Saturday, October 10, 2009

Guided Inquiry 1: Teaching Retrieving Skills - Introduction

Intimidating, isn't it, when you delve into the great unknown. Information retrieval can seem like a huge, mysterious monolith when you don't feel skilled in that area. Like the far-from-welcoming industry that Sam (the character in the film clip above) enters, the world of information may appear to be unfriendly, imposing, and bewildering. As Sam ends up taking an elevator that doesn't quite stop on the right floor, learners may feel that they are taking (or being led down) the wrong path. Information retrieval might look like a place without clear directional signs where at first you wander seemingly aimlessly, searching for something that makes sense and will help you in your quest. Suddenly something catches your eye, maybe a flash of colour, motion and sound like the flurry of businessmen Sam spies and then is swept up in. You ride along with the whirlwind, then suddenly find you have arrived, as Sam does; unfortunately, you're not quite sure where you are. Was this where you needed to go? Did Sam want to arrive at a closet-sized office that looks like a dead end?

Hopefully that is not the impression you have about Guided Inquiry or information retrieval. Remember, Guided Inquiry is a process, not an end. Therefore, the retrieval stage of the inquiry is also a process that does not end with a pre-determined answer, but a search that may result in differing consequences for each student. Although it may have seemed in the past that in the retrieval phase of inquiry students simply located information, research shows that learners are often constructing meaning during their search. Kuhlthau has asserted that information retrieval is a “process in which a person is actively constructing a new understanding from the information encountered”. The concept of haphazardly amassing a large body of information and then sifting through it and trying to make sense afterwards is not a useful plan. The personalized nature of a guided inquiry also means that each student will have their own feelings, ways of thinking about retrieving information, their own information retrieval plan, and their own reflection on the process.

Essential question:

What are some of the ways the role of a teacher-librarian or teacher change or grow within the context of the information retrieval stage of guided inquiry learning?


Kuhlthau, Carol C. (1999) "Accommodating the User's Information Search Process: challenges for Information retrieval System Designers." Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, vol. 25, no 3, 1999. Available from:

Guided Inquiry 2: Teaching Retrieving Skills - Prep For Retrieving

photo by
D'arcy Norman

One of the main concepts of Guided Inquiry is that learning should be authentic and not isolated pieces devoid of student relevancy. Kuhlthau et al have stressed that in Guided Inquiry, students "locate, evaluate and use information while learning the content of the subject area" (94). That learning in context will likely include building information technology skills in the search stage, but that does not mean that students should not be prepared to make the most of their information retrieval time. Focus on Inquiry suggests that:

Students will be more successful in inquiry when teachers provide, in the context of classroom activities, opportunities for students to:
- refine and develop a list of search terms, keywords and subject headings prior to searching
- use online library catalogues to locate materials in school and public libraries
- use the Online Reference Centre ( locate information
- use full-text databases (e.g., SIRS, eLibrary)
- use indexes to locate print, nonprint and electronic information
-learn how to efficiently use the Internet to locate information
develop and practise interview questions and techniques

In my practice I have found that introducing all of these skills at once is counter-productive. For example, I once worked with a teacher-librarian who had created a little booklet in order for students to be introduced to/review the kinds of skills listed above. Although this was a grade 10 course, many students struggled with numerous aspects of the booklet. The teacher-librarian and I should have planned better. Kuhlthau has addressed the shift in teachers and librarians:

"They are especially careful not to give too much too soon and to assist in pacing the use of resources by suggesting strategies for exploring information to form a focus for research. Librarians planning instructional sessions describe being more cautious about offering one-shot sessions where students are expected to learn everything at once. Instead they are accommodating the user's constructive process by giving a series of instructional sessions spread over a period of time aimed at different tasks in the stages of the ISP. Once aware of the ISP, teachers also change the way they design assignments to give more time for exploring and formulating. They are acknowledging the learning process and finding new ways to access and evaluate the construction process of students."

