Kath Murdoch and inquiry learning: patches of clear water but mainly sludge

I have chosen Kath Murdoch’s work on inquiry learning for comment because I consider her account about the best available and I find her likeable and authentic. That means I can leave aside concerns about personal motivation, the representativeness of the inquiry example being used, and concentrate on the task at hand.

For decades I have had deep reservations about inquiry learning, a concept which moved into primary teaching from secondary displacing the primary integrated tradition, having previously moved into secondary from American universities. Schools of education became important transmitters of inquiry learning largely, I suggest, because the theory can be set out in cycles and taxonomies, making the idea tidier, more important looking, and more examinable. From my point-of-view, inquiry learning has become even more damaging in that it is the only form of topic learning for which professional advice is provided and the only form of topic learning sanctioned by the bureaucracies. Inquiry learning, indeed, is considerably an expression of neoliberal education thinking: associated with open spaces, the heavy use of computers, behaviourism, skill-based learning (as against key knowledge), and broad, abstract, and showy topics and outcomes.

Inquiry learning took the place of integrated learning culture inspired by Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton-Warner which I consider infinitely superior to the glamorous perturbation that is inquiry learning. And then there is the ‘feeling for’ approach to social studies I formed with John Faire, developed as something of an underground movement to become widely used in the mid-80s to mid-90s.

One of the difficulties for me in analysing inquiry learning is that I can go through, say, a summary of inquiry learning and find nothing much to quibble at – at an abstract, idealistic level it being hard to separate from my wider curriculum love – the holistic. But at the detailed level, it is such a tumultuous bringing together of lists, taxonomies, cycles, diagrams, claims, directions, and activities that the answer to any question can be found amongst them – and the cause of any problem. (I do want to add that there are some highly catching activities suggested amongst the tumult referred to, and coincidentally and encouragingly a good few activities very similar to or the same as those regularly used in the ‘feeling for’ approach.)

Inquiry learning presently covers nearly everything because as an idea it hasn’t matured, remains decidedly amateurish; its advocates have been unwilling or unable to define how inquiry links with key ideas and processes from contributing curriculum areas to establish priorities and allow a much needed sorting out and divesting to occur. My suspicion is that the developers of inquiry learning have preferred to trade on the apple pie connotations of the label ‘inquiry’ rather than bend to the task of making the hard decisions imperative to providing a convincing structure for a classroom practice that is so much every which way.

As the main aim for inquiry learning – Reflecting on personal understanding – which is at the centre of Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle will not do. What has happened is that inquiry learning, or more accurately inquiry skills, has taken over curriculum areas and their integrations, distorting them, displacing the more challenging content or, perhaps, more accurately, allowing that content to be avoided.  The central problem is that inquiry learning is paraded as an aid to curriculum learning when it is really a takeover (mainly an unconscious one).

To bolster inquiry learning, to provide it with some kind of structure, a pandemonium of ideas and devices is suggested but it remains a wild splurge that only now-and-then meets the occasion, meanwhile curriculum areas and their integrations are ignored, left to languish while an impersonator going under the wispy label of inquiry struts the stage. One of the difficulties being that inquiry learning has become a commercial product so that its presentation and content is shaped to a marketing end.

To Kath Murdoch’s credit, inquiry learning is not automatically linked to computer learning as it is in New Zealand. One of the problems posed by inquiry-computer learning is that the so-called clever questions suggested as the basis for inquiry are never clever enough to avoid being vulnerable to a couple of clicks on the computer. Computers have ended, if it ever existed, discovery learning of that sort. The clever questions might be able to be made more complex but all that means is a few more clicks.

Overall, I characterise inquiry learning as a generic study skills approach to learning. Such a characterising, on one hand, goes a long way to explaining its official and classroom popularity and, on the other, its often lack of intellectual and affective challenge. It should be noted, as mentioned above, that a skills basis to learning, as against key knowledge, is central to neoliberal and behaviourist education theories which is why, when considering inquiry learning outcomes, a strong behaviourist element can often be noted.

The aims of science will not be met by a study skills approach to learning; admittedly there are some soft science topics which can be met that way, but that is the point, inquiry learning distorts curriculum areas toward those topics. In science there is a world of difference between a project and an investigation. Science has a content that is crucial to children’s understanding of their world and processes crucial to understanding what science is and how it works. Inquiry learning in the way it is functioning undermines genuine science learning, distorting the structure of that curriculum area as it is has other curriculum areas.

