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FOSIL: An instructional model of inquiry

"Inquiry - a process and stance aimed at building knowledge and understanding of the world and ourselves in it, which is the basis for responsible participation in community - is fundamental to learning, both formal and informal" (Stripling and Toerien).

If this is a definition of inquiry, what does that mean in the reality of a school setting? In Linking librarians, inquiry learning, and information literacy (2020), Lance and Maniotes explain that the underlying principle of inquiry is that "Students choose a topic of interest to them, study it at depth, and share what they’ve learned. While teachers offer guidance and support, students 'form their own questions through experiences, reflection, conversation, and writing [and] gain a sense of ownership and accomplishment in the work they are producing that gradually leads to competence, independence, and expertise". This is something that needs to be progressively and systematically developed over all of their years at school.

What is inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning is, therefore, student-centred learning, helping students learn from information through questions, quality research and critical evaluation and supporting their information-to-knowledge journey (IFLA School Library Guidelines, 2015). It moves away from traditional research lessons, where the information is provided and the temptation is to parrot it back to the teacher. Inquiry learning is process-orientated and supports students in learning subject content while developing independent learning skills. These are the skills that school librarians are able to teach alongside providing the resources needed to carry out a well-designed inquiry. As Toerien writes in his introduction to Stripling (2020), "Inquiry, then, is a fundamental human activity out of which libraries were born, initially as storehouses of knowledge," and while inquiry is not limited to the school library, the library is its natural home and the librarian has a vital role in supporting and resourcing inquiry.

Many teachers already run inquiry-like projects within primary and early secondary school. Many of these, however, are about giving the students the information they need and then asking them to find out more, usually from Google, with very little guidance on how to do this. Inquiry done well, however, allows students to develop knowledge and understanding of their subject alongside independent learning skills.

There are many reasons why the school librarian and teachers should work together, but Inquiry learning brings the school librarian's expertise into the process of learning by focusing on what the teacher needs the students to learn and facilitating this process through the development of specific inquiry skills and the provision of high-quality resources. This requires a model of the inquiry process, as well as structuring teaching around a framework of the "literacy, inquiry, critical thinking, and technology skills that students must develop at each phase of inquiry over their years of school and in the context of content area learning" (Stripling, 2017). The skill of finding and using information is one that needs to be taught from reception to year 13, and school librarians, as information professionals, are best place to support both teachers and students. Teachers have a lot to learn too, as one year 6 teacher stated after she had finished a collaborative project: "I really enjoyed working with you on a year 6 project about inspirational leaders. The children and I learnt so much about research skills. You've introduced me to the fantastic FOSIL group and we're using this structure going forward. Thank you!". Without a doubt, a school librarian adds value to a school and through inquiry and a framework of the process a librarian can positively impact every part of the curriculum. This is why I think it is important to introduce you to FOSIL.

What is FOSIL?

FOSIL stands for Framework Of Skills for Inquiry Learning. Not only is it a model of the inquiry process, but it also includes a framework of literacy, inquiry, critical thinking, and technology skills that provide the building blocks needed over a child's school life to become an independent learner. It is through learning about and understanding FOSIL that a change occurred in my own understanding of why it was important for school librarians and teachers to embrace such a model instead of teaching information literacy/research skills in isolation.

The FOSIL Cycle

An inquiry model such as FOSIL makes the process explicit, embedded in which are media and information literacy skills. Inquiry then is an approach to learning that enables collaboration between teacher and librarian in order to teach subject content alongside skills across the curriculum.

The FOSIL Cycle Skill Set

FOSIL can be used in whole or in part to structure inquiry-led learning, whether over a number of weeks or in a single lesson. This requires an understanding of the individual stages, as well as how they interrelate.

The stages in the FOSIL Cycle and what they mean.

If students get familiar with these stages it becomes a habit, and if it is used whenever there is a project being carried out in any subject, this helps to engage students with skills they recognise they have used in other lessons. These transferable skills grow as the student learns more as they get older.

Connect - What do want your students to know? This is the place where you can teach content in order to get your students started, but also bring them into the inquiry process. What do they already know about the subject, or think they know? Most students find that they do know something about a subject once they start talking about it. From previous lessons, social media and talking to their parents, most have some background knowledge, even if it is very little. A basic search around the overall topic is a good place to start to find out more.

Wonder - From what they have already learnt they now need to begin to think about where their investigation is going to take them. What would they be interested in finding out about now? It is possible to shape the questions and process at this point whilst still encouraging student input. Learning to create good inquiry questions is important here.