Focus on Inquiry states that students will learn to: "understand that successful retrieving depends on preplanning" (57), but I do not think that we gave learners enough direction in that area. The skills were being taught for a specific purpose, so we tried to make the learning relevant to the subject at hand. We also tried to increase engagement by allowing students to choose their topics, but many of them they did not have enough prior knowledge to make their search fruitful. Students also did not have enough time to explore and to reflect upon their learning. We were rushing students through each lesson/skill without sufficent time and guidance.

In short, it was a learning experience for me. I wish I could have referred to Cecile McVittie's Planning: the foundation of Guided Inquiry beforehand. The next time I teach these skills, I will not devote one week of classes to important researching strategies and skills. If possible, I will devote proper time to each aspect prior to beginning guided inquiry, so that we can do a review before a more encompassing bout of information retrieval is begun. If we cannot do that before beginning guided inquiry, I will ensure that students are given sufficient time in the information retrieval stage of the inquiry.


Alberta Learning (2004). Focus on inquiry: A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Learning. Available at

Kuhlthau, Carol C. (1999) "Accommodating the User's Information Search Process: challenges for Information retrieval System Designers." Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, vol. 25, no 3, 1999. Available from:

Guided Inquiry 3: Teaching Retrieving

If you're reading this, there's a good chance you're a teacher-librarian and are an expert on information retrieval. If we look at a short list of what educators need to facilititate for students in the information search phase of guided inquiry, you can see that the job may look intense. Focus on Inquiry tells us that during and in the context of an inquiry-based learning activity, the teacher provides students with opportunities to:

• understand that the Retrieving phase of the inquiry process is a method of problem solving that requires both critical thinking and imaginative thinking
•create a search strategy (e.g., information pathfinder)
• explore a variety of print, nonprint and electronic sources
• access resources within the school and beyond
• communicate with experts, both locally and beyond
• record bibliographic information for print sources, including title, author, date, page numbers, publisher and place of publication
• record bibliographic information for nonprint (multimedia) sources, including title, author, date, running time and/or number of images, producer and/or distributor, location of producer/production company
• record bibliographic information for electronic sources, including title, author, date, URL and date retrieved
• use a variety of grade-appropriate strategies for recording and organizing bibliographic information, such as index cards, recording templates, word processing programs or software tools.

Whew! Quite a big list to begin with, isn't it? I'll discuss some resources for these essential tasks further down in this post. First I want to address the essential question, "How does the role of the teacher-librarian change or grow in the context of guided inquiry learning?"

Information retrieval in and of itself is teacher-librarian's stock-in-trade, but Kuhlthau has argued that in guided learning, a constructivist point of view and a belief in zones of intervention lead to a substantial expansion of educational duties.

T]here is a need for redefining the roles associated with information provision in the workplace. These participants call for a more interactive, collaborative role for the library information professional. The collaborative role may require the librarian to enter into a partnership with the user to accomplish the information seeking task. In this partnership the librarian may advise on resources and process whereas the user brings knowledge of content and context. The aspects of information seeking and use that these users seems to need help with were in the ongoing thinking process related to interpreting and connecting the disparate pieces of information gathered in order to provide value-added information. This is new territory for the librarian whose traditional role of providing access to references and sources relevant to a general topic has stopped short of the process of making meaning.

The key points from above for myself are that teacher-librarians are assisting in the "ongoing thinking process", not simply finding resources. From a constructivist perspective, if learners are constructing meaning as they retrieve information, then teacher-librarians are a part of that process. In fact, as we are helping students in their information search, the organization and structure we utilize will have an affect on individual meaning - much more so that if one was to dump some encyclopedias in front of a learner and then walk away. Also, as stated above, Focus on Inquiry states that students need to understand "the Retrieving phase of the inquiry process is a method of problem solving that requires both critical thinking and imaginative thinking", and here is where teachers and teacher-librarians obviously need to be more than gatekeepers of media and information.

