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Autumn 2004

Talking English

What makes a good inquiry unit?

KATH MURDOCH discusses the characteristics of high quality inquiry units—that is, units that achieve their goal of engaging students and helping them to learn skills and gain understanding.

INQUIRY APPROACHES are enjoying a resurgence of popularity in classrooms across Australia. Many contemporary curriculum frameworks such as Tasmania’s Essential Learnings locate inquiry as central to effective teaching and learning. One of the ways inquiry can be activated in the classroom is through units of work that involve students in investigating shared topics or questions over several weeks. These units often provide a valuable context for teaching a wide range of literacy skills and processes, as well as developing understandings about the world.

Teachers have been planning inquiry units for years and there are various models and ways to do so. But do our units really achieve the kind of thinking and learning they should? In this article, I describe several elements that repeatedly appear in the most successful units and argue that it is the conversations we have around such questions that ultimately strengthen our teaching. The list is by no means exhaustive. It is a series of ‘discussion starters’ that may help other teams get the most out of their planning.

What’s this unit really about?

Teachers who build their planning around big ideas are well on the way to a great inquiry unit. Whether teacherselected or negotiated with students, the best topics engage students in learning about significant, robust and transferable ideas. At Hawthorn West Primary School, teachers use Tina Blythe’s concept of ‘throughlines’ to help ensure the generative quality of their units. For example, a recent, whole school unit celebrating the school’s 150th anniversary was geared around the following, shared throughlines:

  • constructed and natural environments change over time
  • people and their relationships are constantly changing
  • knowing about and understanding the past can help us understand the present and make informed choices for the future.

Clarity of purpose and a shared vision of ‘what this unit is all about’ makes an enormous difference to the quality of a unit. Developing and articulating these visions with each other and with students establishes a stronger sense of shared purpose.

But will the students care? How can we engage them emotionally?

When we ask students to reflect on their most significant moments in an inquiry they repeatedly identify activities that involve real people, real places, real objects and the stories that surround them. Those units that ‘fall flat’ often do so because we fail to connect students with the emotional terrain around a topic. So how do we improve this? Choosing units that involve problematic questions and issues is one way. For example, instead of studying ‘the sea’ as a passive topic, we activate it through questions, for example, ‘Why is the sea important to humans and other animals? How and why do people value the sea?’

Another powerful strategy is to ensure that students gather information from direct experience and stories. As part of their inquiry into reconciliation, year 5/6 students at Princes Hill primary school invited Kutcha Edwards to share what life is like for him as an Indigenous Australian. His challenging and personal story activated an emotional connection with the topic many students had not experienced before. For some, it was only at this point where they began to ask (and care about) questions. Students’ own stories are a rich source of emotive power. To begin their unit of work on memory and change, prep students at Hawthorn West Primary School shared an object they regarded as a ‘treasure’ from their past. Both students and teachers were emotionally engaged as we listened to the stories behind wornout teddies and yellowing baby blankets, and from here, the inquiry took off.

Why are we doing this? Is there a real issue or problem that might give the unit an authentic purpose?

Dewey wrote extensively of the need for learning to take place in purposeful, reallife contexts. Almost a century later, we still fail to fully capitalise on the many opportunities for authentic learning that exist within home, school and community. A problem or project can really drive and help sequence a successful inquiry. At Ringwood Heights Primary, students helped design and build a small wetland area as part of the nature sanctuary near their school. Through the process, they learned about habitats and interdependence as well as gaining the skills involved in budgeting, locating materials and finding expert help. Great inquiry units work towards a goal. Students do something with what they learn—and that action can, in itself, make a real difference.

How can we help students make connections between learning areas?

Inquiry learning can happen very effectively within the scope of one key learning area. The best units, however, are those in which students connect learning across the curriculum. There are many reasons why this works so well. Perhaps the most salient is the opportunity this gives students for transfer—central to the development of understanding. During an inquiry into the science of light and sound, year 1/2 students at Kalinda Primary School invited a scientist to share his knowledge and answer their questions. As part of their literacy work, the students considered how he got his message across, how he made explanations clear to an audience and how he used props and visuals. Towards the end of the unit, the staff challenged the students to become the experts—to put on their own ‘light and sound’ expo through which they could teach others using both the scientific understandings and the literacy skills they had learned. To the students this integrated experience is seamless and sensible. For teachers, it requires forward thinking—looking for opportunities to make worthwhile curriculum connections.

Are there opportunities for choice and negotiation in this unit? When students are given genuine choices about what they will learn, how they will inquire and how they will show what they know—a unit has more chance of real success. Choices give students a higher ‘stake’ in the inquiry, a sense of ownership and an opportunity to work in ways that suit their learning style. Last year, year 3/4 students at Hawthorn West Primary School spent time researching the question: What makes my body work and how can I keep it working well? It was both impossible and unnecessary for all students to investigate all body systems and needs. Students negotiated questions of interest to them investigated these using a contract that provided support, checks and balances as they worked. At the end of their inquiry, roles were reversed as students taught each other what they had learned. Students show us time and time again that when they are given choices and some ‘room to move’ in a topic they take more responsibility for their learning and get so much more out of the unit.

Are we taking the students beyond the known? How challenging is this inquiry?

Many approaches to inquiry emphasise the importance of relating topics to students’ interests and their own questions. There is no doubt that when students perceive the topic to be relevant to their lives in some way, they are engaged and motivated. The quest for relevance can, however, be problematic. Some units are highly engaging, but when all is said and done the students have not been sufficiently challenged. A great unit is both relevant and challenging— students come away from it with new, deeper understandings and new questions. Keeping, comparing and discussing records of students’ thinking (for example, with mind maps and taped conversations) at critical stages in the unit can help ensure the bar remains high.

How will we help students (and ourselves) reflect on their learning?

Great units involve both students and teachers in regular, explicit reflection. A useful tool for this is the doubleentry journal. One side of the page is descriptive— recording what is being done as the inquiry unfolds. The other side documents reflections on and questions arising from those experiences. As they revisit and expand the journal, students and teachers become more mindful of their journey—of how, what and why they are learning and the connections between tasks. A good unit feels like a journey rather than a smorgasbord of related activities. Teachers model their own questions and reflections as they travel with students.

Let’s meet (and talk) again ...

As the saying goes, ‘It’s not over until it’s over’. Often with the best intentions in mind, we plan a unit in detail before it has been taught, but then rarely refer to or discuss the plan again. A great unit has a deft mix of the planned and spontaneous, of deliberate, guided tasks and more organic, responsive teaching arising out of the interactions we have with students. A great unit is well framed from the outset (with big ideas, key questions, purposes, strategies for activating prior knowledge and shared experiences), but it is the continued conversations around these that help ensure the inquiry remains dynamic, connected to the students’ needs and a joy to teach.


My thanks to teachers at Hawthorn West, Ringwood Heights, Princes Hill and Kalinda Primary Schools for the continued privilege of sharing in your conversations.


Blythe, T & Associates (1998). The Teaching for Understanding Guide, CA JosseyBass, San Francisco.

Dewey, J (1910). How we think, Heath, Boston.

author picture Kath Murdoch is an education consultant and fellow of the University of Melbourne.