Defining Inquiry: “Critical Reflective Thinking”

I find this definition of educational inquiry useful enough to give it its own post (abridged from my An Inquiry Crossfader post). I would like all educators in an IB setting, especially with Next Chapter, to have a good understanding of inquiry as the process that allows students to learn and demonstrate their learning at a sophisticated level. 

The IB programmes emphasise inquiry, a word frequently used though perhaps oft-misunderstood. It does not mean a trivial and open-ended, free-for-all approach to learning (in this loose sense, “inquiry learning” ranks low on Hattie’s Visible Learning impacts [d=0.31]). The PYP describes its approach as “structured, purposeful inquiry” where students are invited to “investigate significant issues,” and in which the goal is “the active construction of meaning.”  (Making the PYP Happen, p29) This is no loose approach – despite the relative freedom of content and (hopefully) less rigid set of external pressures – and is wholly relevant in the MYP and DP.

My favourite educational definition of inquiry comes from Bente Elkjaer: “critical or reflective thinking.” In her chapter on pragmatism in Knud Illeris’ Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words she qualifies the definition further, describing how it connects to experience and the pragmatic approach to learning.

Inquiry is “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences,” future-oriented approach (‘what-if’ rather than ‘if-then’) in which meaning is “identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.

Paraphrased from Bente Elkjaer

This is a definition I am comfortable to use with critical and reflective adults and will aim to do so when working with teachers in the MYP and DP settings.

After all, we all want to create critical and reflective thinkers, right?



On inquiry vs enquiry

This might be splitting hairs, but my distinction has long been enquiry as asking a question, including the trivial, versus inquiry as the process of investigating more deeply (more in line with Elkjaer’s definition above). It turns out this might not be right:

From the Oxford English Dictionaries online:


Noun (plural inquiries): another term for enquiry. Definition in the US English dictionary.”

Ey up, I must have been internationaliszed somewhere along the way.


Related: An Inquiry Crossfader as part of thinking about MYP:Mind the Gap (tensions in transitions from MYP to DP), in which I think about how teachers can place themselves in ‘camps’ of either/or in terms of content/outcomes vs inquiry/concepts. We should aim for an appropriate and careful balance at all levels.




7 responses to “Defining Inquiry: “Critical Reflective Thinking””

  1. The Gradebook I Want | i-Biology | Reflections Avatar

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    […] Defining inquiry: a pragmatic approach to critical, reflective thought […]

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    […] place at any time. When pair this with a pragmatic, future-oriented approach to inquiry as “critical reflective thought,” we see that it should appear frequently in the learning process.Pausing for thought, […]

  4. Teaching Content in a Google World | i-Biology | Reflections Avatar

    […] Strong teaching activates inquiry as critical reflective thought – and this needs high-quality raw materials. A strong educational experience uses a foundation of […]

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    […] Defining Inquiry: Critical Reflective Thought (re-defining inquiry to fix its ‘fluffy’ reputation). […]

  6. A pragmatic approach to inquiry: my article in IS magazine | i-Biology | Reflections Avatar

    […] and the article advocates for a reminder of what inquiry is and a working definition of inquiry as “critical reflective thought“ (after Elkjaer & Dewey) that is future-oriented, but based on strong foundation of […]

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    […] a while I’ve been banging the drum of the importance of definitions and I was reminded of its importance at the weekend as I took part in the #GAFESummit at CA and the […]

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