Starting a path of inquiry

Intrinsically, I have emphasized information and literacy in my work for the brief time that I have been a secondary school teacher-librarian.  I have witnessed staff frustrations when students can’t seem to go more deeply into topics and I too have been frustrated when students seem to get stuck.  I hoped that in taking this course on inquiry-based instruction that I would learn techniques that would help me to guide us all through to successful completion of inquiry projects.  What I did not expect is that I would learn and embrace a new philosophy of teaching through evidence-based instruction, action research and inquiry.  To this point, I have struggled to be both an agent of change for education reform and to be a stable collaborator in my school.  Yet I feel now that there is a clear path I can follow for success in my personal and professional development.

Scaffolding inquiry

I was first introduced to the inquiry-based model by reading work of Barbara Stripling (2007) when she emphasized the necessity of explicitly teaching metacognition and active questioning to deepen understanding.  At that time I wondered aloud: Can metacognition be applied to reading fluency? Can literacy be taught through inquiry?  Is inquiry-based learning (IBL) a constructivist approach to digital fluency?  I see now that IBL provides repeated opportunities for practice of metacognition, literacy and digital fluency. As librarians, Stripling says we can provide a supporting role to teachers and students as their “cycle of reflection is bolstered by an attitude of empathy and collaboration and a cognitive stance that is both critical and open-minded” (p. 53).  In August 2011, I attended a lecture by Mike Schmoker after we had read his latest book as a school leadership team.  In his lecture he said that we needed to return to basics in education and do away with using tools like the narrative structure. I knew then that he was fundamentally wrong, but I couldn’t describe how.  Stripling says that the construct phase of inquiry is very difficult as teachers “struggle to teach students how to construct their own understandings” (p. 48).   Using the narrative framework is a way of helping provide a basic structure that can help students see history as a series of stories about choices that people make as they face challenges (Stripling, p. 49).  Looking at inquiry as the vehicle for narrative exploration lends itself to more reading and writing, through self-reflection and analysis.   

For the first time I clearly see the continuum in inquiry. Since I began teaching in the library, I have relied on the model of instruction outlined by the Toronto District School Board (2010) to develop a continuum of research skills in my school.  It outlines phases of research and steps to take in the diagnostic, formative and reflective phases to deepen and develop research skills. After reading Harvey and Daniels (2009) book, I realize that there is so much more to the inquiry process than research skills and information literacy:

In true inquiry, kids have to take responsibility for things that real learners do. They have to identify worthy problems and questions. They have to use the proper disciplinary tools (microscopes, timelines) and procedures (surveys, formulas), just like real practitioners. They have to work with others, build knowledge, and ultimately, submit their findings to a peer or public audience (p. 57).

Since our electronic pathfinder assignment was an inquiry, I enjoyed experiencing the phases firsthand, reminding myself of the pitfalls.  At first I wanted to begin exploring diversity in libraries but I found that it was too broad of a topic.  After narrowing my topic to autism and libraries was both personal and professional, I found myself wandering to related topics within databases or other sources of information.  I particularly enjoy the retrieving phase of hunting down resources.  I was also reminded how much bias plays a role in publishing and found that many sources were from advocacy groups that didn’t have research backgrounds.  

Through firsthand experience I came to more deeply understand that inquiry is based on prior knowledge and is, therefore, individual.  This means that we must allow for personal choice in inquiry-based learning. If I chose to focus just on the advocating for the element of personal choice at my school, I would really be taking on a challenge.  Subjects that can be chosen as electives in my secondary school generally see more success as students, from the outset, can exercise their right to choose.  Inquiry empowers the learner through choice at every phase.  Similarly, teachers will be empowered to provide this ongoing stimulation in their courses.  Sometimes teachers forget how challenging each phase is and beginning with experiencing an inquiry of their own may be a strategy I employ to opening productive discussion with colleagues.

