Guided Inquiry in Stage 4 history

Collaboration between teacher librarians and classroom teachers.

Amber Sorensen, teacher librarian at Cherrybrook High School, describes two Stage 4 history units which used Guided Inquiry to develop students’ skills in research, note taking and synthesising information.

Inquiry-based learning invites curiosity, questioning, critical and creative thinking, and analysis. It lends itself beautifully to collaboration between classroom teachers and teacher librarians, and can be used in specific topics or cross curricular subjects. It is also a good base upon which to support ACARA’s general capabilities and to help students develop their information literacy skills.

In the original Greek, ἱστορία, historia is an inquiry. By affording our students the opportunity to participate authentically in a guided inquiry, we are giving them agency to direct their learning and to share their findings with the community. This project has been a valuable exercise in discovery learning and an engaging way to finish the Stage 4 history course.
Peter Hartman, Acting Head Teacher, HSIE.

In 2017, together with a fellow teacher librarian (Coni Halder) and history teacher (Peter Hartman), I began developing a unit of work for Year 8 history – The Spanish Conquest of the Americas. The initial program was based on a presentation by Lee FitzGerald, books co-authored by Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari (2007, 2012), and Lee FitzGerald’s blog about Guided Inquiry, with assistance from teacher librarian colleagues Wendy Quarmby and Kate Mathews. The unit outcomes were based on the Stage 4 history syllabus and the ACARA general capabilities.

The Guided Inquiry (GI) model

Guided Inquiry (GI) is one of a number of models for an inquiry-based learning approach. The key elements of inquiry-based learning include:

  • an authentic task/audience
  • student choice
  • curiosity
  • questioning
  • reflection.

There are 7 stages in a full GI unit – open, immerse, explore, identify, gather, share, create and evaluate (Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari, 2007, pp. 1-6). Due to time constraints, our GI units were condensed and stages merged. Following consultation with the teachers involved, and in response to student feedback, later iterations of the units focused on developing students’ skills in note taking and synthesising information.

The process worked so well with Year 8 that we also developed a unit on Ancient China for Year 7 history students.

How it worked for us

All lessons for the classes undertaking the GI units were held in the library. The teacher librarians were available to direct the project, in conjunction with the subject teachers as the content experts. This allowed for the curation of hard copy resources that students could access during and outside of class time for the duration of the project. The school’s learning management system was used to host curated online research resources, outlines of each lesson with directions for students, and worksheets. For each new stage, the lesson opened with explicit teaching of the skill required to successfully complete that stage.


Both projects began with students exploring a variety of resources that covered various aspects of the civilisations they were working on. The Year 8 classes were provided with laminated images and snippets of texts to pique their interest. Students worked in groups to categorise various aspects of the civilisations they explored, using topic headings they were given.

The Year 7 classes received a slightly more prescriptive introduction. They were required to answer questions about Ancient China to give them an overarching view and basic understanding of the civilisation. They still used a variety of books and images to do this.

Our school has recently purchased some virtual reality goggles, which we plan to incorporate into the next iteration of the ‘open’ and ‘immerse’ stages of the units.


Following these introductory lessons, each student provided a list of ideas/topics/people that they were interested in pursuing further. These lists were collated by the classroom teacher and informed the groups students would work in for the remainder of the project.

Using curated resources, students followed the Cornell note taking method to record relevant information over several lessons. Following this, each group collated their notes and used a lotus chart to synthesise the information. This information became the basis from which students created their projects.

Students writing on a lotus scaffold together, using pens, highlighters and their handwritten notes
Image: The lotus scaffold supported students to structure their notes and facilitated deep thinking


Year 8 students created picture books that they read to Stage 2 students at one of our feeder primary schools. Topics explored included Aztec and Inca religion, war and warriors, social hierarchy, lifestyle, cities, everyday life and the conquistadors.

Year 7 students created a project of their choice. These projects have ranged from paintings to models and posters, which were presented to the class, then displayed in the library. Topics explored included Chinese religion and philosophies, Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall of China, social hierarchy and the role of women.

Students working and creating with paint, modelling clay and devices
Image: Collaboration and creation using various mediums

At the conclusion of the project, students were asked to evaluate their own work, both as individuals and in their groups, as well as evaluating the program itself.

The results

Collaboration between teacher librarians and classroom teachers brings together a wealth of knowledge and expertise that benefits student outcomes. Both Stage 4 units have been very successful. We have continued to run them each semester, with minor adjustments based on the feedback received from participating staff and students. The two focus areas – effective note-taking and synthesising information – are core skills which students will continue to use as they progress through high school and beyond. As teacher librarians, we maintain and further develop these skills when we work with other classes and year groups on their various research projects, with the idea that they become embedded within the school’s learning culture.

The Year 8 unit, in particular, has provided our students with an authentic audience who don’t pull any punches when providing feedback. It has also strengthened ties between our two schools. Year 3 students had explored the topic of colonisation and conquest prior to our visit, and were able to make connections between their learning and the books our students read to them.


A big thank you to our colleague, Acting Head Teacher of HSIE, Peter Hartman, whose enthusiasm for this collaborative project is much appreciated. Thank you also to teacher librarians, Wendy Quarmby (Girraween High School) and Kate Mathews (Castle Hill High School) who generously provided sample units and resources for their GI units when we were beginning to develop this project. Many thanks also to Stephanie Salazar (Deputy Principal) and David Kerrigan (teacher) at John Purchase Public School for kindly allowing our Year 8 students to share their work with Stage 2.

References and further reading

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (2019). General capabilities.

FitzGerald, L. (2019). Guided Inquiry in Australia [Web blog].

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L. & Caspari, A. (2007). Guided inquiry. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L. & Caspari, A. (2012). Guided inquiry design. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Sheerman, A. (2011). iInquire… iLearn… iCreate… iShare: Guided Inquiry at Broughton Anglican College, Scan, 30(1).

Sheerman, A. & FitzGerald, L. (2019). A reflection on Guided Inquiry, Scan, 38(4).

This article was originally published in the History Teachers’ Association of NSW quarterly journal Teaching History, December 2019.

How to cite this article – Sorensen, A. (2020). Guided Inquiry in Stage 4 history: Collaboration between teacher librarians and classroom teachers, Scan, 39(7).

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