideas emerge.  Students become very active and engaged learners with freedom, power and agency over their own learning.

Did you know?

27 to 1 teacher to student questionsFor every question a child asks in class, a teacher as 27 questions? (Source: Cecil & Pfeifer 2011).  These teacher questions are related to classroom management and are often low level questioning. To be fair, this comes from very, very old research. But, it made me reflect on the teacher question to student question ratio in my class as well as the depth of the questions posed.

Teachers and Students Learning to Ask Better Questions

Recently, Tony Vincent made an excellent post titled Crafting Questions that Drive Projects with great ideas.

Harvey and Daniels (2009) identify three types of questions for content-area reading that I think would be helpful in the inquiry process:

The Definition Questions:

  • What is it?
  • What is happening?
  • What is going on?

The Consequence Questions:

  • Why does it matter?
  • What difference does it make?
  • Why should I care?

The Action Questions:

  • How can we get involved?
  • How can we help?
  • What can we do about it?

There is, of course, Bloom’s Taxonomy too. But, what I didn’t know is that Bloom produced three taxonomies: cognitive, affective and psychomotor.




I know about thinking of questions from the Cognitive taxonomy and this works well for science and “efferent” reading which is the reading we do to learn. But when we are reading to be transported we are reading aesthetically (Harvey and Daniels, 2009, p.91).   In this case, would an affective structure for asking questions be more appropriate?

I do know that more thinking on questioning is in my future.

Resources and Further Reading:

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cecil, N., & Pfeifer, J. (2011). The art of inquiry: Questioning strategies for K-6 classrooms (Second ed.).




4 responses to Making Sense of Inquiry-Based Learning: An Ontario Perspective

  1. Michelle, great post. I too realised that I have to do more thinking and more questioning. This year I revamped my program and now start most units of with questioning. It might just be a provocation but the students brainstorm ideas that come to mind, and then use those ideas to create questions that could be asked about the concept. There is no right or wrong question, they just ask. Then we take those ones and create deeper more meaningful questions from it. By starting this way I have seen an improvement in the student’s inquiry process but also in my way of thinking. I am not asking myself more questions. How can I do this differently? How can I make sure I’m reaching all my students? Did I spend enough time listening to each student? Did I make enough anecdotal notes to support my evaluation? and on and on. I have grown as a learner and becoming more curious about my learning as well. Yes, I too know that learning more about questioning is in my future.

    • I love how you said “I am becoming more curious about my learning as well.” That’s wonderful. I think that will come through in your teaching too. I think we can all become more skilled and thoughtful thinkers and then this does inspire us to know more. It’s a virtuous cycle.

      I have taken two books out from the library on questioning. Have you read either? Would you like to have an informal book club?

      Q Tasks 2nd Edition by Koechlin and Zwaan as well as Thinking through quality questioning: Deepening student engagement Walsh & Sattes.

  2. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and the work you are engaging in. I was wondering a bit about the ‘going public’ with the work. When I think of children and adults co-constructing knowledge, are their points throughout the process where the knowledge moves beyond the knowledgeable other to the public forum for further questioning by peers rather than just presentation? Peers in a co-constructed classroom may include the children and adults alike as adults can position themselves in the stance of learner as well. When I think of going public with knowledge I have cultivated and made my own, in order to share with others the environment needs to be supportive and rich in questions to in essence evaluate the knowledge from multiple perspective. OISE and Columbia have looked at the inquiry process and have noted that evaluation is a piece of what might be included in the ‘going public’ domain. I wonder if this is how the topic is revisited over time and linked to previous understandings of knowledge. In my work, I believe that through effective questioning, pushing back on the knowledge and examining the work from mutliple perspectives including the child as learner, we create a spherical process rather than a circular process. The multiple perspectives i.e., ideas and theories from multi-disciplines allow for various entry points into the learning as well as cross integrated learning and probing. Does this make sense to you? I would love to talk further with you.

  3. Two other texts I’d like to recommend (I’m all about the books) is Make Just One Change and Essential Questions. Sorry, don’t recall authors, etc. Make Just One Change has a question-building process. Really, it’s a lot of minutiae but when you dig under it all for the real heart, the process it outlines is good.

    Essential Questions, which you can get through ASCD, is, well…essential. Ran a PD book club last year and it is a light (as in short) but dense resource.

    Is it bad if I admit to asking questions daily that I don’t really expect an answer to?

    The “Immerse, Investigate, Coalesce, and Go Public” process that you’ve addressed is a fun process. It’s hard for students if they’re going into for the first time and they’re used to being spoon-fed what to research (or what to know, more accurately) and how to share it. We’ve tried to start our year with what we feel are good entry points for that model such as the Human Body Systems unit.

    Enjoy your reading!

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