What is Inquiry?

Those learning about the PYP sometimes ask “Is it a curriculum or an approach?” The answer is “both”. The PYP curriculum is defined broadly to include an approach to teaching and learning, in recognition of the fact that, in practice, the two are inextricably linked. The taught curriculum is the written curriculum in action.

The PYP developers have set out to strengthen these links by developing a curriculum in which classroom practice, the taught curriculum, is a direct reflection of the written curriculum. Therefore, in the written curriculum the essential elements of learning—knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and action—are identified. It is recognized that these elements are not completely separable—in the course of the learning process they blend. It is suggested that they are synthesized in three main ways:

  • through the learner profile, which is supported by a curriculum framework based on the five essential elements
  • through the exploration of conceptually based central ideas, linked to the transdisciplinary themes, which support and are supported by the other four essential elements
  • through the collaborative planning process, which may involve input from students, that considers all three components of the PYP curriculum model—written, taught, assessed—in an iterative manner.

A culture of collaboration is required for the PYP to flourish within a school. This is most clearly reflected in the collaborative planning process that focuses on using the written curriculum to suggest central ideas that are themselves conceptually based. These central ideas may be selected to enhance each student’s understanding of issues of global significance, as expressed through the transdisciplinary themes. However, whether teaching goes on within or outside the programme of inquiry, it should be about students’ understanding of a central idea, wherever this is possible and reasonable. This defining of a central idea and the structuring of inquiry to support its understanding is one of the characteristics of the PYP planning process, and needs to be engaged with by all teachers in a PYP school. The teaching focuses on facilitating that inquiry in the classroom and beyond.


Why is a commitment to inquiry and the construction of meaning important?

Since its inception, the PYP has been infused with a spirit of inquiry. The ongoing implementation of the PYP is framed by means of questions such as “What do we want the students to understand and be able to do?” In seeking to answer that question, there is a commitment to refining what is significant and relevant, and to quality rather than quantity. It is believed in the PYP that meaning and understanding are undermined by an emphasis on coverage; and that students will become more enduringly skillful when the learning is authentic and in context. The curriculum in a PYP school should emphasize the active construction of meaning so that students’ learning will be purposeful.

An extensive study of the literature, when combined with practical experience, has led the PYP to the position it now holds, which is one of commitment to structured, purposeful inquiry that engages students actively in their own learning. In the PYP it is believed that this is the way in which students learn best—that students should be invited to investigate significant issues by formulating their own questions, designing their own inquiries, assessing the various means available to support their inquiries, and proceeding with research, experimentation, observation and analysis that will help them in finding their own responses to the issues. The starting point is students’ current understanding, and the goal is the active construction of meaning by building connections between that understanding and new information and experience, derived from the inquiry into new content.

Inquiry, as the leading pedagogical approach of the PYP, is recognized as allowing students to be actively involved in their own learning and to take responsibility for that learning. Inquiry allows each student’s understanding of the world to develop in a manner and at a rate that is unique to that student.

It is recognized that there is a role for drill and practice in the classroom. Yet it is felt that teaching to the fullest extent possible about central ideas that are concept based leads to the most substantial and enduring learning.

As discussed earlier, the intention of the PYP is to support students’ efforts to construct meaning from the world around them by drawing on their prior knowledge, by providing provocation through new experiences, and by providing time and opportunity for reflection and consolidation. This constructivist approach respects the students’ developing ideas and understandings of the social and natural world; it continually stimulates students’ revision and refinement of their models of how the world works. It implies a pedagogy that is significantly, but not necessarily completely, dependent on students’ inquiry, where the planning incorporates a range of experiences that acknowledges the diversity of students’ prior knowledge.

What does inquiry look like?

Inquiry, interpreted in the broadest sense, is the process initiated by the students or the teacher that moves the students from their current level of understanding to a new and deeper level of understanding. This can mean:

  • exploring, wondering and questioning
  • experimenting and playing with possibilities
  • making connections between previous learning and current learning
  • making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens
  • collecting data and reporting findings
  • clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events
  • deepening understanding through the application of a concept
  • making and testing theories
  • researching and seeking information
  • taking and defending a position
  • solving problems in a variety of ways.

Inquiry involves an active engagement with the environment in an effort to make sense of the world, and consequent reflection on the connections between the experiences encountered and the information gathered. Inquiry involves the synthesis, analysis and manipulation of knowledge, whether through play or through more formally structured learning throughout the PYP.

In the PYP, the lively, animated process of inquiry appears differently within different age ranges. The developmental range evident in a group of 5 year olds can often be from 3 to 8 years. This demands that the teacher be a thoughtful participant in, and monitor of, the ongoing exploration and investigations that the students engage in or initiate. In particular, the teachers of the younger students need to be mindful of the role of the learning environment when presenting provocations to the students, for them to wonder at, and be curious about, and to stimulate purposeful play.

The PYP should be put into practice in developmentally appropriate ways. Practices are developmentally appropriate when the knowledge that may be constructed from them is related to the students’ first-hand experience. This does not mean that young students do not acquire knowledge from, for example, stories, books and graphics/visuals. Nevertheless, the extent to which they acquire knowledge is dependent on whether young students can connect the new information to the knowledge they already possess and to the signs and symbols they already understand. It is important to recognize that students’ learning may vary from developmental expectations.

Many different forms of inquiry are recognized, based on students’ genuine curiosity and on their wanting and needing to know more about the world. It is most successful when students’ questions and inquiries are genuine/honest and have real significance in moving them in a substantial way to new levels of knowledge and understanding. The most insightful inquiries, ones most likely to move the students’ understanding further, come from existing knowledge. The structure of the learning environments, including the home, the classroom, the school and the community, and the behaviour modelled by others in that environment, particularly by the parent and the teacher, will lay down the knowledge foundation that will nurture meaningful participation and inquiry on the part of the students.

An explicit expectation of the PYP is that successful inquiry will lead to responsible action initiated by the students as a result of the learning process. This action may extend the students’ learning, or it may have a wider social impact. Both inquiry and action will clearly look different within each age range and from one age range to the next.

Source: Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education (2009)