Supporting an Inquiry Mindset for Students and Teachers

Supporting an Inquiry Mindset for Students and Teachers

"Throughout my time in school, you always helped me in a way which required me nonetheless to obtain the solution myself, and for this I thank you."ISB Graduate, Class of 2021

Our senior school library has become a center for inquiry. The atmosphere is productive and peaceful with alternating phases of natural communal silence and cheerful collaborative study. Our International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum is inquiry-based and promotes independent learning. Our school's mission statement, created by students, focuses on collaboration and inquiry:

"We all want to learn more;

We all do it in different ways;

We all have fun learning;

We all help."

There is extensive research about the invaluable, unique role that school librarians play in promoting and enhancing inquiry, including Trevor MacKenzie, Carol Kuhlthau, Carol Gordon, Keith Curry Lance, and Leslie Maniotes, among others. MacKenzie's collaboration with librarians framework (2019) helps us examine, evaluate, and share our secondary school library's initiatives to support inquiry and cultivate essential inquiry skills during the past five years.

Help Learners Understand and Communicate Learning Needs

Inquiry invites the learner to ponder new ideas. Students beginning the inquiry process may also lack a clear focus. Every student who enters the library is a possible research interview as soon as we smile and say hello. Librarians note facial expressions and attitudes, such as hesitation, frustration, or determination and curiosity. Reading recommendations are a good avenue into inquiry. By establishing regular, positive conversations with students, general questions about how to use the printer can evolve into inquiries about learning how citation works, searching a database rather than random websites, or asking for more challenging titles. My advice: be prepared to offer help up to four times because questions do not necessarily arise immediately. Classmates or students in higher grades can translate formal academic terms into everyday language. The librarian can model good questions and translate academic terms, using "What makes you say that?" questions in " trying to get what is in students' heads into our own," (Ritchhart and Church 2020, p. 25). Student involvement provides peer perspective in the design of signs, displays, use of the library space, reading recommendations, and artwork to prompt and cultivate imagination and inquiry.

Help Learners Use Language that Promotes Collaboration

The IB student develops specific Approaches to Learning skills, including collaboration, so the student learns the value of both individual inquiry and contributing to group learning. Teachers and the librarian can model good collaboration while co-teaching skills for research. The librarian's desk has a guest chair for students and teachers. Students ask research questions; conversations are always opportunities to think out loud. Teachers outline what they would like to plan for a unit, which is a visible example of collaboration. Research by its nature is collaborative. The library's participation in the Diploma Programme (DP) Core classes for grade 11 and 12 students also demonstrates to students the value of more than one voice and perspective in instruction. Other examples of collaboration include peer review of paraphrasing and citation as a way to encourage classmates' skill development and sharing knowledge.

Throughout our curriculum, academic integrity supports assessment and principled action. One activity to encourage collaboration and critical thinking begins with organizing students into small groups. The librarian then displays a series of academic integrity scenarios that students will encounter (collaboration versus collusion; good or bad "shortcuts"; online research scenarios or interactions; effective paraphrases of an original passage), along with two or three possible answers. The students have several minutes to discuss the scenario and decide which response is best. The librarian then displays the best possible answer and responds to questions and comments. The scenarios can be updated as frequently as needed.

Help Learners Take Inquiry into the Community

Our library collections reflect our curriculum, location, community, and the languages of our students. The library can help the students take inquiry into the local, scientific, digital, and global communities through:

  1. Community service. Students in all grades learn to develop and organize service projects; often their inspiration arises from a book, documentary, or podcast.
  2. Personal project. In grades 9 and 10, students develop a product (which can be a physical object, a service, or an awareness campaign) and a learning goal which is researched through interviews, reading, practical experience, and social media.
  3. University research. Through an alliance with our local university library, our grade 11 and 12 students use their research skills to navigate a large collection of topics and information resources.
  4. Reading around the subject. We provide curated resources that connect academic subjects with challenges, problems, and discoveries in the wider world. An example is the research digest, a website that aggregates ongoing research in technology, science, health, environment, and culture, linking a short news article directly to the original study. Awareness of ongoing research can inspire academic assessments or personal statements for university applications, strengthen critical thinking for independent learning, and contribute to collective knowledge.
  5. Media literacy. Selecting and consuming information available outside the library collections is a vital lifelong skill. Understanding the related but different terms of bias, confirmation bias, point of view, propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation and reading or viewing a range of media for a specific purpose requires initial guidance and continued practice, which librarians can enhance. Evaluating sources helps the learner navigate through the unavoidable overflow of information.

