A reflection on Guided Inquiry

Alinda Sheerman and Lee FitzGerald reflect on the benefits, challenges and future of Guided Inquiry for teachers and students.


Between them, Alinda and Lee have more than 20 years' experience in implementing inquiry learning in the form of Guided Inquiry (GI). They met to talk about and reflect on Guided Inquiry. Teachers from Broughton Anglican College, Catherine and Jodie, express their thoughts in the videos.

Guided Inquiry (GI) theory and practice has developed extensively over the last few years, driven by books written by the GI team of Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari (2012; 2015) and by the world wide work of Dr Leslie Maniotes, which can be illustrated by the 52 weeks of GI blog (2016). An essential development is the Guided Inquiry Design process (GID) that has emerged from the Information Search Process, which was observed in many research studies by Professor Carol Kuhlthau. These are summarised in Kuhlthau (1985).

This article summarises the conversation held between Alinda and Lee about the following:

  • The best things about GI
  • Challenges
  • Enablers
  • The ways forward for GI.

The best things about GI

Catherine, a teacher from Broughton Anglican College, shares her thoughts on Guided Inquiry in The best aspects of Guided Inquiry (1 min 55 secs).

Jodie, a teacher from Broughton Anglican College, shares the best things about Guided Inquiry in The best aspects of Guided Inquiry (28 secs).

In their conversation, Alinda and Lee found the following to be the best things about GI.

It just makes sense

As a Broughton student, Amy, said, ‘It’s just what your brain does’. Amy was referring to the ‘shape’ of the Guided Inquiry Design process (GID), which follows the pattern any researcher uses when engaging in research – that is, gaining an overview first, in order to isolate a particular aspect with which to engage. (Lee’s peer reviewed article, ‘Research: Guided Inquiry in practice’, explores the context and concepts underlying inquiry learning and how to ensure authentic learning.)

Emotions are explicit and expected in GI

Emotions are recognised in GI theory, for example, the predicted dip in confidence at Explore. Students like to be shown how they'll feel throughout and to know when to expect to feel a dip in confidence. There is the predicted one at Explore, when the size of the topic tends to overwhelm; and there are likely further dips around creating the inquiry question, and at Gather, where students are synthesising more difficult information into the final product.

Reflection is encouraged

Students are expected to reflect during their process and to comment on their growing understandings and difficulties, and to get feedback from the teacher librarian and/or teachers. It is essential that students are not overloaded with reflection occasions and questions, and that they do get feedback on their reflections.


Catherine shares some of the challenges she experiences when it comes to implementing Guided Inquiry in The greatest challenge of Guided Inquiry (33 secs).

She then explores the concept that ‘collaboration is key’ in Guided Inquiry collaboration (1 min 10 secs).

Jodie shares aspects about who can be involved in the collaboration process in Guided Inquiry collaboration (29 secs).

Alinda and Lee isolated the following further challenges to GI implementation and integration.

Time (to collaborate, create, deliver and reflect on inquiry units)

Time is a major challenge to implementing inquiry learning. Alinda recalled the luxury of time being allocated to her and three other teachers to plan a GI unit, which allowed for a little coffee and the creation of a sense of being a team. Too often, planning is done after school, when everyone is tired and no one is creative. They agreed that principals need to allow and enable time for planning for the creation of inquiry units and that it’s lack of time that cripples collaboration. Lee is fortunate that her principal allows some time for planning. Lee’s new school operates the Middle Years’ Program of the International Baccalaureate.

Embarrassment – Förlägenheten

Lee noted that another factor might be at work in establishing collaborative relationships. In the research she did for her book, ‘Guided Inquiry goes global: Evidence-based practice in action’(FitzGerald, 2019), a Swedish teacher librarian, Lena Fogelberg Carlsson, highlighted a kind of embarrassment (which sounds better in Swedish - Förlägenheten!) which emerges in relationships between teachers and teacher librarians, and students and teacher librarians. Lena believes that teachers suspect that they don't know very much about information literacy or inquiry skills, and they don't want anyone to know that, and so don’t ask the teacher librarian for help. Students are affected by Förlägenheten too. They know they're the children of the digital age and that, therefore, they know what they're doing with information, and they really don’t. But they are too ‘embarrassed’ to say so, though they might whisper it to a sympathetic teacher librarian. So, a challenge in the way of inquiry learning is a lack of acknowledgment that information literacy is an area that both teachers and students need to understand. As a result of this, they are held back by not wanting to appear less than expert in this area.

Pressure on students

Lee and Alinda noted the level of pressure under which students struggle with an overloaded curriculum. They observe that students have a really loaded timetable and sometimes large amounts of work to get through, and quite a lot of them just want to get to the end of any task, so are not as motivated as they might be by sheer interest in a topic. This was expressed repeatedly by students in the CSU research, ‘Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it, and it will be over’.


Catherine identifies enablers that have worked for her when implementing Guided Inquiry (55 secs).

Jodies shares her perspective on enablers when implementing Guided Inquiry (46 secs).

