Developing Student Led Inquiry in the IB PYP

The biggest question, when I’m planning an IB PYP unit of inquiry is, at what level is my class in terms of experience and initiative when it comes to inquiry? In other words, which level of student inquiry will I be planning around – structured inquiry, guided inquiry or open inquiry?


The biggest catastrophe that can happen to a teacher embarking on inquiry for the first time is to implement an open inquiry without fully understanding the level of her students’ independent inquiry skills. There aren’t many children who are new to the IB PYP that have been formally guided through the skills necessary for independent inquiry. This can result in confusion at best and frustration at the worst. Not to mention that moment when you just have to abandon the lesson and re-group. I know this, cos I’ve been there many a time! Haha!

We want to ensure that our inquiries are structured in such a way that will introduce strategies and guide and support the children as they experience and develop those independent inquiry skills. By selecting a level of inquiry that will offer that necessary support, you are setting the students up for greater success with their learning.

Form: What do the different levels look like?

Structured inquiry: This is used more frequently when a class is new to inquiry based learning. You can identify students who are  less confident and less inclined to take initiative . They are unsure of higher level questioning and tend to stick with the fundamental questions – who is, how does, what is? Few are prepared to take risks with uncertain answers or answers that may not have a definite solution.

The teacher will support the children by delving deeper into observations and inferences, questioning at a higher level and encouraging perspective and open-mindedness. Give them the chance to try out strategies, share findings and embrace failure as a learning opportunity.  The inquiry will be mostly planned and

Fun, collaborative task cards that develop research skills and creative thinking.

implemented by the teacher, based on simple questions generated by the children and the curricular content to be covered.

Basic research skills will be taught, along with the tools that can provided sources of information and solutions. I have several resources that help with developing inquiry skills at this level. You can take a look at these by clicking on the links or the images and they will take you to my TpT store.


Guided Inquiry: This level of inquiry is used when a class is relatively new to inquiry or has carried out inquiries before and they are beginning to suggest their own direction, demonstrate higher levels of creative thinking and question their own questions. Or if the class contains a group of students who demonstrate higher levels of curiosity, generate ideas willingly and confidently and offer conjectures. Guided inquiry is great to use if this group is able to carry their class mates if grouped within small collaborative groups.

Using the students’ questions and observations from the prompt or provocation, the teacher will guide the children in developing further a line of inquiry, narrowing it down for depth of knowledge rather than breadth. This will in turn encourage the children to dig deeper with their observations, building upon their questions, offer more conjectures and use multiple strategies (within maths, research skills, comprehension etc.) and sources( databases, books, web searches, prior knowledge) that will help them to find or solve their problems. This is an important level to share the benefits of reflection and understanding that failures are actually a positive step closer to finding success. This resource, Developing Inquirers and Thinkers Task Cards,  is a good tool to help with developing questions from a prompt and with concept based thinking. It also guides the children with their research skills. Whilst, Developing Global Thinkers begins to release some of the structure, guiding the children but also giving them more choice. The activity shown above, with the girls in their glasses is Developing Inquiry Skills through Science. It includes a set of STEM task cards that can be structured or guided inquiry.

Having a set of posters or cards that regulate the structure of inquiry, discussions and group work is a great tool to help scaffold the process and encourages the children to work and think independently.

Open Inquiry: This is used with students who are experienced in inquiry and can direct their own process and learning entirely independently or using the posters and cards to support themselves. They are able to take a line of inquiry or a prompt and develop it further using their knowledge of multiple skills and strategies. They may suggest changing the line of inquiry in order to explore a direction they are more curious about.  They take initiative in group discussions, delegating tasks and commitment to finding sources and strategies, offering opinions and recognising their mistakes as a step closer to success.

Teachers will be largely facilitating this level of inquiry. They can encourage use of structured tools when regulation is necessary and they will help to guide the children towards higher level thinking, hypotheses and research sources. ( asking for older grade levels assistance with mathematical strategies, suggesting  librarians’ assistance, communicating with experts, higher level internet/database searches etc.)                                                                                                                                               As you, the teacher, become more experienced in inquiry based learning, you will find that you are moving between the levels of inquiry within a lesson as you differentiate. It will also depend on what it is that you are inquiring into. For example, a maths related inquiry may look more guided than a more open social studies inquiry or vice versa! More than anything though, treat it all as a fabulous learning experience for all to enjoy! Keeping the lines of communication open between you and your class helps to build that sense of community, in that we are all in this together and, it can even help to develop that student agency, as you reflect with the children on your progress as a whole class.

I hope that you are able to use some of this to help develop inquiry based learning in your classroom. Please do share your own experiences and advice too.


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