Essay of First Reflections on Inquiry Learning


So, what is inquiry learning in teacher education?

Inquiry learning in teacher education is characterised by constructivist principles that focus on the learner regulating their own learning, building individual meaning within the learning experience, and learning both with and from peers (Loughran, 2013). The focus is on increasing engagement and fostering deep understanding through an experience-based, learner-led approach to teaching and learning.

While constructivism focuses on a theory of learning, its role in teacher education is to encourage inquiry learning in pre-service teachers, to then be implemented through their transition into the classroom. Indeed, one of the core tenets of inquiry learning to is ‘learn by doing’. Using this approach in teacher education strengthens the practice of pedagogy, as Loughran states, “teachers who actively structure classroom experiences around such principles and seek to ensure that teaching and learning are dynamic and responsive to one another are creating ways of better seeing into the teaching-learning relationship” (Loughran, 2013, p.121).

The principles of inquiry learning date as far back as Socratic thinking, which focused on the power of questioning techniques to build knowledge, rather than ‘teaching-as-telling’ models (Goldman, Radinsky, Tozer & Wink, 2010). Similarly to inquiry learning, the chief principle of Socratic ‘guided inquiry’ involved the teacher already knowing the answer, but posing questions for the student to explore, construct and recover knowledge (Goldman et al, 2010).

This type of learning stands in contrast to the instructional approach, where teaching is little more than ‘information delivery’ (Loughran, 2013). Indeed, in many educational policy contexts, this was the dominant teaching paradigm for many decades. The notion of inquiry that was put forth by John Dewey at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States transformed this thinking, as it was recognised that it placed too much emphasis on training and technical skills (Schulz, 2010, p.604). Thus, inquiry learning moved educational discourse away from a view that emphasised rote memorisation, recitation and repetition (Goldman et al, 2010). The emphasis was not on students simply learning content, but also learning questioning inquiry, and the skills of analytical thinking and reflection.

Building upon this further to consider teacher education, Shulman’s notion of ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ (1986) highlights the need for teachers to have not only deep content knowledge, but also knowledge of educational contexts, pedagogical techniques and to know when and how to apply them. Inquiry learning in teacher education is therefore critical for pre-service teachers to develop as practice.

I would say that parts of my educational experience were certainly instructional, a result of selective schooling readying me for the standardised testing of the HSC. Especially in my final years of secondary school, the mode of learning even in subjects that are so well suited to inquiry learning, such as History, involved memorisation of quotes and years, timelines, and formulae for writing good exam responses. This reflects the tension in many educational contexts, which on the one hand, should focus on the genuine experience of learning, and on the other, try to equip students with the skills to perform in an assessment-based environment.

Hollins (2011) raises this tension in discussing the challenges that were raised by the ‘No Child Left Behind’ reforms in the United States. Responding to this push towards school accountability for testing results, many classroom practices reoriented to a ‘transmissive’ view of learning. These reforms have been criticised for generating a culture of ‘teaching to the test’, with emphasis on drill, practice, facts and details that can be easily evaluated (Hollins, 2011, p.402). Similar issues have been raised in Australia by those critical of NAPLAN testing, and there is evidence to show some teachers feel NAPLAN’s standardised testing impacts upon the style and content of their teaching (Hosking, 2012).

Having recently left the realm of social policy, the tension between standardised ‘exam’ testing and learner-led inquiry pulls me in both directions. I can understand the thinking behind the drive towards standardisation and national benchmarks with the objective of improving performance and equity for underserved students and regions. But, I can see the demands this places on teachers and schools and its adverse effect on learning. Markham sums this tension up nicely by stating, “inquiry-based learning is disruptive to test-based standards…Tests reward the right answer…but open-ended problems result in idiosyncratic solutions, derived from a process of exploration in which students practice evidence-finding, thoughtful exchange, and creative design” (Markham, 2013).

At this point I should note that, although the later years of secondary school were characterised by rote learning and memorisation, they weren’t solely instructional and I did still experience meaningful learning. In much the same vein, Markham does not deny that powerful inquiry lies upon a foundation of “facts, concepts and a knowledge base”, and that a standardised curriculum and conventional teaching methods still very much have a place (Markham, 2013). The area of divergence is in re-conceptualising what ‘assessment’ means and how we measure performance.

More meaningful ways to measure a learning experience come from measuring high-order thinking – through portfolios, learning journals, conferencing, peer review, discussions and working to rubrics to reach critical thinking standards (Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Programs, 2013). This is certainly the view in inquiry learning. Recognising that meaningful assessment is time intensive and piecemeal; Markham states “it will take thoughtful development of new metrics, some strange to education, to develop an assessment system that captures the richness of inquiry-based education” (Markham, 2013).

What challenges might I face as an inquiry learner?

I think that inquiry learning is, by its very nature, intensive and effortful. Instructional learning is a more passive process for both the learner and the teacher, as the information delivery is transmissive. Taking this into account I think that I face a similar challenge to any pre-service teacher undertaking inquiry learning, which is to recognise that I am the limit to my own learning. With this in mind, the more that I self-direct my learning and immerse myself in the learning experience, the more I am able to gain.

This also translates into my approach as a teacher, highlighting a need to develop strong inquiry-based practice as a pre-service teacher to ensure it comes through in my teaching methodology. I am concerned with, having now been an instructional learner and an inquiry learner, how I can effectively translate that in to facilitating effective inquiry learning for, say, a 7-year old. This binds to the assertion made by Loughran that “when the day-to-day pressures of teaching are felt, the procedures and teacher behaviours that they have for so long observed will more than likely form the basis of the scripts from which their most common responses will emerge” (2006, p.110). From this, I am keen to remain acutely aware of both of these considerations and in recognising the challenges, begin to develop a strong sense of my pedagogy and teacher identity.


  •  Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Programs (2013) American Association of School Librarians, American Library Association.
  • Goldman, S. R., Radinsky, J., Tozer, S. & Wink, D. (2010) Learning as Inquiry, International Encyclopedia of Education (Third Edition), 297-302.
  • Hollins, E. R. (2011) Teacher Preparation for Quality Teaching, Journal of Teacher Education, 62(4), 395-407.
  • Hosking, W. (2012, November 26) NAPLAN Puts Focus More on Passing Tests Than Teaching, The Australian, Retrieved from
  • Loughran, J. (2006) Chapter 7: Being a Student Teacher, in Developing a Pedagogy of Teacher Education: Understanding Teaching and Learning About Teaching, Routledge: OXON. 105-123.
  • Loughran, J. (2013) Pedagogy: Making Sense of the Complex Relationship Between Teaching and Learning, Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 118-141.
  • Markham, T. (2013, July 3) The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry-Based Learning, Mind/Shift, Retrieved from
  • Schulz, R. (2010) Inquiry-Oriented Teacher Education, International Encyclopedia of Education (Third Edition), 604-609.
  • Shulman, L. S. (1986) Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching, Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.

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