Social studies has been shredded by the study skills approach to topic learning, leading to hard-to-get-at topics and situations not being covered or not being covered anywhere near satisfactorily (such as the Treaty of Waitangi (Matariki, it seems being substituted as the Maori topic for the year) or perhaps the equivalent for Kath Murdoch in being Australian, early contact between European and the original inhabitants). Such topics, in particular, need to be organised by a dynamic main aim so that children gain control of sufficient knowledge for the affective and cognitive response to be valid.

In an article ‘Busting some myths about the inquiry cycle’ Kath Murdoch spiritedly brings up problems about inquiry learning she had observed, bemoaning the many ‘bewildering versions or iterations of the cycle that are such a long way off the original conceptualisation and intent.’ She then proceeded to explain why and to suggest solutions. But her explanations are declarative when they needed to be analytical as the problems are inherent in the nature of inquiry learning and the overall presentation. It is significant that in the introduction, Kath Murdoch mentions that Donald Graves (‘her hero’) said that so terrible were the uses of his ‘process writing’ that he sometimes wished he’d never written it down. The analogy is pertinent but not in ways Kath might find encouraging, that is because in New Zealand it was widely recognised that process writing had a formalism to it that meant it would be unlikely maintain its potential useful qualities against the demanding rigours of classroom practice.

An answer to the problem of inquiry learning lies in the name: there is no such thing as learning that is distinctive to inquiry; as such it is all learning and therefore meaningless as a concept. And if the name is changed to inquiry skills, such skills are not safe for all applications.  And there is talk of integration, that as well needs to be carefully thought through so that what is integrated maintains its validity, gaining from, as well contributing to, the whole. The lists of complex questions, admonitions, indicators, taxonomies (yes – even Bloom’s, spare me), complex diagrams, and murmurings of scaffolding are a clutter indicating  a half-baked process scrambling for attention and commercial popularity – all symptomatic of a process that too easily allows a way out from genuine learning as against what seems, in actual outcome, a version of swept-up projects.

Kath Murdoch is a university lecturer from Australia who takes courses on inquiry learning.

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11 Responses to Kath Murdoch and inquiry learning: patches of clear water but mainly sludge

  1. principalatuni2016 says:

    Hi Kelvin
    Interesting read and one that I strongly connect with. Being away from school for this year, studying, I have been reflecting on our school curriculum. Inquiry isn’t working at my school. So, with my extra time I have been planning our start of the year call back days for 2017 in and around thematic/integrated learning. A ‘remembering when’ kind of feel to the planning so far, and I am genuinely excited about the potentialities of returning to a more balanced and holistic curriculum where teacher’s a freed up to use their combined skills and imaginations to plan fantastic, exciting, interesting, integrated learning units for their kids.
    Cheers Kelvin
    Paul J – Tikorangi School

  2. Kelvin says:


  3. Bruce Hammonds says:

    This inquiry learning is an interesting thing. Lots of people talking about it but often not much to show for it. As far as I am concerned inquiry is the default way young children learn – like little scientists exploring, testing things out, developing theories and keeping what works until something comes along to disrupt their thinking. Enlightened trial and error.

    All too it is when the young enter formal schooling that their interests, queries, concerns are put to one side while teachers( who know best) get students to learn what it is some adult has decided they should know. Mostly literacy and numeracy – National Standards.

    When school starts it is success in literacy and numeracy that takes over. Forget being a young scientist( or artist) what counts now is what ability group you are in for literacy and numeracy. Nothing much else seems to count. – or be counted.

    What inquiry learning that survives ( limited to a fractured afternoon programme) is all too often cutting and pasting using google. Thin learning at best. Real inquiry learning ought to start with some big idea (s) to explore. It should involve real experiences. Experiments. Discussion. The changing of ones mind – prior knowledge. What is discovered is written up to record what has been learnt and often expressed ( as appropriate) through a range of media. This is an integrated/holistic style of learning and calls on content disciplines as required.

    Sure it is a process, an almost invisible one, as students deepen their personal knowledge. Elwyn Richardson once said ‘a study without real content is a study at risk’. He would be appalled at the ‘thin’ learning that goes on in classrooms today – assisted by computers. A kind of trivial pursuits.

    When an inquiry approach is used in this way ( not something to be done after the’real’ learning of literacy and numeracy have taken up most of the learning time) it naturally integrates into all aspects of the curriculum. It is developing positive feelings and attitudes to areas being studied

    Inquiry, of any sort,, is a rare best in classrooms today. If it were to be central then the classroom walls and students written work would be dripping with their ideas, findings, research, unanswered questions, along with creative art and language that would be natural part of such a classroom.

    Such a classroom could be seen as a community of scientists and artists busy ‘seeking, using and creating their own knowledge’ as it says in the all but sidelined New Zealand Curriculum.

