A culture of inquiry in the primary classroom

Inquiry based learning culture of inquiry

Children are curious by nature. When conditions allow children to satisfy their curiosity through safe, self-initiated, and playful exploration, learning occurs naturally. Our goal as educators should be to help students make the leap from intuitive understanding and natural curiosity to the creation of knowledge and further questioning.

Simply transmitting information and skills is not enough preparation for the challenges students face in their academic, professional, and personal life. Knowing how to dig below the surface, distinguish fact from opinion, using scientific approaches to understand problems and support conclusions, are more important.

So, how can we provide opportunities for students to move beyond being passive recipients of knowledge and become knowledge builders, capable of creative and innovative thinking?

Building a culture of inquiry

An innovative educational context supports collaborative teaching and learning where reflections and inquiries are shared. This leads to a more robust, continuously improving community of practice. This can be achieved in the earlier grades, where students are beginning to think and to become exposed to the world, by building a culture of inquiry in our classroom.

Inquiry implies a need to know. Students who are actively involved in the classroom develop problem-solving skills which can be applied to their schoolwork as well as later in life.

However, creating a culture of inquiry isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time and constant work. We need to establish it from the first day in the classroom and work to keep it vital throughout the year.

Read more about inquiry-based learning in our blog post What is inquiry-based learning?

The learning environment

Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning, called the environment ‘the third teacher’ because, very much like family and peers, it can potentially enhance or detract students from learning. Therefore, it’s essential that we create a safe environment where everyone feels welcome, where students can see that their cultural, linguistic, family and social backgrounds are accepted. This environment also needs to be dynamic so it can meet the unique needs and changing interests of all students.

Engaging children’s natural curiosity

Foster curiosity in the classroom

Curiosity is a powerful motivator, especially at an early age. It provides the incentive to observe and question as children explore their world. So, instead of telling students what they should know, we should create the structure for them to experience discovery and learning on their own.

Inquiry is asking the first question, putting up the provocative text or image or playing a video to excite our students’ curiosity and after that, the room should be full of questions.

For example, in Now I know (a coursebook I collaborated on, which focuses on building children’s natural curiosity), each unit opens with a photograph, a Big Question and a video clip from the BBC. This sparks curiosity and gets students thinking about and activating their background knowledge. This acts as a springboard for ideas, opinions and further questions.

Read more about Big Questions on our blog post Starting with a Big Question.

The key to effective questioning

Inquiry-based learning is based on getting students to ask questions; therefore, it’s essential that we are able to model inquiry effectively.

Research suggests asking four types of questions:

  1. Inference questions that require students to think beyond the information presented to them.
  2. Interpretation questions that propose that students understand the consequences of the information.
  3. Transfer questions that ask students to take their knowledge and use it.
  4. Questions of hypothesis that make students predict and test their knowledge.

Students will be coming up with questions themselves so they need to be something that they are interested in finding out.

Questions must be answerable. If you are having a discussion or reading a text about endangered species, for example in Now I Know, Level 4, Unit 3, a question such as “What does the author want people to do?” can be an effective question. The answer exists and the students can find it, or they may have a strong opinion about it. If you ask a question such as, “Why didn’t the author write the text in a different way?”, students will not be able to answer this question, because they are not the author.

Answers should not be a fact. Imagine the class is discussing tall buildings, for example in Now I Know, Level 4, Unit 2. The answer to the question “How tall is the Eiffel Tower?” can be found on the Internet very quickly and does not make it a question that will excite our students’ curiosity. However, “Why do people build increasingly taller buildings?” would make a compelling question because students could initially give and discuss different opinions and then they would have to research this information.

Download a sample of Now I Know.

Scaffolding and becoming co-learners

Many students need support in asking questions and creating different kinds of questions for different situations. We should use a variety of strategies, such as using question starters, to support them in asking effective questions. In addition, we should find ways to value all questions that come into the classroom. If a student brings up a great question, try using it as the basis for a class discussion or creating an inquiry team to investigate. Another strategy might be to create an ongoing list of questions that could be investigated at a later time.

We must also become comfortable as co-learners with our students. Today, teaching is less about knowing everything and more about learning new information together with our students and organizing that information into meaningful branches of learning.

The best answer we can offer our students is, “I don’t know the answer, let’s find out together.” When an educator takes the role of a co-learner, the focus is not on showing students how much their teacher knows but on asking students to reveal how much they know.

We also have to make sure that our assignments also mirror and value inquiry. Do our assignments focus on complexity and justification? Are we valuing student voice and choice in these assignments? Do we create assignments and assessments that allow students to investigate their own questions?

Doing this, we can create a culture where students are constantly working on assignments that value inquiry.

Simply saying that we are an inquiry-based classroom and doing an occasional inquiry-based activity is not indicative of a culture of inquiry. Although this is a great first step, we need to reinforce this culture throughout the year by creating both instruction and assessment that value inquiry.  


Malaguzzi L., For an education based on relationships, “Young Children”, v49 n1, 1993, National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

Wolf, Dennie Palmer. “The Art of Questioning,” ACADEMIC CONNECTIONS (Winter 1987): 1-7.

Find out more

Read more about curiosity in the classroom in this insightful interview with Annie: Curiosity: a favorite quality in a young learner? An interview with Annie Altamirano and check out Jeanne Perrett’s article on inquiry-based learning.

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