Design Library Space with Inquiry in Mind

The library space may have physical constraints, but how students use the library can be encouraged by written, visual, and spoken communication. Our library has an open plan format. The librarian can engage in conversations while overseeing student work and can gather insight while visiting, hosting, or co-teaching classes that will inform subsequent instruction and resource development. What students explore and accomplish in the secondary school library will directly affect successful inquiry in higher education. We have established collaborative and quiet areas for different types of learners and goals. We interspersed desks and wooden chairs with more comfortable seating for reading. With the need to maintain social distance, we shifted the tables and chairs, but different zones are still defined.

Signs help students navigate the collections with confidence and success. Genres organize the fiction collections, and the Dewey Decimal Classification can be displayed through infographic posters and subject-area signs that show the organization of nonfiction. Displaying books that are current, popular, authoritative, or relevant to units of study that invite browsing is also essential.

Special collections, such as the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) Topics, can connect the classroom learning to the wider world to assess events, behaviors, and phenomena critically. Career Paths, a collection of titles focusing on innovations and issues in various fields can inform program choices for university and career paths, a valuable investment in future success. Regular, short library tours to highlight several important tools for a class visit can remind students to sign up to access newspaper subscriptions on their devices (e.g., the New York Times and the Financial Times) or to browse the recommended reading list of a popular university.

Help Learners Understand the Space and Empower Them in It

The IB curriculum includes a required component of student creativity, activity, and service (CAS). Currently, six students from grade 11 are designing year-long CAS projects to connect students with the library. They are creating displays, infographics, and screencasts that will work for their age groups and are providing service through guiding and tutoring younger students and visitors through the library's physical and digital collections. The student population as a whole contributes to and maintains the library's very positive atmosphere, a cultural shift which took several years to establish. Group study for a math test shares library space with individual study or reading for pleasure, interspersed with competitive chess tournaments and the Monday morning knitting activity.

Students need the chance to express what they would like to have in a school library (comfortable chairs, enough desks, student artwork) and follow reasonable rules (don't use the phone as a procrastination device; remember that we are sharing the space, so be courteous). The social element requires adults and older students to model constructive use, consistently. Once this positive culture takes root, the students can maintain the atmosphere readily.

Scaffold Research to Nurture Strong Research Skills

Although the school curriculum is inquiry-based, this may not necessarily promote consistently strong research skills for every student. Everyone has an individual learning style. Fact retrieval is only the first step in the research process. Research means to search continuously: discovering information prompts further questions and the need to resolve conflicting information and discard less helpful information with confidence. There is a valuable "zone of intervention" (Kuhlthau 2018) librarians will recognize and address. Strategic scaffolding is essential to observe a wide range of students as they work to transform information into knowledge within their individual learning styles.

Vertical Articulation of Information Skills

Every school has a unique student population, and each school library can benefit from drafting a general timeline of expected skill attainment in each grade from primary school onwards. Speaking with a university librarian to confirm what skills for success are expected in higher education reinforces the value of information skills development. The timeline should be flexible to reflect general or prominent trends in the student population's skill attainment.

Class Time in the Curriculum

As a result of the visual mapping of information skills, our school administration scheduled a core class in the curriculum of grades 11 and 12 to strengthen research skills, document community service work, and conduct ToK instruction. Research skills support assessments in all subject classes and the required Extended Essay. This investment of time also strengthens the students' transferable skills for university study. The library can reach more students and deliver a more consistent experience through a dedicated time in the curriculum, as well as visiting classes to address specific research skills in the subject context.

Student Survey

Each school year, the library surveys the grade 11 students using a Google Form. The questions include both factual (what is the correct MLA citation for a work in translation?) and open-ended (what is your biggest research skill challenge and why?). We devote one class period (55 minutes) to allow all students to complete and submit their answers.

