Smell Like, Feel Like, Look Like

What would an inquiry learning approach smell like, feel like and look like for primary school students learning with geography?

The purpose of this essay is to better understand how inquiry learning in primary school geography has made it to this point, uncover how the geographical pedagogies of the past have shaped it, and what impact does the advancements of the technological world have on the learners of the 21st century. While delving into the world of the inquiry learning approach for geography in primary schools, three areas of interest appeared: students learning geography as a way of social change, the development of student research and questioning skills with the assistance of technology, and inquiry learning models designed to support this learning approach. Approaching from a teacher-librarians’ perspective, my aim is to learn more in these fields to become better informed and equipped to assist teaching staff through the learning process of inquiry learning in geography, and also in other learning areas.

As a child in primary school, the subject ‘geography’ appeared to be an abstract concept, unrelated to my everyday life and bogged down by facts that were too hard for me to remember. Geography was a mystery until I wanted to travel somewhere in my mid 20s. I am not the first to have had this experience and I won’t be the last.
Geography as a vehicle for social change – Smell Like

I am all for a good cause, and the possibilities of societal improvements for a better world just makes my heart sing. The notion of teaching and learning is to be better informed, and with the focus on Geography as a tool to activate practitioners in teaching and students in learning journeys, we can create a better world (Hutchinson, 2011). Through the process of geographical inquiry, we can construct understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds (Kidman, 2012). Jacklin (2008) also states that experiencing through project-based learning has the potential to offer students greater learning and understanding base from which to draw from, as they mature and live in today’s world. With the modern student building on their awareness of the world around them and adding to their skills as an active participant in geography, the potential for real societal change is possible.

Developing Skills – Feel Like

It is important for schools to change from a focus on “what we know” to an emphasis on “how we come to know” (Kidman, 2012), which is possible through skills development for the modern learner. With this shift of emphasis from product to process by teachers and students, learners actively constructed their own understandings, and the student responsibility for their own learning is increased (Ashworth, 2002). Geography as a discipline is founded on robust concepts, and therefore skills-based learning should aspire to assimilate these big ideas in students’ existing knowledge structures (Hutchinson, 2011). Through broader experiences in thinking, collaborating and solving problems, made available by project-based learning (Jacklin, 2008), students develop their own set of skills for their learning toolbox.


In this digital age there is a need to develop evaluating skills in students, aiding them to determine the usefulness of the data recovery, and therefore increasing the relevant use of technology as part of the learning journey (Pappas, 2009). Furthermore, skills development needs to cultivate the ‘process’ of student knowledge through topic information, data collection and evaluation, findings and analysis, presentation and reporting, as part of the learning journey (Chu, 2008). Working collaboratively throughout, student ownership is brought into focus, with students recognising what part of the process they are in and what their job is during a particular phase (Ashworth, 2002). This also highlights how the supportive roles of the teachers can influence the development of the research skills in the students.

Inquiry Learning Unit Development – Look Like

Historically, geography lessons have lacked the inquiry learning approach, with many school geography courses using a prescriptive nature presented via content heavy textbooks. Kidman (2012) argues that the lack of qualified teachers has led to this scenario and has impinged on geographical pedagogies over time. However, new standards for 21st century learning demands that things change. There is a need for effective geographical pedagogy worldwide, which should have students experiencing learning opportunities that incorporate information, media and technology skills (Pappas, 2009). Through the inquiry learning approach, whereby students have the autonomy to make decisions about what they want to investigate, the product and how to go about this process (Green, 2012), mindful and collaborative planning by teaching staff can also see the promotion of interdisciplinary learning across more than one learning area.

The advocacy of teacher-librarians working collaboratively with teaching staff, can support students to become better equip with the knowledge and skills they need to conduct inquiry-based learning projects effectively (Chu, 2008). Within this process, teacher support can be seen as more of a supervisory role and one that encourages individualised learning and decision-making (Green, 2012). The development of student skills could see the application of inquiry models such as De Bono’s 6 hats of inquiry, where a planned unit of work provides students with an opportunity to develop their skills in deciding, locating, using, recording, presenting, and assessing skills (Ashworth, 2002). The introduction of web-based models of inquiry, could have students journey through a personal inquiry project, whereby a scripted personal inquiry approach supports teachers’ and students’ understanding of the inquiry process in terms of inquiry phases, such as planning their own methodology, and other associated activities (Kerawalla, 2013).

Conclusively,  from a teacher-librarians’ perspective trying to address the issues mentioned above, a strong development in research skills could derive from the explicit teaching of guided research. With the application of thinking tools, both printed and digital, and an increased responsibility for learning, students could be seen developing their skills in monitoring, evaluating and reflection on their own learning as they use an inquiry learning process in geography (Ashworth, 2002). Where appropriate, planning collaboratively with teaching staff, learning experiences could infuse across the curriculum while offering students full support from a team of teaching staff.


Ashworth, W. (2002). The primary geographer : inquiring and thinking : using the inquiry process and De Bono’s thinking hats to investigate. Interaction, 30 (4), p. 41.

Chu, S. (2008). Grade 4 students’ development of research skills through inquiry-based learning projects. School libraries worldwide, 14 (1), p. 10.

Green, G. (2012). Inquiry and learning : what can IB show us about inquiry?. Access, 26 (2), p. 19.

Hutchinson, N. (2011). A geographically informed vision of skills development. Geographical Education, 24, p.15-33.

Jacklin, R. (2008). Building student knowledge: A study of project-based learning to aid geography concept recall. Walden University. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 214-n/a.

Kerawalla, L. (2013). Personal inquiry learning trajectories in geography: technological support across contexts. Interactive learning environments, 21 (6), p. 497.

Kidman, G. (2012). Geographical inquiry in Australian schools: a retrospective analysis. International research in geographical and environmental education, 21 (4), p. 311.

Pappas, M. L. (2009). Inquiry and 21st-Century Learning. School library media activities monthly, 25 (9), p. 49.


One thought on “Smell Like, Feel Like, Look Like

  1. As someone who has had no knowledge of a geography class since her own year 8 education, I found your essay very interesting. I could clearly see your own personal passion for the subject in your writing which was a lovely touch. The use of the sensory devices to organise your information was an approach I would never have thought of; what does inquiry in geography smell like?? Some sections on your essay have a lot of references which left me searching for your ideas amongst the academics but overall an interesting glimpse into a subject area I know very little about. Well done!

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