* Working in inquiry circles

Small groups organized in inquiry circles are an essential feature of Guided Inquiry. They can be used for students ….(of all ages), and consist of four to six students arranged around the topics of the inquiry for conversing and collaborating to construct an understanding. (Kuhltau, Maniotes & Caspari, (2012) p42

Inquiry circles form naturally around areas of a curriculum topic, in which several students find a particular interest. It is of the utmost importance not to allocate students to a list of sub-topics, but to let interest be the basis on which the inquiry circle is formed.  They can be used throughout a Guided Inquiry, for example, in these ways:

  • At Explore, students can share the work of exploring the scope of the topic to isolate a particular area of interest.
  • At Identify, students can work together to form an inquiry question, using scaffolds such as Question Focus Formulation.
  • At Gather, students work together to explore various aspects of their inquiry question
  • At Create and Share, students can mind map their findings, and share the work of bibliography creation. Inquiry circles can be taken further into jigsaw groups, where representatives of each inquiry circle join representatives of all the other inquiry circles, to share the information gathered on each aspect.  In this way, the knowledge the inquiry community is shared, thus ensuring that partial coverage of the entire curriculum topic is avoided.

An example of a Guided Inquiry using inquiry circles: Year 7 Geography, Loreto Kirribilli – Exploring the world booklet. The context for this GI was a research study carried out by Dr. Kasey Garrison and  Lee FitzGerald from Charles Sturt University,  observing the process of students in Geography and History over two semesters using and internalising the Guided Inquiry process.  Part of this was analysis of the ways in which students work in inquiry circles.  

Initial findings from two focus group interviews and from reflections in the GI booklet itself show a higher level of engagement if students are given interest-driven choice of inquiry circles. Students were clear that they wanted to choose their own topic.  Also, there was much discussion about working in groups, in both interviews, focusing on these things:

  • unequal abilities in the group
  • feeling that they had to do all the work, while there were slackers in their groups.
  • an opinion expressed often that working in pairs is easier than working in larger groups.
  • absences in attendance creating challenges for pairs.

These issues are common in cooperative learning techniques like inquiry circles.  In general, students seemed to like working in groups, so long as they can choose to join the group that’s doing the topic they want to do. For further research into the student experience of Guided Inquiry, please go to Australian Guided Inquiry Research – An update.


Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L. & Caspari, A. (2012) Guided Inquiry design: A framework for inquiry in your school. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited.

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