    And much of what is called literacy and numeracy would relate or contribute to such an inquiry based classroom.

    It used to be a feature of creative classrooms.

  4. Kelvin says:

    Thank-you Bruce: as a carrier of the Elwyn Richardson torch, and as a person who knew him so well over so many years – you words are especially powerful.

  5. Melulater/Melanie says:

    I agree that inquiry allows the learner to skirt any contact with content knowledge whatsoever. I truly believe that where inquiry fails is that we expect children to come up with questions about something they know nothing about to base their inquiry on. With my own recent experiences in my Masters study, I am now very much aware of the old adage ‘you do not know what you do not know’. Personally I prefer the method of immersion when it comes to topic study, integrating into all subjects (although I rarely achieve it with maths to be honest… or PE).
    Currently I am doing relief teaching to supplement the income, as we all know the Student Loan Living Allowance is a joke, and I get to go into classrooms who are using inquiry. Some inquiries are good. Some kids have no blimmin’ idea what they are doing. This week I encountered two boys whose stated inquiry aim was to discover new planets. How they were going to do this I have no idea, but what was incredibly concerning was that they hadn’t checked in with their teacher nor their teacher with them a week into the inquiry starting!!
    In yet another class I met a 10 year old girl who told me her inquiry. It will take the rest of the year. My concern with that is the drop of engagement. Carry a project on too long with primary students and they can get complacent if you don’t have the atmosphere focused. However, as we sat discussing her project, I realised it was very similar to what we are expected to do at Masters level. So to read your analysis of where inquiry came from and how it ended up in our primary classrooms is very interesting.
    Going back to the idea of content being lost, I feel that we have and are developing generations of young people going into adult hood who know little. As a result they struggle to engage in the topics of the day, struggle to have interesting conversations when in a variety of social settings. I have been saying this for ten years… only to get the modern education mantra that the process is more important than the content. I totally disagree.
    Case in point was during last year’s Bobby Calf scandal, I saw a comment from someone on social media saying they would no longer buy milk because farmers are cruel to calves. Instead they would purchase milk powder. I had to point out that milk powder is made from milk from cows. Content is definitely missing at the most basic level in too many people.

  6. Kelvin says:

    Melanie: you get it – immersion (though it doesn’t need to be of the integrated sort); and content relating to challenging and pointed knowledge especially the sort that can be transformational.

    Pleased to find out where you are and what you are doing. Very best wishes and thank-you.

  7. Sue McIntosh says:

    Having played with inquiry over many years, it was obvious from the beginning that a period of immersion is essential to any genuine inquiry model, you don’t know what you don’t know. It is the teacher’s job to immerse children, assist them in generating questions/wonderings and inquire. In my experience of developing an inquiry model, the immersion period far outweighed the actual inquiry end of a unit. The key was developing challenging questions – preferably ungooglable.

  8. Kelvin says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

  9. Roger Young says:

    I can’t get to grips with what inquiry learning is. My first issue is that inquiry is learning so inquiry learning is learning learning. What ever that might be. While that might sound good it doesn’t help to establish what ‘inquiry learning’ is.
    I was told by ERO that we had to introduce inquiry learning in the school. This was before they looked to see what was actually happening in the classrooms. When I asked what it was and what it might look like I was told it was student lead learning. That, too sounds great but I don’t know what it means.
    There seems to be no role for the teacher in this model. The teacher clearly doesn’t know what is best or what is needed. That has been pre-decided by the Minister and ERO. They clearly don’t think that anyone below them is capable of working out what might be best.
    Then comes the issue of all this data we collect and are expected to use. Why do we have to use the data to decide where to next if we are leaving that decision up to the students?
    Will the dat help anyone to be curious enough to develop questions?
    As Sue Macintosh points out the teacher is a professional, can think and develop strategies. The teacher has to lead the question making even if only to develop the skill of wondering.
    To create curious divergent thinkers we have to immerse them in a massive range of real experiences. It is vital that we get away from little restrictive unit standards and the like.

  10. Mac says:

    Ah, good old inquiry learning. Has not moved on from its days back in the 2000s where it was all the rage. What seems to be missing from my point of view is any real outcome for the kids to look forward to. I see it time and again where inquiry learning is questions answered by Google, then made into a powerpoint or poster. No need for the new learning, and not used in a real context.
    My own journey has led to me being very clear with the kids a reason for the project we are undertaking, and making clear links between any questions we need to find out and the eventual outcome. Also, making sure we exploit any cross curricula links that naturally fit within the context.
    Fascinating and interesting article, thanks Kelvin

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