The Inquiry Approach to Learning

So what could early learning look like in  Year 1 and Year 2?

This was the question many teachers have asked after viewing some innovative Kindergarten practice including changes to to learning environment and changes to teaching pedagogy.

As educators, we need to be able to
  • reflect
  • ask questions
  • challenge
if we truely want to be practitioners of effective early learning.

To help some of you get started, below is an overview of the project approach to learning which is taken from  Reggio Emilia. This may help stimulate the thinking process for making innovative, creative change to your teaching practice in the early years.

THINK about
  • what may work for you
  • how it could be included with your current teaching practice
  • changes you can make to accommodate investigating children's questions and curiosity.

It is NOT about excluding explicit, systematic teaching. It IS about having a teaching pedagogy that includes a variety of teaching and learning strategies that best suit the learning needs of your students. 

There is a place for both

1. systematic instruction in skills students need to learn
2. investigative approach to USE these skills in another context

Read more about this at The Project Approach link.


one size does not fit all!

How is this different to how my students currently learn?

The inquiry approach really focuses on the HOW we learn/find out rather then just focusing on content. It is concerned with acquiring the skills of learning.

The approach is centred around finding possible solutions to a problem. In other words, investigating a question posed.

Often the teacher is the questioner. With the Inquiry approach, the students are encouraged to ask the questions. The teacher can assist with this by scaffolding the questioning process through modelling provocative open questions that require are reflective in nature.

  • How do you know this?
  • Where is the evidence?
  • How did you come to that solution?

An adventure with the

Inquiry approach  in Year 1

Image from Dorling Kindersley - free clipart for Teachers

Year 1 at Regents Park investigated life cycles by following the progress of chickens hatching in their classroom. They kept a hatchery in their room for the term and the main question they wanted answered was what is the life cycle of an egg? Not just the chicken!!!

This topic evolved from the HSIE/Science focus which was on investigating "Living Things" and lifecycles. This complemented the work in English on writing Explanation texts and learning the language features of that text.

The Year 1 teachers began this real world investigations approach by using EKWQ...

W is for WONDER

Firstly the teachers wanted to find out about the experiences of the students - what they already knew about the topic.

Defining the topic

In first week or so of the inquiry approach, the students
  •  reflected on their experiences of living things, specifically what they knew about chickens
  •  share what they have experienced.
This sharing required the children to first reflect on and represent their experiences in some way. They did this through a variety of ways...
  • told stories about chickens
  • recounted orally about movies with chickens as characters
  • wrote about chickens
  • drew pictures
  • labelled drawings
  • did paintings 
  • made playdough models
  • construct with blocks, role play, etc.
  • class survey on who had see "Chicken Run" (which later inspired class animation on the lifecycle of a chicken..)


The teacher's role is to support the use of a variety of investigative and representational strategies. S/he also has a special responsibility to probe the children to reflect on their experiences and explain them.

The Year 1 teachers at Regents Park started each week with an "I wonder .." question probe. Out of the wondering comes the desire to question. This lead to the year 1 students wanting to know, among other things, what the chicken looked like as it began to grow inside the egg. Their question was

How do eggs change into a chicken?


Investigating the topic

The children began to predict and develop theories about what might happen inside the egg. The teachers guided the children to think about the various ways to test their hypotheses. The children decided that they needed to bring in an egg from home and see what was inside by using the class digital microscope.
They took photos of the egg under the microscope and investigated the properties of an egg. They labelled the photos using technical language like "germinal disc".

They also interviewed the person who brought the  hatchery into their rooms. This information was recorded by the teacher and the students.
The teachers located books, posters, internet pages and other materials to help the children's research.
They revisited their hypotheses and started to draw what they think would happen as the egg turned into a chicken. This was shared with others.

Over the weeks other questions were asked as they found out more.

How do chickens grow inside an egg?

The teachers found photos of a chicken embryo changing over time, which stimulated much discussion amongst the children. The children, under teacher guidance, organised the photos into a flowchart - a great visual way to document explanation texts.

More questions the investigation grew...

Do chickens swim?

What do chickens eat?

Do chickens have teeth?

What does their skin look like?

Because the children were asking the questions, they were highly motivated to investigate and find the answers.

Meanwhile they kept observing the eggs in the hatchery each day, observing and recording the changes.


Presenting Findings

The children chose a variety of ways to record and present their findings.
  • Composing a flowchart to show how the egg changes into a chicken
  • Clay animation depicting the change from fertilised egg through to a chicken hatching and growing (inspired by "Chicken Run"!)
  • Labelled photos of images using the digital microscope
  • Caption writing
  • Labelling charts with technical language

 "Following the lead of children is a meaningful way of learning with children. It is a strategy embedded in interactive teaching approaches—methods which rely on thoughtful educators who listen carefully to children and who respond respectfully to their questions, statements and concerns. It is a powerful approach because it uses child-generated ideas as the catalyst for learning, ensuring that children are already interested and motivated in their inquiries."

Carmel Richardson
Teacher and researcher
Wiradjuri Preschool Child Care, ACT


What will the students be doing during the inquiry approach?