Implementing inquiry

One of the discussions in this course that I found stimulating was about developing a whole school vision through inquiry-based learning.  My group discussed how inquiry peaks the curiosity of students and we wondered if implementing an inquiry-based program could help to lower the dropout rate in secondary school.  I pushed the boundary further and suggested that no courses should be mandatory after grade 10 in order to truly empower our students through choice.  This led to a discussion of how inquiry is a kind of literacy and should be an embedded part of every course.  Megan Jakse argued:

Literacy and inquiry skills definitely need to be embedded across the curriculum.  If the English department is teaching these skills, other departments should be building on them.  That would require a lot of collaboration among staff members but could be really worthwhile!  English should (in theory) be the least irrelevant course for students as the skills in the curriculum could be met by students in very different ways.  In the discussion, English teachers could easily model “personalized,” inquiry-based learning as students engage in self-directed (and possibly cross-curricular) projects, build literacy skills, and plan for their futures (M. Jakse, personal communication, July 6, 2012).

I see more clearly now how research skills, digital literacy and information literacy can all be better emphasized through the inquiry-based learning model that is collaborated upon by staff.

As with this discussion, Harvey and Daniels (2009) agree that implementing and modelling collaboration during inquiry is an essential component to deepen the process.  In their small-group inquiry model (2009, pp. 61-62), collaboration of teachers with students and students with students, is immersed in each inquiry phase. This collaboration model helps the students to monitor their own timelines and understanding putting the onus of learning, where it belongs, onto the students themselves.  I wonder now how I can continue to collaborate openly in front of the students in order to model the benefits and challenges of collaboration.

I also never understood before how project-based learning (PBL) differs from inquiry-based learning (IBL) until Kuhlthau clarified.  She says “[PBL] falls short in two respects.  First, it overemphasizes product and underemphasizes the learning process.  Second, students are frequently left to their own devices, and when parents step in, many end up doing the actual research.”  (2007, p. 3).  One of the issues with inquiry is how to implement it when there are so many other curriculum strategies being enforced right now.  My school has been working on the curriculum development theory of backwards design as outlined by Wiggins and McTighe (2005).  We have had the same goal for three years to backwards design every department, every course, every unit, and every lesson.  We began by developing the big ideas of each course, which look something like the overall expectations developed by the Ontario Ministry of Education for each secondary school course.  I`m wondering if we can tweak these big ideas by phrasing them into questions to stimulate inquiry.  For example, my media arts course has the big idea of Anonymity and Identity in its final unit.  If I change it to: How do identity and anonymity interact in media arts? I hope the students would feel that this is more of an invitation to explore the concepts rather than memorize them.  I plan to continue my exploring this transition into inquiry-based learning by examining each course for the possibilities in inquiry and map my school’s curriculum in this way.

Future path as teacher-librarian

I feel that this course has really focused my role as teacher-librarian in a secondary school.  I’ve often wondered how to structure my time and how much emphasis I should put on each need in the school .  Everywhere I look there is a need for organization, for resources, for direction in technology use, for projects, for literacy and in my last two years I’ve felt very stretched.  After taking this course, I feel that if I focus every moment of my day in helping staff and students to improve their inquiry experiences, that all of the other needs will fall in line.  As I plan to renovate my library, I must keep this vision of inquiry in mind.  I will deny the use of library resources for simple things like word-processing unless it is part of inquiry.  I will prioritize library resources for inquiry.  I will harness my time for endeavours in inquiry and action research.

