I recently observed an inquiry by Year 10 Geography students.  The topic was “Health of the Swan River” and the stated task was to “Investigate the health of the Swan River and prepare a written report.”  The task was to be completed entirely individually, and was structured into four stages: research & planning, geographical inquiry, geographical interpretation, and written report.  Below, I will critically analyse the ILA that I observed, and make recommendations about how the program could be re-designed in the future, in order to become a stronger inquiry model.  This will be discussed, specifically, in relation to curriculum, geographical inquiry and information-learning theories.  Whilst I am not an expert in the teaching of Geography, my recommendations are based on methodology which is transferable across the curriculum, and I will suggest strategies for its incorporation into this specific ILA.


My ILA was explicitly created as a “geographical inquiry”, with a firm foundation in the Australian Curriculum.  The program of study was newly created by one teacher, according to school departmental requirements and practice, and delivered by all teachers of that subject.  The following standards of the Australian Curriculum appear to be addressed, as part of Unit 1: Environmental change and management

Geographical Knowledge and Understanding: ACHGK073, ACHGK074, ACHGK075

Geographical Inquiry and Skills: ACHGS072, ACHS073, ACHGS077, ACHGS080

Only 4 class periods, of 55 minutes each, were allocated to this inquiry, according to the program.  A lack of student time on the task is seen as one of the main inhibitors to implementing a successful information search process (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p.51)Apart from the fact that the school has a very busy and rigid timetable, it is unclear why such little time was allocated to this task.  An increased time allocation for this inquiry would not only increase the likelihood of deeper understanding of the topic and issues, but would also provide the opportunity for a greater number of Geographical Inquiry and Skills standards to be incorporated, such as those relating to evaluation of sources and communication of findings.  Where additional class time is not possible, online collaborative learning environments may prove to be extremely useful, giving the chance for students to access, discuss and share information outside of the classroom, in order to co-create new meanings.

The Geographical Inquiry and Skills standards that do appear to be addressed in this task are generally not achieved in full and/or not achieved to a high level, due to the time constraints.  For example, ACHGS077 states, “Apply geographical concepts to synthesise information from various sources and draw conclusions based on the analysis of data and information, taking into account alternative points of view” (ACARA, 2013).  Based on my observations, students generally resorted to one main website as their source of information, and did not have the time or analytical skills to take differing viewpoints into consideration.

Geographical Inquiry

One of the five stated aims of the Foundation to Year 10 Australian Geography Curriculum reads thus:

the capacity to be competent, critical and creative users of geographical inquiry methods and skills” (ACARA, 2013)

Favier describes geographical inquiry as being comprised of two components, with separate, but connected, aims:

“Fundamental geographic inquiry mainly aims to increase our knowledge about the characteristics and functioning of the world around us, while applied geographic inquiry methods mainly aims to develop knowledge about how to improve the world around us” (2011, p.11).

Applied geographic inquiry methods, as described above, reflect a perspective on information literacy that Lupton and Bruce label as “Transformative,” according to their GeST Windows i.e. information literacy is seen as a range of information practices used to transform oneself and society” (Lupton & Bruce, 2010, p.13).  In the final questionnaire, a small number of students’ responses indicated that the information they had found had led to more transformative thinking / applied geographic thinking e.g.“It is interesting because if everyone works together to solve this issue there could be a great improvement in the river’s health” and “how the Swan River can improve with the help of the swan river trust and the other sponsors and the community.” While these responses demonstrate an awareness that members of the community can contribute to positive environmental change, the nature of the task, and time constraints, did not encourage students to personally design or take action on their chosen issue, in order to  or improve the world around us. Ideally, a successful and meaningful geographical inquiry should provide opportunities for this to occur.  Unfortunately, as Kidman points out, “Although geographical inquiry is heavily advocated in Australia’s new Australian Curriculum: Geography, more work is needed in this area relating to teacher professional learning” (2012, p. 311).

Information-Learning Theories

While numerous models of guided inquiry exist, they are generally based on similar, constructivist pedagogy, whereby learning is student-directed, relevant and meaningful.  As Paily succinctly summarises,

“In a constructivist learning situation learners bring unique prior experiences and beliefs and knowledge is constructed uniquely and individually, in multiple ways, using a variety of tools, resources, and contexts” (2013, p.39). 

