Could Inquiry Learning be an exclusionary pedagogy?

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise


Inquiry Learning.  At first mention it conjures up heartwarming images of naturally curious students parlaying organic self-directed learning into measurable learning outcomes. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it!

Investigating inquiry learning comes at a personally fortuitous time. Within the Brisbane School of Distance Education is another school of sorts called The Future Academy which embraces project-based, design thinking and inquiry learning as its pedagogical platform. This ‘inner school’ and its 21st Century technological focus is very attractive to my neurodivergent* son and he is in the process of applying to become a student in 2017.  However, as my son’s learning coach (or more formally his ‘home tutor’), I am both excited and trepidatious about whether this method of learning is the right one for him? Does his neurodiversity afford him the cognitive ability and skills to undertake studies pivoted on inquiry learning?  And if not, how do I scaffold him to successful learning outcomes and school experiences so he can avail himself of this exciting educational opportunity?

“Neurodiversity” is a term I will use a lot throughout this series of blog posts. I can’t say it better than this, so here is Dr Thomas Armstrong’s eloquent description:

“By using the concept of neurodiversity to account for individual neurological differences, we create a discourse whereby labeled people may be seen in terms of their strengths as well as their weaknesses.  Dyslexics, for example, can be seen in terms of their visual thinking ability and entrepreneurial strengths.  People with ADHD can be regarded as possessing a penchant for novel learning situations.. Individuals along the autistic spectrum can be looked at in terms of their facility with systems such computer programming or mathematical computation.  Those with bipolar disorder can be appreciated for their creative pursuits in the arts.  While proponents of the concept of neurodiversity do not shirk from the realization that people with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions, often suffer great hardships, and that those hardships require a lot of hard work to overcome, they realize that until an individual’s strengths have been recognized, celebrated, and worked with, nothing substantial can be accomplished with regard to their difficulties.”  (This excerpt taken from Dr Thomas Armstrong’s website

I will focus on the social construct and psychological condition “Autism” in this blog series because 1) Autism has been the focus of my last two years of post graduate studies, and 2) I have a personal interest as both my son and I are formally diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

What do I know about Inquiry Learning

I’m not a formal teacher, so my assumptions about inquiry learning aren’t platformed on a pedagogical approach but rather grounded in the literal definition at this point: I suspect it is a series of questions asked along the way of learning to shape a deeper knowledge of subject matter. So rather than ‘enquiry’ – just asking questions, ‘inquiry’ suggests a more formal or grown-up approach to the question asking.  At this stage, it sounds like the learner is bringing a world-view mindset to the learning table; an inherent capacity to know that there is more out there and the opinions of others will play a part in the learning process. And this is now where I am getting very nervous for some neurodivergent learners.

What do I want to know about Inquiry Learning?

As this is an emerging area of education, I am curious to know whether any formal research has been carried out on implementing inquiry learning for neurodiverse students, as well as informal anecdotes about the success or otherwise of the practice at the classroom level.  As I personally bring  a neuropsychological perspective of neurodiversity to my studies, I am also keen to know about the neuroscientific nexus of inquiry learning and the brain. For example, what inherent traits are needed, or needed to be developed, in the inquiry learner? For example, what role do cognitive domains like executive function, central coherence and theory of mind play in the inquiry learning process? The answers to these questions impact greatly on whether inquiry learning is viable for neurodivergent students.

Preliminary search

Lets start with the basics. What is Inquiry Learning. I’ll admit it – I went straight to Wikipedia:

“Inquiry-based learning” screen shot from Wikipedia. Retrieved 23 June 2016.

That all sounds very common sense to me, yet there is one phrase in this definition that is paramount to understanding the effectiveness of inquiry learning to neurodiverse students: “… very closely related to the development and practice of thinking skills”.  When neurodiversity impacts directly on thinking skills, how do cognitive differences affect inquiry learning processes and outcomes?  

This leads me to  the formal search for more data, information, knowledge, wisdom and insights on inquiry learning and neurodiversity. I am going to start by casting the net wide in my re-search, because I am predicting that peer-reviewed literature on Inquiry Learning for Neurodiverse Students will be pretty limited! I am at the pointy end of my Master of Education so I bring some direction to this search in my focus on the neuropsychological aspects of neurodiverse learners that set them apart from others in their class.  Inquiry Learning is the current golden child of education, but does it suit all learners?   I also want to be very specific about finding research connections between cognitive domains and inquiry learning because these are the major barriers to successful learning in neurodiverse students as they become older.  I am hoping that I can find research and even some anecdotal success stories in these areas as otherwise I suspect Inquiry Learning may be pedagogical method that becomes a barrier to entry for neurodiverse students, and therefore, dare I say it, an exclusionary practice.

Research questions

  1. What are the broad considerations for Neurodivergent Learners (students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder) and Inquiry Learning?
  2. How is Inquiry Learning intertwined with Executive Function, Theory of Mind, and Central Coherence cognitive domains?
  3. What specific classroom practices are enabling Inquiry Learning for Neurodiverse Learners?

Throughout this series of blog posts, you will see my inquiry into Inquiry Learning  through the metaphoric hook of the daunting venture of going deep into the unknown heavily treed woods and trying to find a way through it and get something out of it, hence “Into the Woods”.  However, as I also want to cater to any neurodiverse readers, the journey will also be described via more literal devices in addition to the abstract “into the woods” analogy.  For this reason, I am using the graphic device of tree diagrams throughout this blog and related others, to help create meaning. My reference for representing data, information and knowledge is the wonderful book by Manuel Lima.

“The Book of Trees” by Manual Lima (2014)


Mapping the Journey

Here is a visual representation of the Inquiry Learning journey, which is exploring Inquiry Learning and Neurodiversity. This image will appear at the bottom of all posts in this blog series to assist the reader (and author!) to visualise progress.

Figure 1: Inquiry Process and Information Search Process. Image by author CC by 2.0



Armstrong, T. (2012). Neurodiversity: A concept whose time has come. Retrieved 24 June 2016.

Audet, R. and L. Jordan (2008) Integrating inquiry across the curriculum. Heatherton, VIC: Hawker Brownlow. p. 14

Kuhlthau, C. C. (2004) Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services, 2nd edition, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, CT.

Lima, M. (2014) The Book of Trees. Princeton Architectural Press, NY.



3 thoughts on “Could Inquiry Learning be an exclusionary pedagogy?

  1. I absolutely love the focus of your inquiry; I think your questions are extremely relevant as all learners are multifaceted, with their own strengths and needs and as such it is challenging to ensure learning through inquiry is successful for all learners. In my experience, teaching is the most challenging when working with children who have weaknesses in ToM and EF, so I look forward to following your research to help develop my own practice. I especially love the inclusion of a literal and visual elements to your posts – very inclusive! The Book of Tress looks really interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Mel! I know your position and mindset towards divergent learners, so this comment feels like “winning gold” for me and really makes me feel like my writing might have some relevance for educators. Thanks for taking the time to comment


  2. Just finding my way here via a tweet from Mandy 🙂 This looks like such an interesting research direction!
    I teach my pre-service English teachers a specific model of Project Based Learning (outlined at and they often ask how they are supposed to manage collaborative group work with students who struggle with social interaction. There is a willingness to try and forge ahead, but seasoned PBL teachers are also struggling with the level of support needed for group collaboration in general. I know Inquiry doesn’t always happen in collaborative groups, but I wanted to mention that it is coming up as a barrier to successfully using PBL.

    One other thing that might be interesting to explore is ‘Theory of Mind’ ( as it might give you more ideas about why teaching through inquiry (as opposed to content transmission) may be a struggle for some neuro-diverse students.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s