Though potentially time-consuming, by adding open-ended questions the librarian will discover general knowledge gaps and valuable insights in the students' responses. After reading all surveys, the librarian creates a presentation of the results and discusses how the library will use the information to design relevant skill instruction, such as database scavenger hunts, paraphrasing practice, or exploring new information sources that fit with assessments. The presentation must be given in person: it's essential to show commitment and engagement with the students.

University Library Orientation

We work with a dedicated secondary school liaison at the local university to introduce our grade 11 students to the larger scale of institutional collections. The students register for library cards, explore the physical stacks with an iPad to complete a scavenger hunt, and work with university librarians to use the online catalog and the databases. Students have an immediate view of the next phase of their education and the inquiry mindset that further study requires. This also can be a great professional development experience for colleagues.

Help Colleagues in Their Inquiry Plans

You may not realize it, but your librarian is likely conducting a research interview when you enter the library space and say hello. The research interview can be formal or informal and the librarian uses the information to enrich the collection and the classroom instruction. The library can assist the curriculum coordinator to plan and design core research lessons, help the English department conduct an abstract search of literary criticism, recommend specific titles and journal articles for a history or geography unit, and promote media literacy in economics, English, and science classes through evaluating a range of suggested newspaper articles, podcasts, journal articles, and videos.

The library also hosts the secondary school's writing center to promote academic writing, particularly, effective paraphrasing skill development. The librarian can work either with small groups or one-to-one with students to learn and strengthen paraphrasing and citation use in academic writing. This also is an opportunity to recommend additional information sources. Directly supporting the writing center reinforces the applicability of strong academic research and writing across the subjects, and reminds students that the library can help them invest in their future success.

Use Time according to the Growth Goals at the Heart of Their Position

The librarian generally does not have a fixed daily schedule; so, reading emails that offer potential inspiration (e.g., from JSTOR Daily; The Conversation; Futurity), observing inquiry in the library space, responding to questions, and organizing resources can take place while overseeing library use. Librarians tend to plan ahead, knowing that unscheduled events and inquiries take place. Using an online calendar that is visible to colleagues encourages questions and collaborative planning. Librarians are always open to examining and curating resources, ideas, and methods. Our work is a constant flow of information that we manage to support student and colleague inquiry. Listening to student perspectives often shapes the day and brings wonderful additional insights.


Our library's evolution in five years has connected it with the grade 11 and 12 Diploma Programme (DP) students and curriculum. This in turn has influenced and inspired younger students as they transition from the Middle Years Programme to the DP. In the current phase of growth, the library has a more active level of student involvement through the grade 11 and 12 students who are basing CAS projects in our space. These students promote inquiry from a peer perspective. Collaborating with students is illuminating—it provides inspiration and evidence to improve services. Documenting evidence of and applying insights from the students' direct involvement in shaping the library culture and services will yield further discoveries during this school year.

The author is deeply grateful to Trevor MacKenzie for his permission to apply his framework.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Kuhlthau, Carol. "Information Search Process." Rutgers School of Communication and Information, Rutgers University, 2018.

MacKenzie, Trevor. "How Your Teacher-Librarian can be an Ally when Teaching with Inquiry." Mind/Shift, KQED(April 21, 2019).

Ritchhart, Ron, and Mark Church. "Making Thinking Visible: A Goal and Set of Practices." The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners. Jossey-Bass, 2020: 23-35.

Gordon, Carol A. "The Culture of Inquiry in School Libraries." School Libraries Worldwide 16, no. 1 (January 2010): 73-88.

Lance, Keith Curry, and Leslie K. Maniotes. "Linking Librarians, Inquiry Learning and Information Literacy." Phi Delta Kappan (March 26,2020).

About the Author

Vivienne Blake, MS, is the senior school librarian at International School Basel, Reinach, Switzerland. She earned her MS in Library and Information Sciences from Simmons College in Boston, and her MS in Mass Communication from Boston University.

MLA Citation

Blake, Vivienne. "Supporting an Inquiry Mindset for Students and Teachers." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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