They will view themselves as learners by:

  • collaborating with others
  • being motivated to learn
  • taking risks
  • being curious

They will engage in the investigation process by:

  • selecting and using materials
  • asking questions
  • observing
  • trying out ideas

They will observe, explain and question by:

  • observing critically
  • generating new questions
  • applying questions through activities
  • making connections

They will design and implement their learning by:

  • trying out ideas
  • observing changes and and reflecting on learning
  • decide what is important and what is not
  • using own initiative
  • recording information
More on the Inquiry approach.

Curriculum resources

Curriculum resources for the early years at edna. Take a look!
Also find early years resources for Indigenous education at edna.

A place for investigation......


"Children are creators, thinkers and problem solvers - and use a variety of media to physically, aesthetically and creatively express themselves."

National quality framework for early childhood education and care: a discussion paper.


What is the Inquiry approach?

According to an article by Lilian G. Katz, it is

  • in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about
  • a research effort deliberately focused on finding answers to questions about a topic posed either by the children, the teacher, or the teacher working with the children
  • is undertaken by small group, whole class or individual child.

Ultimately, the aim to to learn more about the topic rather than focusing on finding all the right answers.

(We have tagged it the Inquiry Approach but it is also known as the Project Approach.)

So how does this fit in with our curriculum?

Good question! Many teachers worry that syllabus outcomes are "at risk" of being lost. The inquiry approach can be A PART OF the approach already taken by teachers when planning and programming the curriculum. It is NOT an approach used instead of the curriculum.

If you think about how you currently integrate the curriculum by working across KLAs, the inquiry approach can be incorporated by
  • getting children to pose questions about the topic e.g. How does this work?
  • using these questions to formulate investigations about the topic
  • children make decisions about how they will investigate the topic - how  they will find out possible solutions to a problem
  • using skills already learnt through explicit teaching to help investigate the topic

This gives children the opportunity to apply many skills that have been EXPLICITLY taught while investigating, for instance, an area in Science or HSIE.

So what does the project approach look like?

An important feature of the Inquiry approach is that children
  • pose questions to be answered and/or
  • take the initiative for investigation of the topic introduced by the teacher.

In other words, children ask questions that guide the investigation and make decisions about the activities to be undertaken.

Typically at the start of a unit, as teachers we often ask the children "What do you know?" and "What do you want to find out?" Do we really listen to what they have to say? Do we let them decide HOW they will find the answers to their questions?


KLA topics for ES1 and S1 can focus on real phenomenon that children can investigate through a variety of hands-on experiences. They can draw children's attention to questions such as: How do things work? What do people do? and What tools do people use?

Learning tasks that children can engage in during the inquiry approach may include
  • drawing,
  • writing,
  • reading,
  • recording observations, and
  • interviewing experts.

The information gathered is summarized and represented in the form of
  • graphs,
  • charts,
  • diagrams,
  • paintings and drawings,
  • murals,
  • models and other constructions,
  • reports
As Katz explains,  an important component of a this approach is dramatic play, in which new understanding is expressed and new vocabulary is used.

What could this look like in your classroom?

What are  the steps in the Inquiry approach?

Remember that it can always look different in every classroom. The needs of your students will determine your teaching pedagogy.  But here is a framework which might help you get started!

1. Define the topic

  • discuss, draw about the topic
  • ensure it is linked to familiar experiences of the students (ES1 & S1 syllabus)
  • ensure the topic is one that can be investigated through a variety experiences
  • brainstorm,make a concept web about topic
  • teacher/children propose questions to investigate about the topic

2. Investigate the topic by

  • drawing,
  • viewing,
  • constructing,
  • design & make
  • writing, 
  • predicting,
  • dramatizing,
  • reading,
  • recording observations, and
  • interviewing experts.

3.Preparing and presenting findings through

  • dramatization
  • graphs
  • charts
  • talks
  • constructions, models
  • murals
  • writing


Inquiry and the investigative approach - Primary Connections (Science)

Waether in my world
Primary Connections is a Science resource produced by the Federal government that links to state syllabus documents.
It uses an approach whereby student's questions become the focus for investigation and the basis for developing scientific explanations. Students are encouraged and supported to produce their understandings in a variety of ways. Small group collaborative learning is the cornerstone of this approach.

Teaching/learning model

  • activities to engage students' interest
  • stimulate curiosity
  • raise questions for inquiry
  • elicit prior knowledge
Teacher plans following lessons to build on prior knowledge and questions raised.
  • hands-on activities to explore the concept or skill.
  • discuss observations
  • test ideas
  • shared experiences
  • Identify patterns from observations
  • develop explanations for scientific phenomenon
  • represent understanding via literacy product
  • teacher monitors learning and gives feedback
  • plan and conduct investiagtion to test ideas
  • new contexts 

  • review and reflect on their own learning and new understandings and skills
  • produce literacy product to represent understanding
There are many useful curriculum resources on the Primary Connections website. They are worth a look!
    Schoolyard safariWhat's it made of?

 Linking standards with early learning pedagogy

 We know that young children learn best through meaningful, interactive, inquiry-based learning. The question many educators ask is "Can we still meet the syllabus outcomes with this approach?" This article clearly demonstrates how well-planned active learning can meet set standards in education. It also cites a variety of current research that supports this claim. A great read!
Early Childhood Research and Practice has the following articles linked to the inquiry (project0 approach.
Subpages (1): The role of the teacher