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Enquiry learning

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Reflection


The development of thinking and problem solving skills is an important objective of Education for Sustainable Development, especially given the urgency of problems facing the world today. These skills can be taught and enhanced through enquiry learning.

Enquiry learning is a learner-centred approach that emphasises higher order thinking skills. It may take several forms, including analysis, problem solving, discovery and creative activities, both in the classroom and the community. Most importantly, in enquiry learning students are responsible for processing the data they are working with in order to reach their own conclusions.

This module clarifies the characteristics of enquiry learning and illustrates strategies for teaching through enquiry-based approaches.


  • To develop an understanding of enquiry-based teaching and learning strategies;
  • To develop skills in planning for enquiry-based learning; and
  • To illustrate ways of evaluating enquiry-based teaching and learning.


  1. A spinning world
  2. Recognising enquiry-based learning
  3. Mapping Pollution: An example of enquiry learning
  4. A model for enquiry learning
  5. Reflection


Barrett,T., MacLabhrainn, I. and Fallon, H. (eds) (2005) Handbook of Enquiry and Problem-based Learning. Irish Case Studies and International Perspectives, AISHE, Released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

Boud, D. and Feletti, G. (1997) The Challenge of Problem-based Learning (2nd Edition), Routledge.

Duch, B.J., Groh, S.E. and Allen, D.E. (eds) (2001) The Power of Problem-Based Learning, Stylus Publishing.

Gough, N. (1992) Blueprints for Greening Schools, Gould League, Melbourne

Hutchings, W. (2007) Enquiry-Based Learning: Definitions and Rationale, University of Manchester.

Hutchings, W. (2007) The philosophical bases of Enquiry-Based Learning, University of Manchester.

Jaques, D. and Salmon, G. (2007) Learning in groups: a handbook for face-to-face and online environments (4th Edition), Routledge.

Kahn, P. and O’Rourke, K. (2004) Guide to Enquiry-Based Learning, University of Manchester.

Lambros, A. (2002) Problem-based learning in K-8 classrooms: A Teacher’s Guide to Implementation, Corwin Press.

Schwartz, P., Mennin, S. and Webb, G. (eds) (2001) Problem-based learning: case studies, experience and practice, Routledge.


This module was written for UNESCO by Bernard Cox, Margaret Calder and John Fien from work originally written by Debbie Heck and Saras Reddy in Learning for a Sustainable Environment (UNESCO – ACEID).

A spinning world

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

This module begins with a short enquiry learning exercise to illustrate some of the thinking skills involved in the enquiry learning process.

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Q1: Describe the way in which the Earth is moving.

Q2: Is this an accurate way of showing how the Earth spins on its axis to produce day and night? Why?

Q3: What evidence is your answer based upon? What previous knowledge helped you answer this question?

The following questions may help you check your answers to Questions 1-3:

  • Which way is the Earth spinning – clockwise or anticlockwise? Imagine the sun shining on to the world. If you wish, point a torch at the screen and switch it on so that the torch light is like the sun’s rays.
  • In which direction does the sun rise in the area where you live? Where does it set?
  • In which direction does the sun rise on the globe rotating on the screen?
  • On the screen, does the sun rise first over the eastern or western side of continents?
  • Which side of the continents see dawn first?
  • How could the spinning Earth on screen be made accurate?

Review your answers to Questions 1 – 3. How easy was it to solve the problem?

Solving Problems

Reflect on what you were thinking as you tried to solve the ‘spinning world’ problem.

  • What did you do first as you tried to solve the problem?
  • What type of clue most helped you solve the problem?
  • Would more information or additional guiding questions have helped?

Recognising the ‘help’ we need when solving problems can make us aware of the help students are likely to need in enquiry-based learning.

The purpose of this module is to develop strategies for promoting student enquiry. The ability to think analytically and solve problems are key intellectual tools that students need to contribute to a sustainable future.

Recognising enquiry-based learning

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Consider the stories about the learning experiences in four classes. Which of them are examples of enquiry learning?

Year 6 Class on a Study Camp

The twelve year old children look like they are having breakfast. One group of students are chatting about the coming day’s activities.

Jindi: How far do we have to walk today?

Dave: A long way, is all I know.

Pania: Why do all Year 6 classes have to have such a long walk through the forest?

Josh: We had better make sure that we take enough food and water to last the long journey.

The students had no idea where they were going except that this is ‘what everyone does’ on Year 6 camp.

Watching them, we see the teacher lead them on the walk through the forest very quickly, stopping only occasionally for everyone to have something to eat. There was not much time to stop and look – and all that the children seemed to want to do is make it to the end.

Year 9 Social Studies Class

This is a Year 9 classroom with thirty single desks. The desks are arranged in five rows of six. The students are all sitting quietly copying information from the chalkboard. The students seem to have a lot of information about things written neatly in their notebooks already. They very rarely speak.

The teacher talks now and then to direct them to write another definition and to copy a chart from the board.

Three students at the back of the room are distracted by something happening outside. They are told to get back to work.

Year 10 Geography Class

The room is noisy; it looks really busy. The students are sitting in small groups heatedly discussing an issue. They are arguing a lot and justifying their views.

Each of the groups has a different role – as farmers, a councillor, a developer, local residents, and so on. They have to decide whether an area of farming land on the fringe of a city should be rezoned for a golf course. The teacher is talking to different groups as they ask questions.

Some students ask for permission to go to the library to find more information.

Another student leaves to telephone a university lecturer to clarify some aspects of the proposal.

The research groups are preparing their arguments for a simulated town meeting to discuss the issue.

This is a simulation of a similar case that has happened in the local area and the class is using the issue as a case study to highlight what community groups can do in response to development proposals.

Year 8 Science Class

The class is making its way to a local stream where the students are going to test water quality.

