What does inquiry look like?

One of the challenges of moving from the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) to the Primary Years Programme (PYP) has been the amount of jargon to get my head around,

Trans-disciplinary themes, the learner profile, essential elements, approaches to learning.

On one level I have enjoyed attaching language to learning processes and things I’ve done in the classroom past.

Yet I found myself frustrated by the language.

Planning seemed more like negotiating a minefield of jargon. While many aspects of the Primary Years Programme were directly transferable from my previous teaching experience, I longed for the New Zealand Curriculum’s simplicity and bias towards action.

One of the problems was this notion of an inquiry ‘cycle.’  I often see Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle hanging up in PYP classrooms as the gold standard of inquiry learning looking a little something like this.

Inquiry in theory
Kath Murdoch’s inquiry model – illustration by me

Nice, neat and clean. It looks like a sequential recipe. Something that must be adhered to or the cake won’t rise.

I can see why.

Teachers love lists.

Lists help us plan, they help us measure process.

In short they make our lives easier.

The problem with slavishly following a linear model is that it can replace the complex nuances of inquiry with compliance.

Tuning in becomes something ‘done’  to children to get them to the next stage rather than something teachers and children do together. The textbooks  and worksheets might be gone – yet by rigidly following this model over time units of inquiry gradually stale and predictable.


Paint by numbers learning.

But is paint by numbers art?

Is that why I was getting annoyed when my nice, neat plans got ‘messed up’ by changes to school schedules or the elaborate summative assessment tasks the children were completing?

There were a couple of times last year where it was time to start the next unit and the kids hadn’t taken any meaningful action.

Did I fail to heed an important lesson?

What is relegated to the bottom of the planner becomes the first thing that gets squeezed out of the schedule when we are short of time.

Inquiry in school

By leaving taking action until last, the children were learning language and concepts without having any idea about how to meaningfully apply their learning to their daily lives.

Inquiry without action is the equivalent of teaching artistic techniques without once letting a child pick up a crayon.

I know from my own learning that I ask questions and investigate when I learn. But I also make mistakes, re-think, start over as I construct meaning. Inquiry by its very nature is iterative. I should be making slight tweaks to process through each engagement not following the same recipe unit after unit.

It wasn’t until I read from the this blog post from Kath herself that I realised that this model didn’t needed to be followed. I realised I needed to re-think how I was applying this model to the classroom.

I love the idea of thinking as the inquiry model as colours on an artist’s palette.

Kath Murdoch’s inquiry model as paints

Paints are tools for artists to perform their understanding of the world.

We don’t demand that artists paint in a certain order to create a painting. Artists don’t use all of the colours available to them, just the ones necessary. Moreover, artists combine the colours available to them to create more colours.

Why not take action to tune in?

Let the children sort out as the teacher tunes in.

What does inquiry learning look like?

I like to think of inquiry as a Jackson Pollock painting.

From afar it might look random splotched canvas but if you look closely, intricate patterns reveal themselves to show the beauty for those who take the time to really look.

Inquiry as a Jackson Pollock Painting

9 thoughts on “What does inquiry look like?

Add yours

  1. Hi Stephanie! Interesting post as always (you’ve been busy over your break! It is so important to recognise the complexity (learning theory) that sits behind any model or framework. Without that kind of nuanced understanding the model does indeed become a simplistic recipe. However, models do serve a purpose and for me – one of those is to help us consider our intentions more clearly. So – when I plan for ‘tuning in’ I am really thinking about how to connect with students’ current thinking, prior knowledge, misconceptions, interests and wonderings. This is an important element in scaffolding learning. It would, in fact, be rare for me to start with ‘taking action’ in order to achieve those goals. I would need to think carefully whether that action still met my intentions early on in an inquiry (it may – with some deft questioning and creative planning) I agree that there needs of be a high degree of flexibility and fluency in applying models. I love the way we can mix colours – add bits of colour to another and transform things. BUT we also want to make sure that we don’t blur the colours on the pallette to such a degree that we lose sight of them altogether!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kath
      I love that you are always willing to engage in conversation online. I think as a teacher I need to be mindful of a balance between taming the wild (models, theories) and wilding the tame (what actually happens). My aha moment on taking action as tuning in was via the children taking action on Nepal which was partly a wrap of inquiring into actions community members can make to help others and the beginnings of an earth science unit. If units are planned to take advantage of both a thoughtful running order and events in the outside world there can be a lot less rigidity to the model.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have always used various cycles, (not just Kath Murdoch’s) but never in a linear fashion. I think none of our teachers do! That we felt made the most sense 🙂

    Naini Singh


  3. Stephanie, thank you for sharing. Love the idea of the paint pallet but, as Kath mentioned, planned curriculum ought to be intentional (of course there are always unintentional learning opportunities too). If you, as teacher/ facilitator can justify why the deviation from the he model then go for it!
    However, action is not the only application of knowledge and skills. The ‘artist’ can be applying what she may know, or can do, before the summative point. (The idea of life long learning also infers there is never a summation point too, I prefer the term milestones.) So if application can happen at any point, action can be thought of as ‘now that you know/ understand/ can do this, what are you going to do?’
    It sounds like your experience was the students’ action, led to another cycle of inquiry, where their action was them applying knowledge, skills and understanding from previous learning. In this sense their action was tuning your class in, setting the scene for further learning. Which is what we all seak – authentic inquiry.
    Keep up your adaptive classroom!

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: