Disciplined Inquiry

According to McTighe, Seif, and Wiggins (2004), students make meaning when they are asked to inquire, think at high levels, and solve problems. However, there is a great deal of variance in terms of what educators accept as inquiry. What is inquiry? Is inquiry students seeking to confirm something that is already known? Is inquiry students investigating a question posed by their teacher? Is inquiry developing skills and strategies to pose and seek answers to questions of personal interest in the context of lifelong learning?Dr. Richard Rezba from Virginia Commonwealth University, has identified four different levels of classroom inquiry on a continuum from structured to open-ended (Table 7).

Level of Inquiry Description
Confirmation/Verification Confirmation of a principle through an activity when the results are known in advance
Guided Inquiry Investigation of a presented question using student-designed process
Open Inquiry Investigation of a student-formulated question using student-selected process


Inquiry in the context of lifelong learning requires the disciplined marriage of skills, strategies, and mindsets. To engage in inquiry for understanding, one must be willing to grapple with difficult issues and complex questions while constructing new meaning from a state of cognitive dissonance. Inquiry is often messy as it is active and requires the use of multiple senses. A key implication of the use of inquiry in the classroom is the shift from teacher-determined to student-centered classrooms. Students are invested in the process of building knowledge and acquiring new skills through the activation of their interests.

Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
Chinese proverb

An inquiry process can engage students in meaningful learning in all disciplines. Students in a civics class might investigate the relationship between power and choice within a historical context by analyzing primary source documents, asking and answering questions like "What is the cost of choice?" or "Does everyone have power?" In conducting historical inquiry, students identify a historical issue, investigate that issue, and draw conclusions or make judgments about it. Math students might use manipulatives and calculators to identify patterns in mathematical models, developing and testing functions in order to explore their conjectures, resulting in a deeper level understanding. The art, music, and politics of a given time period might be explored in a language arts class to deepen understanding of a piece of literature or students might investigate text to deepen understanding of history. It is important to understand that the use of inquiry can help students develop deep understanding across disciplines. Specific examples of inquiry in the context of standards-based, concept-centered learning are included in Appendix B Levels of Inquiry.

Providing authentic models and regular opportunities for students to apply knowledge and skills in the context of genuine problem solving often requires resources outside of the classroom. Interdisciplinary connections are often made through lesson extensions such as field trips, community-based projects, open inquiry, and inventive uses of technology to extend beyond the walls of the classroom. While inquiry is more than just asking questions, teachers facilitate learning through inquiry when they develop multiple contexts for questions and questioning and collaborate with students to collect and make meaning of data and information.