Focus on Inquiry directly advises educators to structure information searches. For example, at the beginning of the search one suggestion is to use a stations approach and help students to create an information search plan or pathfinder (55). Alice in Infoland has some great information on the use of pathfinders, and Annette Lamb's Eduscapes is a really comprehensive look at pathfinders, subject guides, and thematic resources.

If you need to address basic search skills such as Boolean Operators, here's a quick easy lesson (a 3-minute tutorial is avaliable on YouTube here, and another good one for youngsters is from the Boolify Project):

Boolify Lesson: And, Or, Not

Skimming and scanning is one skill that I have seen a big need for in my practice. Many students simply don't know that they don't need to read whole articles, though they should start learning about it at an early age. Ontario Time Machine has a nice simple page explaining skimming and scanning, and it looks like it would be good for grades 6 or 7 and up.

There are many sites offering quick guides for evaluating both print sources and online sources. Thomson Rivers University offers one for Evaluating Print Sources and another for Evaluating Web Sources that are fairly simple. Although they seem to be aimed at post-secondary students, I think they would be good for grade 8 and up (see below for more web evaluation sources).

But what about Internet searching skills in general? Are educators in general able to guide students in efficient online searching? Lavery has commented on the fact that in his study, teacher candidates frequently missed high quality information that was available on their topics, though they found enough "large amounts of somewhat related information to encourage them in the belief that they are skilled at web searching". In other words, teacher candidates thought that they were much more skilled in this area than they really were. Lavery also goes on to state that "teachers do not need to approach web searching with the expertise of a librarian". Clearly, teacher-librarians need to be leaders in this area.

In my experience, it is best to assume that there are many little details that could benefit students - or almost anyone who is not an research expert or professional. For example, I've watched many students start searching and simply save possible sites/pages under Favorites, which soon becomes a huge, unwieldy list of sites that may be directly, indirectly, or remotely related to their topic or question. Even in secondary school, many learners utilize little organization in their information retrieval process - no slotting information into easy-to-access folders, no bibliography started until the very end of the process, and usually no backing-up of important work. Some students have flash drives, but do not really know how to use them. In short, it may be necesssary for teachers and teacher-librarians to do a great amount of formative assessment, pre-teaching, or reviewing of general searching or computer usage skills before a lengthy guided inquiry is undertaken.

As far as online information retrieval goes, Kuiper, Volman and Terwel have stated that "the task for education may not lie primarily in teaching students Web searching skills, but in showing students the need for learning and practicing specific Web reading skills and Web evaluating skills, as well as a reflective use of these skills". This statement makes perfect sense in light of a constructivist point of view, with learners expected to learn by doing, including thinking critically and reflectively within the process of guided inquiry. But I'm jumping ahead, I'll look at reflection and Web skills in post 5, Thinking About and Reflecting on Retrieving.

Further resources for web evaluation:


Alberta Learning (2004). Focus on inquiry: A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Learning. Available at

Kuhlthau, C. (1996). The Concept of a Zone of Intervention for Identifying the Role of Intermediaries in the Information Search Process. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science Annual Meeting, 367-376. Retrieved from October 13, 2009.

Kuiper, E., Volman, M., & Terwel, J. (2008). Students' use of Web literacy skills and strategies: searching, reading and evaluating Web information. In Information Research, Vol. 13, No.3. Retrieved from on October 12, 2009

Laverty, C. (2008). The “I’m Feeling Lucky Syndrome”: Teacher-Candidates’ Knowledge of Web Searching Strategies. In Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, Vol.3, No.1. Retrieved from Oct.13, 2009.