In conversation, Alinda and Lee discussed the following as enablers to a GI culture. It’s about:

  • students and teachers enjoying the experience and want to do it again
  • the teacher librarian having good relationships with students and teachers
  • keeping the GI unit as open-ended as possible
  • teachers, students and teacher librarians having a common understanding of the language of GI, especially the GID process
  • feedback on student reflection, so that the difficulties they articulate are addressed.

The ways forward for GI


Alinda and Lee discussed compromise as being one of the ways forward. They noted that the pressure of time in secondary schools is increasing, with some of that pressure caused by an overloading of content into syllabuses. It is only realistic to expect to achieve a base level of GI that can provide enough coverage for students of essential information literacy skills in, say, one subject per Years 7-11. Alinda noted that there needs to be a wider collaboration right across faculties and stages to determine which years are doing which units and when, so students aren’t ‘overdoing’ GI, and only the units which really lend themselves to GI research will be used. She also reminds staff regularly that GI is not the only way of doing inquiry based learning, concentrating recently on Ralph Pirozzo’s visit to the school, and to bear in mind the Pirozzo Matrix when designing inquiry learning tasks.

They concurred that you don’t have to do GI all the time and that it probably suits some subjects better than others, especially history. And it may be that approaches like project based learning (PBL) really work well in the sciences/STEM areas. Alinda pointed out the need for looking across the curriculum to identify the best places where inquiry fits, and which ‘brand’ fits particular areas, in order to widen the experience of inquiry for students.

Teacher librarians in training learning how to design inquiry units

Lee noted that students over the past few years at CSU, doing the subject,  Introduction to Teacher Librarianship, have been creating an inquiry unit in the context of particular syllabuses, primary and secondary. They have to choose an Information Literacy model, and then identify a real need in their school, choose a topic, learning outcomes and elements of the general capabilities and create an inquiry unit. Many choose GID, possibly because it is well supported. Challenges in this task are:

  • getting familiar with Australian Curriculum to locate topic and learning outcomes etc
  • finding state versions of the Australian Curriculum are often different
  • understanding an information process as a scaffold to create units of work, as well as underpin inquiry learning
  • understanding the teacher librarian’s role as responsible for the information literacy skills in the unit
  • underestimating the complexity of information skills
  • understanding the importance of specific resourcing of the inquiry
  • lack of confidence in their schools allowing the teacher librarian a full role in inquiry learning.

Alinda feels that many teachers are not used to programming. They are used to being provided with the program by the Head of Faculty. She noted that writing programs is becoming much easier with Program builder.

Lee noted that students find the experience of creating an inquiry unit really useful. The elaborations in the general capabilities provide a rich ground for teacher librarians to choose learning outcomes for inquiry units, particularly in the critical and creative thinking general capability, bearing in mind that content descriptions in the syllabuses also contain many rich information literacy skills.

The conversation concluded with a recommendation that anyone interested in GI theory and practice in Australia should regularly visit their blog, Guided Inquiry in Australia (FitzGerald & Sheerman, 2016) and Dr Maniotes’ blog, 52 weeks of GI (2016).

In My best Guided Inquiry experience ever (3 mins 5 secs), Catherine shares insights into the unit of work that was her best experience in using Guided Inquiry.

In Guided Inquiry – student perspective (2 mins 57 secs), Broughton student, Abby reflects on her learning experience with Guided Inquiry.

References and further reading

FitzGerald, L. (2019). Guided inquiry goes global: evidence-based practice in action.Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

FitzGerald, L. (2015). Research: Guided Inquiry in practice. Scan, 34(4).

FitzGerald, L. & Sheerman A. (2016). Guided Inquiry in Australia: Sharing the theory and practice of Guided Inquiry.

Isaac, M. (2012). ‘”I hate group work!” Social loafers, indignant peers and the drama of the classroom’. The English Journal, 101(4), 83–89.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1985). A process approach to library skills instruction. School Library Media Quarterly, 13(1), 35–40.

Kuhlthau, C. (2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L., & Caspari, A. (2012). Guided Inquiry design: A framework for inquiry in your school. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L., & Caspari, A. (2015). GI: Learning in the 21st century (2nd ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Maniotes, L. (2016).52 weeks of Guided Inquiry.

Maniotes, L., Harrington, L., & Lambusta, P. (2015). GI design in action: Middle school. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

New South Wales Education Standards Authority (NESA).(2014). Program builder.

Neuman, D. (2011). Constructing knowledge in the twenty-first century: I-LEARN and using information as a tool for learning. School Library Research, vol. 14.

Pirozzo, R. (nd). Promoting Learning International: Unlocking & nurturing children’s learning potential.

Scheffers, J. & Alekna, G. (2015). Scaffolding for success: Support students’ amazing journey with Guided Inquiry. Scan, 34(1).

Sheerman, A. (2011). iInquire… iLearn… iCreate… iShare: Guided Inquiry at Broughton Anglican College. Scan30(1).

How to cite this article – Sheerman, A. & FitzGerald, L. (2019). A reflection on Guided Inquiry, Scan, 38(4).

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