Investigate - Here is where media and information literacy skills are most important. Guiding students to quality resources, supporting note-taking, referencing, etc., are all important here. Remind them to focus on their question(s). They are not trying to find all they can on the subject. Note-taking and making sense of what they find is to be done within investigate.

Construct - What information are they going to use. This is where students realise that they will not be using everything they have found. Some of it will not answer their questions but need to understand that this was not a waste of time. This is about drawing conclusions about their reading around the subject, and that they needed this information to be able to come to an understanding and draw these conclusions.

Express - How will this be presented and to whom? Unless this is a presentation where presentation skills are important, informing students how their work is to be presented should be left until they get to this stage. They should be more concerned with sharing their knowledge and understanding than with how it looks. Marks should be given for content, and not just how pretty it looks.

Reflect - Do they have everything they need? Have they answered the question or do they need something else? If so, go to the part of the cycle that will help finish this project. This is reflection on both the process of learning and the product of learning.

It is important to understand that FOSIL comes with the building blocks needed for students to develop the above skillsets over their whole school life. So, for example, the skills of Investigate will look very different for students in Year 4 to those in year 7. There should be a visible progression between year groups and it is important that we understand why these are necessary. We should not be expecting our year 12s to be able to carry out an extended essay without strong foundations in this type of learning. It would be like asking them to run before they can walk. These skills also don't belong to one department/subject - they should be developed year on year within different subject areas across the whole school.

Inquiry is a process, as well as skills and dispositions that enable the process, it will make the most sense to illustrate this by way of an extended project, such as in the Extended Essay, as this will immediately be transferable to other extended projects, such as the Extended Project Questions (EPQ). It highlights the affective, cognitive and physical dimensions of learning throughout such a project. Although this example is an extended project it is important to remember that Inquiry is not limited to standalone projects and, as stated above, can also be broken down to individual skills. The diagram below shows the integration of FOSIL with Carol Kuhlthau's ground-breaking work on the Information Search Process (ISP).

Information Search Process

There are many examples of FOSIL being used in subjects such as History, Geography, Science and even Maths, which can be found on The FOSIL Group forum where many discussions are being had about how to use and integrate FOSIL. One such discussion - Year 8 Classical Studies - discusses the use of FOSIL, in which Richard Breag, Head of Italian at Oakham School, states:

"Deciding on the endpoint and then working back has always been my approach to teaching, but I have found that by using the FOSIL framework I have become more ambitious with what I would like the students to achieve. Not necessarily in terms of content (indeed I find myself removing some of the content) but in terms of the way in which I would like them to use and apply their knowledge. I have also noticed that using FOSIL seems to be a good way of reducing cognitive load, which I also feel the students really appreciate. The students find themselves better able to focus on what it is they need to know and become more interested in the how and why rather than the what. It is early days of course, but I am now really looking forward to applying FOSIL to language teaching and am relishing the prospect of doing so. Encouraging students to use their higher-order skills, certainly seems to ensure that what they have been taught sticks that much better."

Inquiry is challenging but rewarding

Inquiry is a challenge - if a student is finding it easy, it is very likely that it is a poorly designed inquiry and/ or they are not putting much effort in. As with everything in life the more you put into it the more you get out of it. Lance and Maniotes (2020) state that "inquiry helps students develop self-directed lifelong learning skills that will contribute to their readiness for, and success in, college, career, and life". This can only be achieved if inquiry is done well, and I believe that FOSIL is a powerful tool to enable this to happen. Lance and Maniotes also go on to say that "young people need guidance as they navigate a complicated media environment, and many teachers are themselves unsure how to help students locate credible information that will allow them to answer the questions they want to pursue. Their best option is to look to the school librarian for partnership and assistance". As Lance and Kachel (2018) remind us, we know that collaboration between teachers and school librarians can make a significant difference to a student's academic attainment, so by creating opportunities for this using FOSIL, our students are the clear winners.

If you would like an introduction to an inquiry journal through FOSIL please take a look at another article Year 7 Science Project FOSILised shared where you are taken on a step by step walkthrough of a whole project.


International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. 2015. IFLA School Library Guidelines. Accessed 11th January 2021

Lance, K.C. & Kachel, D.E. (2018). Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us. Phi Delta Kappan, 99 (7), 15-20.

Lance, K.C. & Maniotes, Leslie K. (2020). Linking Librarians, Inquiry Learning and Information Literacy. Accessed online 7th January 2021

Stripling, B. (2017). Empowering Students to Inquire in a Digital Environment. In S. W. Alman (Ed.), School librarianship: past, present, and future (pp. 51-63). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Stripling, Barbara. (2020). E&L Memo 1 | Learning to know and understand through inquiry. Accessed online 8th January 2021.

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