Essay – Guided Inquiry and Geography



After researching my topic of Guided Inquiry (GI), within the context of the Information Search Process (ISP) (see figure 1, Kuhlthau et al, 2012) and Geography, it appears that the subject area of Geography lends itself very well to the inquiry process, and that there are a growing number of examples of its successful merging in Australia and internationally.  Teachers who have implemented GI in their schools have seen positive results, such as increased student motivation and engagement, deeper understandings, and emotional maturity, but many also suggest that some parts of the process require more time and/or scaffolding.  Some of the obstacles to expanding the incorporation of GI in Geography and other class settings include the lack of teacher training in this area, and the reliance on textbooks.  Below, I will summarise how GI does and can work in Geography classrooms, including discussion of curriculum recommendations and case study findings.

Figure 2: Guided Inquiry

Figure 2: Guided Inquiry

The new Australian Curriculum states:

Geography uses an inquiry approach to assist students to make meaning of their world. It teaches them to respond to questions in a geographically distinctive way, plan an inquiry; collect, evaluate, analyse and interpret information; and suggest responses to what they have learned. (ACARA, 2013)

The term “geographical inquiry” is found in much of the literature and is summarised by the above statement.  Here, one can see that teachers of this subject should already be familiar with the concept of inquiry learning and its benefits to some extent.  However, geographical inquiry generally focuses more on teachers asking the right questions, rather than students exploring a topic and formulating their own (AGTA, 2013); nor does it appear to address students’ emotional journeys through the process, as advocated by Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari (2007, p.16). 

Even with some stages of GI missing from  geographical inquiry, this concept still contains many important elements of the ISP, so why do we not often see it in our schools?  Gillian Kidman explains that geographical inquiry has been included in Australian curricula since the 1970’s but has been rare in practice, due to lack of teacher interest and appropriate qualifications (Kidman, 2012, p.317).  Similarly, Meyerson and Secules (2001) present their findings that inquiry learning takes place best and more often when teachers have adequate training.  These authors suggest professional development which personally introduces them to inquiry learning through collaborative (with other teachers) exploration of controversial issues.

U.K. educator, Margaret Roberts, has developed her own inquiry cycle model for use in Geography classes (See figure 2, Roberts, 2007, p.21).

Figure 1: Framework for learning through inquiry

Figure 2: Framework for learning through inquiry


One can see a similar methodology to Kuhlthau’s at the heart of this model, except for the lack of attention to affective behaviours.  Roberts emphasises the importance of a stimulus and initial exploration to “promote curiosity and questions” (Roberts, 2007, p.22).  She also points out the differences between teacher-directed transmission of knowledge and student-directed construction of knowledge, arguing that the latter, inquiry-based approach results in better understanding of the information, as well as the development of information literacy skills (2007, p.23).

Although not explicitly mentioned as part of geographical inquiry, in order to perform a successful Guided Inquiry, it is crucial to address students’ affective development and awareness.  Ann-Margaret Sharp explores this idea in depth, and sees inquiry learning as promoting three kinds of thinking – critical, creative and caring (2007, p.248).  In support of the acknowledgement of an emotional element to the inquiry process, as advocated by Kuhlthau (2007), Branch (2003), and others, this researcher argues that “caring thinking attends to the feelings of students as well as their thinking….When it is embedded in communal dialogical inquiry, it constitutes an education of the emotions, a necessary constituent of global intelligence” (Sharp, 2007, p.248).  In this way, emotions are not only an important part of the information search process, but the development of “caring thinking” itself is crucial for our global, connected students and citizens of the twenty-first century.

Teacher librarians can and should play a vital role in the support, planning, collaboration and implementation of Guided Inquiry.  Lee FitzGerald, and other participants in the 2008 NSW Association of Independent Schools’ GI project, give us many examples of how this is currently working in their Sydney schools (Fitzgerald, 2011), and the results are exciting.  Similarly, Carruthers and Lampe (2011) demonstrate how teacher librarians have successfully worked with class teachers to modify existing programs in order to create more of an inquiry focus.  Following an inquiry process themselves, many of the authors continually reflect and evaluate the students’ journeys and their own roles, and make recommendations for future practitioners.  For example, Branch advises that students need more time, practice and support when formulating a focus of inquiry and when searching for information in texts (Branch, 2003, p.60).

The future looks bright for GI in the Geography classroom, as long as teachers are encouraged to promote it through adequate training and professional development, and as long as careful attention is paid to possible needs for extra scaffolding and support at each step of the ISP.  The Geography section of the new Australian Curriculum prioritises inquiry as one of the two overarching strands (ACARA, 2013).  This gives teacher librarians an ideal opportunity to promote Guided Inquiry to Geography teachers, and support them to co-develop stimulating and meaningful programs.

ACARA (2013). The Australian Curriculum v5.1 Geography: Rationale. Retrieved from
Australian Geography Teachers Association (2013). GeogSpace. 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.
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., Caspari, A. K., & Maniotes, L. K. (2007). Guided inquiry: Learning in the 21st century. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited.
Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K., & Caspari, A. K. (2012). Guided inquiry design framework. Retrieved from
Meyerson, P., & Secules, T. (2001). Inquiry cycles can make social studies meaningful: Learning about the controversy in Kosovo. The Social Studies, 92(6), 267-271.
Roberts, M. (2007). Geographical inquiry: an approach to teaching and learning geography. Interaction, 35(3), 21-23.
Sharp, A. (2007). Education of the emotions in the classroom community of inquiry. Gifted Education International, 22, 248-257.