Before the physical library changes, I can begin with adjusting the culture of the library.  The school library paradigm shift (Harada and Yoshina, 2010) and the corollaries outlined by Gordon (2010) developed the idea for creating a wikispace of evidence-based templates for each phase of inquiry.  After these readings, I realize that the student independence in the library must be the focus of our library materials as well.  I plan to change all the handouts in the library to represent the learner first, rather than the transmission of learning.  I see these as the graphic organizers for each inquiry phase that we collated for our wikispace.  Although I can’t truly measure the effectiveness of our wikispace, I can testify to the rewarding experience of collaborating with colleagues to create it.  Each element was created, challenged, revised and tweaked to maintain a clarity in our message and quality in our work.  The end result is very satisfying.  I wish that we could come together in a year to report back to each other on its success.  As we completed the wikispace, I tweeted out a link to it to garner some immediate feedback and was welcomed by Lisa Neale, an Ontario elementary principal, and Sheila Morrissette, a British Columbia secondary principal, who both informed me that they are investigating inquiry-based learning for their schools (Neale, Morrissette and King, 2012).  Now that we have created the wikispace, I wonder if I can further enhance it with reflection as we implement each phase of evidence-based inquiry.  As Neale and Morrissette indicated, evidence-based practice to support inquiry-based learning is a timely issue and I’m sure any reflection of process in its implementation would be welcome to the education community.

The professional is the personal

Thanks to Harada and Yoshina (2010), I understand how the paradigm within the library itself needs to shift.  Their chart which outlines moving from a focus on resources to a focus on student learning (p. 16) will direct my role.  In it the emphasis becomes less about teaching skills of location and retrieval and more on the evaluation and interpretation of information; less about product and more about process; less about grades and more about learning.  I know that I must build qualitative evidence that the library has an essential role to play in student and staff development.

Evidence-based practice was the crux of my learning in this course.  Carol Gordon (2010) was very influential in the development of my understanding as she describes the need for paradigm shifting and corollaries for the implementation of evidence-based inquiry instruction.  Gordon says: “Paradigm points to reform, setting the purpose for the research and indicating solutions to practical problems” (p. 76).  The current education system is inhibiting greater success in secondary learning and teaching.  My aim is to reform the system from within.  As Gordon suggests, I see now that I can strengthen my advocacy for reform by researching each problem, developing suggestions and creating action research to test solutions.

This knowledge is powerful and it gives me hope that reform is possible.  Gordon continues saying “The evidence-based paradigm constitutes a shift in the culture of teaching and learning in schools that has the potential to reform education.  If research in school library instruction has a mission, this is it” (p. 75).  For the last few years I have struggled with how to focus a balance between work and home.   The career change from classroom teacher to full-time teacher-librarian has consumed me.   What I’ve realized is that I can’t separate these two places because for the first time in my career, my job reflects who I am.  As a result of this inquiry course, I see even greater horizons beyond my school and I think advocating for inquiry may take the rest of my career.  The task of creating an education system that is student-centred, inquiry-based and proven effective by self and social-oriented action research (Gordon, 2010) may seem monumental, but it is a goal worth fighting for.


Alberta Learning. (2003). Focus on inquiry: A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-­based learning [Pamphlet]. Retrieved from‌media/‌313361/‌focusoninquiry.pdf

Gordon, C. A. (2010). The culture of inquiry in school libraries. School Libraries Worldwide, 16(1).

Harada, V. H. (2010). Librarians as learning leaders: Cultivating cultures of inquiry. In S. Coatney (Ed.), The many faces of school library leadership (pp. 13-28). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Harada, V. H., & Yoshina, J. M. (2010). Assessment for learning. In Assessing for learning: Librarians and teachers as partners (2nd ed., pp. 9-18). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension and collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

King, A., Lunny, J., & Hobbs, T. (n.d.). Evidence-based planning tools. Retrieved July, 2012, from Inquiryandevidence website:

Neale, L., Morissette, S., & King, A. (2012, July 20). Using evidence to support inquiry [Tweet].

Schmoker, M. (Presenter). (2011, August). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented results in teaching and learning. Speech presented at Upper Grand Learning Fair, Orangeville, Ontario, Canada.

Stripling, B. K. (2007). Teaching for Understanding. In S. Hughes-Hassell & V. H. Harada (Authors), School reform and the school library media specialist (pp. 37-55). Westport, CN: Libraries Unlimited.

TDSB Library and Learning Resources Department. (2010). Research success @ your library [Pamphlet]. Retrieved from‌libraries/‌files/‌research_guides.htm

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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