Guided Inquiry 4: Teaching Retrieving Skills - Assessing

There are many sources for summative assessment at the end of the guided inquiry process, as well as some formative assessment. Focus on Inquiry states:

In the context of classroom activities or an inquiry activity, the
teacher provides opportunities for students to:
• create an information pathfinder (step-by-step plan for
gathering resources); see the sample activity on page 57
• complete a list of sources consulted
• hand in notes, webs, note cards or other note-taking
• write/talk about their retrieval strategy and what worked
and did not work
• write/talk about the sources they found most useful and

Notice that the first three tips do not include final product or presentation and the last two tips are aimed at reflective and metacognitive coals for students (and lead into the next post on Thinking and Reflecting on Retrieving Information); bear in mind that we are addressing assesment for the information retrieval process only at this point.

In Manitoba, the Department of Education, Citizenship and Youth included a chapter on Integrated Learning through Inquiry: A Guided Inquiry Planning Model in Independent Together: Supporting the Multilevel Learning Community. Blackline Masters and Sample Masters have also been provided, which is useful for seeing how some educators work on assessment for integrated inquiries, both formative and summative. See Sample 1 here and Sample 2 here.

Guided Inquiry 5: Teaching Retrieving Skills - Thinking About and Reflecting on Retrieving

In guided inquiry, it is expected that students will reflect on their learning as they construct meaning. Focus on Inquiry tells readers during the retrieving phase we should teach students to ask questions such as:

• Which resources are most useful?
• Where did I find the most useful resources?
• Will my topic focus still work?

These may seem like simple questions, but they require critical thinking, evaluation, judgment, comparisons, and so on - and they may also lead to a major shift in student process if, for example, an individual determines that the answer to the last question is a resounding "No".

In my practice I have seen a shift for some educators to infuse student reflection into learning processes (moreso in early years, middle years and secondary ELA courses). Greatly open-ended reflection questions often do not elicit useful answers for students or teachers, so how do you narrow down reflective pieces to make them more helpful? Ignacio looked this issue in relation to the information search process:

Instructors must make adjustments as the term progresses and continually be attuned to the learner's development. Teaching requires improvisation and flexibility (Schon, 1983). Strategies also need to be differentiated and tailored to each student's particular needs. Yet the help they received was also personalized through feedback on assignments, in-class coaching, and out-of-class conferencing. User-friendly digital library interfaces are not enough; skilled mediation and intervention will always be necessary.

Conferencing is one way that I have found to be particularly helpful; oral reports about successes, frustrations, and how-I-found-this-information are sometimes more illuminating than written forms can provide. Feedback on assingments and in-class coaching seem like obvious tips, but the point I take from Ignacio is that for reflection to be efficient during the retrieval process, teachers and teacher-librarians must provide the guidance necessary to help them find the right track.

In my province, Manitoba, Integrated Learning through Inquiry: A Guided Planning Model suggests these Considerations for Reflection:

• Debrief the process students used in inquiry, and ask students how they
would do things differently next time.
• List the questions students now have about the topic and discuss how
they differ from the questions that prompted the inquiry.
• Identify questions that students would like to pursue in a new inquiry.
• Discuss the importance of this learning to students’ understanding of the

Blackline Masters associated with the same document also
contains tips on both shared/negotiated reflection as well as student-led reflection (in the Applying Inquiry Stage) as well as directing educators in "facilitating students' reflections on their learning to focus their inquiry plans". A template for Group Inquiry reflections is available from CORE Education, but it could easily be adapted for individual use.
One good source for a daily reflection is Laslie Preddy's site, which contains a useful Daily Reflection template from Big 6.


Alberta Learning (2004). Focus on inquiry: A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Learning. Available at

Ignacio, E. (1997). Teaching reflection: information seeking and evaluation in a digital library environment. In Library Trends, Mar 22. Retrieved from on October 13, 2009

Guided Inquiry 6: Teaching Retrieving Skills - Gauge Feelings

photo by Casey Serin

Remember the video clip of Sam entering a cold, daunting new environment in the first of these posts? Have you ever displayed the same confused look as Sam as he steps out of the elevator when you were in the midst of research or information retrieval?