Some of the students used to swim in the stream but now they say it smells funny.

They have organised a range of tests to assess the situation and then they will decide what they can do about it. The teacher has helped them decide what tests to do and how to analyse the results; she helps them keep track of what they are doing.

Tilba says, “She always makes sure we choose a few things to do well and shows us how to do them properly”.

Mossa says, “I want to go to the council and tell them all about what we find out because they need to know that this is happening and we need to work out how to fix it”.

Q4: Describe the nature of the learning process taking place in each of the four stories.

Approaches to Learning

As teachers, we use many different strategies to help students learn.

One of the most common strategies is teacher exposition. This is a teacher-centred approach because knowledge is presented to students in a more or less final form. Often these lessons (or parts of lessons) are supported by chalkboard summaries, diagrams and posters and the textbook. In expository lessons, the task of students is to understand and remember the information.

Enquiry learning is a more student-centred approach. Enquiry learning involves students in the active and careful analysis of a situation or problem – in the light of the different sorts of information available to them. In enquiry learning, students use their own thinking skills to make their own generalisations or conclusions – and thus are actively involved in generating ‘knowledge’ in forms that are meaningful to them.

There are many different approaches to enquiry learning, depending upon the subject area or topic, the background skills of students and the learning objectives of the teacher. This generally means that no teaching is wholly teacher-centred or wholly student-centred. Rather, most classroom learning usually involves a mix of different learning experiences along a continuum between teacher- and student-centred approaches.

Some of the approaches to teaching and learning along this continuum include:

(Move your cursor along the continuum to see descriptions of the different learning approaches.)

Q5: Assess the potential contribution of these approaches to developing the thinking skills needed to work for a sustainable future.

The Enquiry Learning Process

Enquiry-based learning occurs when students learn by carrying out an investigation. That is, they find something out for themselves rather than being told by the teacher.

To contribute effectively to the thinking skills needed to work for a sustainable future, enquiry learning needs to include four processes:

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A Challenge
After becoming aware of a significant question, issue or problem, students may reach a state of puzzlement, curiousity and/or concern and feel challenged to enquire further. The next step is to clarify, define and redefine the particular question, issue or problem to investigate.
Active student investigation
Students gather resources and work out what they need to know and do. They consider the problem, cast around, imagine, try to predict, work out what they already know, and/or assess their ability to succeed. This is the stage when students analyse and interpret the data before them.
Making generalisations
Eventually students can synthesise what they have found into generalisations or principles which can be used to decide on possible solutions.
Students need to consider how they achieved what they set out to do. They reflect, confirm, see where to improve, plan new things, evaluate, and consider possible action

Source: Adapted from Gough, N. (1992) Blueprints for Greening Schools, Gould League, Melbourne, p. 90.

Q6: To what extent were these four processes evidenced in the four stories at the start of this activity? Give reasons for your opinions.

Review a sample answer.

Mapping Pollution: An example of enquiry learning

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

This activity is a sample enquiry learning exercise that illustrates the four phases in the enquiry learning process.

The topic of the exercise is ‘Catchment and Coastal Pollution’.

The exercise is presented in two steps.

First, you will analyse data on a map, and then you will be asked to answer questions in your learning journal on what you found out.

The first of these steps corresponds to the first two principles of enquiry learning:

  • learning originates in a challenge; and
  • learning involves active investigation.

The exercise is based upon a map of a coastal region where a number of important issues are facing local people and environmental managers.

Analyse the issues facing people in the region.

The second step in this exercise involves the other two principles of enquiry learning. These involve:

  • analysing and synthesising data from the map exercise to make generalisations; and
  • reflection on what you have learnt.

Q7: Analysing the data: Analyse six of the issues described in the exercise.

Q8: Interpreting the data: Answer these questions to identify patterns in the data:

  • How many different kinds of pollution are entering the sea?
  • Which events might have the most effect on (i) the catchment, and (ii) the coast and the sea?
  • Which upstream events affect downstream and coastal environments?

Q9: Making generalisations: Using your answers to previous questions, write three general conclusions – or generalisations – based on what you have found out.

Review three sample generalisations.

Q10: Reflection

  • Did you enjoy the exercise? Why?
  • Would you describe the exercise as enquiry learning? Why?
  • Does the exercise have any weaknesses as a learning experience? If so, what are they? How could you improve any of such weaknesses?
  • How might this activity be used with one of your classes?

A model for enquiry learning

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Enquiry learning offers students an effective way to develop skills for thinking about sustainability. This activity provides a model for planning and teaching a topic using enquiry learning methods.

There are 7 stages in this model. Questions to guide student enquiry and relevant learning objectives are presented for each stage.

  • Tuning In
  • Deciding Directions
  • Preparing To Find Out
  • Finding Out
  • Sorting Out
  • Drawing Conclusions
  • Considering Social Action

Q11: Write a brief summary of (i) the purpose of each of these stages of enquiry learning, and (ii) some key teaching hints for helping students advance successfully through each stage.

Different sorts of learning experiences are generally more appropriate to use at one stage of the enquiry learning process than at others.

Match appropriate learning experiences to the seven different stages of enquiry learning.

Q12: Identify a topic you currently teach that could be developed as an enquiry learning exercise. Using the 7 stage model (above), plan the objectives, key concepts and teaching strategies you could use.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q13: Give an example of how enquiry learning can contribute to achieving the following objectives of Education for Sustainable Development?

  • To promote understanding of the interdependence of natural, socioeconomic and political systems at local, national and global levels.
  • To encourage critical reflection on personal attitudes and lifestyles.
  • To develop skills that support active participation in achieving a sustainable future.

Q14: What problems and barriers might you face in seeking to increase the amount of student-centred learning that you plan for your class? How might you overcome them?