Informed by theorists, such as Dewey, Kelly and Bruner, constructivist information-learning models have been created, which reflect the notion that learning is an active process, that occurs in distinct stages.  One such model is Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP):

“The model of the ISP describes feelings, thoughts, and actions of students involved in complex inquiry tasks in which they are required to construct their own understandings.  The seven process stages are initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, presentation, and assessment.”(Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p. 18)

Kuhlthau has since modified her model to create the Guided Inquiry Design Process, which can be seen below:

guided-inquiry-design-process(Source: Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2012)

Barbara Stripling has developed a similar model, using different terminology, as can be seen here:


(Source: Stripling, 2010)

Another variation is known as the 8 Ws, and was developed in the 1990s by Annette Lamb:


(Source: SLIS-IUPUI, 2011)

Although these three models (and many others) use different terms, descriptions and format, they all  demonstrate how information-learning is a process, made up of distinct stages, and that these stages are interconnected, fluid and cyclical.  These models also provide learners with the opportunity for higher level thinking skills, and promote movement through Bloom’s revised taxonomy, as seen below:

blooms_revised_taxomony1(Source: Morrison, 2012)

Models of guided inquiry all commence with orientation stages, where students’ interest is stimulated and background information is presented and/or explored.  Whether these stages are called “Watching”  “Connect” “Open” or”Immerse,” they are often ignored in more traditional classroom research environments, to students’ detriment.  As discussed in my Results post, several students were disengaged throughout the process, particularly at the start.  Branch (2003), an exponent of Kuhlthau’s ISP in junior high school classrooms, stresses that practitioners need to “provide time for students to gain background knowledge about the topic before expecting them to focus” (p. 60). An excursion to the Swan River, which was the focus of their geographical inquiry, was initially planned, but the excursion was not approved.  Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari argue that carefully-planned field trips are an integral part of the inquiry process, (2007, p. 72).  This missed opportunity was a significant factor, which affected student interest levels, and reduced the potential for deeper understanding, personal relevance, meaningfulness, and transformative thinking.  I would recommend that obtaining approval for this excursion in the future should be a priority.

The next stage in the above models involves students formulating questions based on what students already know and what they need to find out.  This stage was included in the research & planning phase of the ILA task, and formed the beginning of the inquiry.  Students were required to choose an environmental issue relating to the Swan River, create a mindmap of what they already know, and then develop focus questions relating to what they want/need to find out.  This requirement certainly fits well within guided inquiry methodology, as students were given the opportunity to generate open-ended questions which are important and interesting to them, and which are then addressed in order to construct their own deeper understanding (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, p. 134).  The teacher discovered that students had little or no prior experience in this type of activity, so she started one lesson with a fun, interactive introduction to open-ended question formulation.  More time would have provided students with greater opportunity to practise and develop higher level questioning.  Carruthers and Lampe explain the difference between closed, topic-based questions, and open, concept-based questions:

“One of the examples discussed was the topic of holidays. With the topic-based approach, some typical questions would include: When is the holiday celebrated? Where is it celebrated? How is it celebrated? A student might then play some games, make some foods, or create typical decorations. A concept-based approach could address how the celebrations and holidays of a people reflect cultural heritage. This leads to comparisons, analysis, and evaluation; all are higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy” (Carruthers & Lampe, 2011, p. 15).

A bank of questioning examples and frameworks could have been useful for the ILA students at this stage.  If given more time in class, it may also have been useful for students to work together, in small groups, to develop, share and evaluate questions.  Collaboration at this and other stages is advocated by Kuhlthau et al, as it allows students to co-construct knowledge ,and provides opportunities for individuals to think about and assess their own learning. “Inquiry learning is a social process in which students learn from each other in a community of learners” (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, p. 36).

Locating and evaluating information are the next steps in a guided inquiry.  While ILA students were required to select and gather information, they often lacked the skills to perform this efficiently and effectively.  As noted in student questionnaire responses, many students found difficulty in finding specific information which answered their questions, and others mentioned finding difficulty in assessing the accuracy and reliability of information they did find.  Strategies and tools are, therefore, required to support students in effective searching and resource evaluation.  Students also need to understand the different types of searches required at different stages of the inquiry process, referred to by Kuhlthau et al as preliminary, exploratory, comprehensive,and summary (2007, p. 84).  FitzGerald has found that specific instruction and student experience is needed to enable students to effectively understand and implement these different types of searches (2011, p. 27).