Students often feel overwhelmed by what they see as a huge volume of work involved in finding, anlayzing, and synthesizing information. Though Guided Inquiry is intended to be a process which includes educator assistance and intervention during those problematic times, students need to learn that the discomfort connected to working with new information is normal and natural. Kuhlthau has argued that an individual can have a "profound experience of uncertainty in the early stages of the information search process", and that it is necessary to consider "uncertainty as a natural, essential characteristic of information seeking rather than regarding the reduction of uncertainty as the primary objective of information seeking" .

Focus on Inquiry discusses the fact that students "often experience information overload during the Retrieving phase". Why? "[S]tudents’ 'need to know' is often not easily translated into the terminology and structure of the information system, and the information systems—such as the Dewey decimal system,online library catalogues, magazine and newspaper (periodical)indexes, and the World Wide Web—often are not particularly intuitive or user-friendly". We are also told that educators need to:

be alert to the feelings and physical outlets that may characterize information overload — anger, frustration, fatigue, irritability, leg jiggling, lack of focus — and help students to recognize these signs of overload. In addition to helping students understand that it is normal to experience such feelings during the inquiry process, teach students useful coping strategies, such as omission or filtering (ignoring or selecting certain categories of information), generalizing or twigging (broadening or narrowing the topic), or asking for help. Getting a large picture of the topic and its subcategories, by using whole-class or small-group activities, such as concept mapping or deciding what kinds of information might be appropriate for the topic, are helpful strategies for this phase, especially when information overload is, or may be, a problem.

To look at the problem of information a little more deeply and areas where educators can help (zones of intervention), Ignacio has nicely summed up Kuhlthau's 5 C's:

1. Collaborating -- the librarian or peer acts as a collaborator, which also situates the search process in a nonisolating context more typical of real world information seeking tasks.

2. Continuing -- Intervention is a continuous process because information problems are not static.

3. Conversing -- Conversation not only elicits more informed help from the librarian/counselor and feedback from peers but also helps students articulate and understand their information problem and, ultimately, to develop a metacognitive sense of where they are in a process.

4. Charting -- Charting is a system of using visual representations such as conceptual maps to manage and organize large or seemingly vague ideas, to recognize patterns and relationships, and to stimulate a cohesive sense of direction.

5. Composing -- Kuhlthau uses the example of journal writing which, she says, promotes reflection, formulation, and the development of constructs.

So where do teachers and teacher-librarians need to expand their roles in the area of student feelings and the zones of intervention as proposed by Kuhlthau and reiterated by Ignacio? Collaborating with other educators is de rigeur, but collaborating with students may be new to some. Continuing simply means that information problems are ongoing and issues may have to revisited regularly, but that isn't necessarily a big change for educators in the classroom or the library. Conversing in a specific sense to elicit feedback about feelings and reflective meaning may also be new for some. Charting is something I have normally only done in early stages of work, so I myself may have to revisit this "C". Composing, such as journal writing, is again a tool I have used in other manners, not for reflection in information retrieval processes, so again this would be a new use for me (and possibly for some others). How about you?

Guided Inquiry 7: Teaching Retrieving Skills - Conclusion

photo by frerieke

My essential question in my first blog post was:

What are some of the ways the role of a teacher-librarian or teacher change or grow within the context of the information retrieval process of guided inquiry learning?

In the process of creating this presentation, I have found that educators need to:
*become collaborators, not only with other educators, but with students as they use creativity and imagination to construct meaning
*allow sufficient time for exploration, prepare and plan for students to do so much more than a quick search; think of little details in order to sequence teaching searching strategies as well as organizational skills pertaining to searches
*prepare for reflecting pieces along the search process, guide students in metacognitive strategies

My questions for you: what are some of the other key role changes you see for educators embarking on guided inquiry information retrieval processes with students?

What elements of/skills and strategies for retrieving information are are not taught explicitly enough by teachers (or even teacher-librarians!)? Why do you think that is the case?