Inquiry-Based Learning


Inquiry Learning
Inquiry Method


Co-dependent, goal-oriented action among learners

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of established actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … doing
  • Learner is … an investigating collective
  • Learning is … developing understanding while through application and exploration
  • Teaching is … facilitating, guiding




Proposed nearly a century ago, Inquiry-Based Learning was designed to interrupt assumptions of context-free knowledge, passive learning, and smooth paths to understanding. Inquiry-Based Learning focuses on pursuing authentic interests, posing researchable questions, and participating in knowledge production. Various types of Inquiry-Based Learning have been described, including:
  • Structured Inquiry – teacher leads the entire class in a shared inquiry
  • Controlled Inquiry – teacher selects topics and resources to be engaged by students
  • Guided Inquiry – teacher chooses topic and students design their engagement
  • Free Inquiry (Open Inquiry) – students choose topics without reference to prescribed outcomes
In recent decades, many variations on Inquiry-Based Learning have emerged, including Case-Based LearningChallenge-Based LearningDesign-Based LearningPhenomenon-Based LearningProblem-Based LearningProject-Based LearningStudio-Based Learning, and:
  • Context-Based Learning (Salters’ Approach) (Salters’ Company, 1990s) – aimed at promoting deep engagement with the content, and at developing both practical and theoretical knowledge, Context-Based Learning focuses on examples (actual and fictitious) and emulates real working environments by incorporating social, cultural, and political elements
  • Guided Reinvention (Realistic Mathematics Education, 1990s) – developed through and mainly focused on mathematics learning, an approach to whole-class teaching designed to shepherd learners through the discernments and logical connections necessary to “invent” the concept under study. It is highly reminiscent of Structured Inquiry (see above).
  • Inductive Teaching (Inquiry Training Model; Inductive Problem Solving) – a mode of teaching focused on gathering relevant information, assessing factuality, identifying relationships among facts, and deriving principles and generalizations based on those relationships


Inquiry-Based Learning was originally intended as a pedagogical format, but it has become more of an umbrella notion that stretches over a wide array of methods that align with its emphases on learner involvement in authentic, situated study. On the up-side, the array of contemporary interpretations suggests broad embrace and varied uptake. On the down-side, included in the diversity are approaches – such as Discovery Learning – that lack nuanced appreciations of the Coherence Discourses that originally informed Inquiry-Based Learning. In many contexts, these trivialized interpretations have poisoned the waters for educators seeking to implement Inquiry-Based Learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

John Dewey

Status as a Theory of Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Inquiry-Based Learning is a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Inquiry-Based Learning is founded on scientific theories of learning. Its own evidence base is not especially robust, however – almost certainly because of an unfortunate and inconsistent diversity of interpretations and similar variation in implementation.


  • Context-Based Learning (Salters’ Approach)
  • Controlled Inquiry
  • Free Inquiry (Open Inquiry)
  • Guided Inquiry
  • Guided Reinvention
  • Inductive Teaching (Inquiry Training Model; Inductive Problem Solving)
  • Structured Inquiry

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Inquiry-Based Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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