“The objective of inquiry learning is not merely to collect facts but to reflect and interpret those facts to construct deep understanding (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, p. 90).  This can occur if adequate time and planning is given to the earlier stages in the information search process, and is also reliant upon specific support throughout the process, such as structured notetaking, and scaffolds to assist with synthesis of information (FitzGerald, 2011, p. 37).  One of the elements of the ILA research assessment was for students to use appropriate recording and note taking techniques, however these skills were not specifically addressed or facilitated during class time, and students would have benefitted from some organisational tools and/or templates e.g. graphic organisers.  Kuhlthau et al. also recommend the use of an inquiry journal throughout the ISP, for the recording of  ideas, sources, explorations, detailed notes, reflections, and more (2007, p. 139).

The final creation of a written report to present findings was supported by a teacher-created planning template.  Many students were relieved to receive this, and found it very helpful to focus and structure their ideas and information.  While task expectations stated that students should evaluate different points of view and solutions related to their chosen issue, lack of time generally prevented these elements from being explored in any deep or meaningful way.  Moreover, although students were asked to find and evaluate solutions to an environmental issue, they were not encouraged to formulate a practical solution themselves to take action and use their new understandings to transform their world.  As the task was individual and assessment was for teacher only, the opportunity to share information and learn from each other, in a community of learners, was missed.   If facilitating a similar inquiry in the future, with similar time limitations, one option for collaboration and sharing is via the use of a range of Web 2.0 tools, such as shared Evernote folders, a class blog, Twitter, pinterest boards etc…

The ILA inquiry task includes an assessable reflection sheet for completion at the end of the program.  This is an important stage in any inquiry, as students think about and evaluate their own learning and experiences, to inform their future learning, to continue the learning cycle, and to help guide teachers in future planning.  One missing element from this reflection sheet is any reference to feelings about the task.  Kuhlthau et al. have discovered that learners experience a predictable range of emotions throughout the ISP, and that it is useful to be aware of these along the journey.  For example, most learners tend to feel confused, doubtful and frustrated during the exploration stage, but are usually feeling more confident and satisfied towards the end of the process (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, p. 19). 


While this geographical inquiry contains some elements of a guided inquiry, following a process of information searching, there are many modifications which could be implemented to strengthen its basis in inquiry methodology.  One of the main hindrances was time:  lack of time in class for students to construct their learning in a community of learners, and lack of flexibility with timetabling at a school level, which was a factor in the field trip cancellation.  Many of the elements required for a successful inquiry are present in the task structure, such as students choosing their own focus, formulating their own questions, and evaluating solutions to relevant issues, and, given more time, increased higher level thinking has the potential to occur.  However, a more  successful inquiry could result if other stages, tools and scaffolds were put into place; for example, a focus on immersion and wonder at the start of the topic, more opportunities to co-construct new knowledge in a collaborative community of learners, and a focus on using information to creating an end-product which could actually have a meaningful effect in the real world, beyond simply reporting on findings.  Other broader recommendations would be for the school to operate under a more flexible timetabling structure, and to promote inquiry learning across the curriculum, including adequate teacher training.


ACARA (2013). The Australian Curriculum v5.1 Geography. Retrieved from

Branch, J. L. (2003). Instructional intervention is the key: Supporting adolescent information seeking. School Libraries Worldwide, 9(2), 47-61.

Carruthers, C., & Lampe, K. (2011). Taking on inquiry in Iowa. School Library Monthly, 28(1), 14-16.

Favier, T. (2011). Geographic Information Systems in inquiry-based secondary geography education: Theory and Practice. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Ipskamp.
Fitzgerald, L. (2011). The twin purposes of Guided Inquiry: Guiding student inquiry and evidence based practice. Scan, 30(1), 26-41.
Kidman, G. (2012). Geographical inquiry in Australian schools: a retrospective analysis. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 21(4), 311-319.

Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K., & Caspari, A. K. (2007). Guided inquiry: Learning in the 21st century. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K., & Caspari, A. K. (2012). Guided inquiry design: A framework for inquiry in your school. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Lupton, M., & Bruce, C. (2010). Windows on information literacy worlds: Generic, situated and transformative perspectives. In Practising information literacy: Bringing theories of learning, practice and information literacy together (pp. 3-27). Wagga Wagga, Australia: Centre for Information Studies.

Morrison, D. (2012, January 11). Online learning insights: Blogs and Bloom’s. Retrieved from

Paily, M. U. (2013). Creating constructivist learning environment: Role of “Web 2.0” technology. International Forum of Teaching and Studies, 9(1), 39-52.

SLIS-IUPUI (2011). Virtual information inquiry: 8Ws. Retrieved from

Stripling, B. (2010). Teaching students to think in the digital environment: Digital literacy and digital inquiry. School Library Monthly, 26(8). Retrieved from


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