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Unlocking the Power of Inquiry: How the School Library Can Help!

This article written by Clare Brumpton and myself for Headteacher Update, breaks down the six stages of the FOSIL cycle to help teachers and school librarians understand the model more fully. The original article can be found here.

The school library and school librarian can play a key role in supporting pupils to develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills via inquiry-based learning.

The School Library Guidelines published by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA, 2015) outline five core instructional activities of the school librarian and in this series of articles we are looking at how your school's librarian might be able to support each of these areas. They are:

  • Literacy and reading promotion.

  • Information/media literacy.

  • Inquiry-based learning – problem-based learning, critical thinking.

  • Technology integration.

  • Professional development for teachers.

Following on from our previous article about information literacy and the school librarian we now want to move on to inquiry-based learning.

What do we mean by inquiry-based learning models?

Inquiry-based learning is so much more than just research. It is looking more deeply into a topic which not only enhances knowledge and meaning but literacy levels too.

The IFLA School Library Guidelines state: “Inquiry-based learning models generally use a process approach in order to provide students with a learning process that is transferable across content areas as well as from the academic environment to real life.”

This goes beyond the teaching of information literacy skills that we were talking about in our last article, which can often get used as an add-on. This is about focusing on the whole child, bringing together a student's cognitive, social, emotional and cultural journey with support from the school library and based on inquiry drawn from the curriculum.

As Deutsch stated in 1998: “In a world where knowledge is growing exponentially the tools for acquiring and interpreting that knowledge must be at least as important as the actual knowledge itself.”

Which model would we recommend and why?

There are a few models of inquiry for you to choose from and we would recommend that you find one that works for you. Here, we will focus on FOSIL (the Framework of Skills for Inquiry Learning).

Elizabeth is an advocate and expert in FOSIL which was created in the UK by Darryl Toerien. This well-researched model is free to use and has been created under a creative commons licence, meaning you can take it and use it as you see fit within your school (as long as you give credit). IFLA (2015) states: “Creating models for inquiry-based learning involves years of research, development and practical experimentation. Schools without a model recommended by their education authority should select a model that aligns most closely with the goals and learning outcomes of their curricula, rather than attempting to develop their own models.”

What is FOSIL?

FOSIL has a framework of skills from reception age to year 13. It is designed to promote progression and continuity in students’ learning. It is a framework arranged around six stages of the inquiry process: Connect, Wonder, Investigate, Construct, Express, and Reflect.

Each stage has a different focus and can be used within a whole project or in isolation to teach a specific skill. It is important, however, for everyone to be aware of the whole process. Not only does FOSIL have graphic organisers for every stage and level there is also a website where teachers, librarians and academics are sharing ideas. Let's take a quick walk through some ideas for each part of the FOSIL cycle.


This is the starting point of any inquiry and in its simplest terms involves asking what your students already know and what they, or you as the teacher, want them to find out. A lot of teaching can come in this part of an inquiry project. This is where the teacher can make sure the students have all the information they need before the inquiry begins.

It is important to ensure that students get a chance to discuss their feelings and assumptions about the topic/project. Reading is also a big focal point in this part of an inquiry. As much as the teacher can give the information they need it is an opportunity too for students to widen their knowledge through reading. This is also important to increase literacy levels and give students access to Tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary.

Things to consider

Collaborative pre-planning between the teacher and librarian is vital. There is nothing worse than a class descending on the library to “do research” on something that is not in stock or for which the library only has one or two books. Pre-planning can also ensure that both physical and digital resources will be considered.

Consider a collaboratively taught lesson/series of lessons which cover how to develop a good range of keywords to use in searches, where to search for the best combination of results (depending on what subscriptions are in use), and where to access quality free resources alongside using the physical stock of the library – this is always easier when they are in the room.


Wonder is about reading and asking questions – encouraging students to go beyond what is written on the page to begin to question why, how, and what if. This enhances deep reading skills while also enabling students to explore a topic in a way that interests them.

With the guidance of the teacher and school librarian, students can begin to explore areas of interest that may take them on a path they were not expecting.

This skill of questioning does not come easily, as students often want to start writing as soon as they know the topic/theme. If we can get students to slow down, read and ask questions then their learning and knowledge grow.

Stripling (2021) states: “Reading experts have shared that, when students are personally invested and looking for answers to their questions as they read, they are more likely to read for meaning beyond simple comprehension of the text.”

Things to consider

What lessons or activities could support this section?

  • A lesson based on comprehension by reading through for keywords.

  • A collaborative literature review using Padlet.

  • Using an academic reading tool and guided questions to help students question and challenge texts. For example, try the free resource Questioning and Challenging the Text (Section 5, Grades 9-10, Resource 19) from the SLSA’s Information Fluency Continuum.

  • Try using Padlet to enable peer reviews of the resources students have found. Padlet enables responses to be collected in one place, for the benefit of the teacher or for students to peer-review each other's work or to use as a central record of what has been found – the possibilities are endless.


This is not just about finding more information to answer your questions but about knowing where to find quality resources and use them effectively. This is where the school librarian's expertise can help the students find what they need but also support teachers by demonstrating to students how to access these resources in the classroom. We gave some great examples of how to do this in our last article on information and media literacy.

Things to consider

If a series of lessons are taught, the librarian can lead sessions on academic integrity, citation and referencing, in line with the school's academic honesty policy. Whether students are in primary or secondary, they can be taught academic integrity.

While primary students are generally not required to produce correctly formatted in-text citations or a full bibliography, they can certainly start using the principles by noting where information has come from. To take this further your librarian can support advanced search techniques such as Boolean searching using the advanced search function in online databases.

Critical thinking is crucial – supporting students to think more deeply and to question what they find. How do they feel about what they are finding and how does this link to what our students are researching? School librarians can provide the opportunity for students to talk about their learning – enabling them to put their understanding into context.


This is about being able to pull all the information together that students need in order to demonstrate new learning and understanding, including what was known already, what new information has been found and explaining their new understanding.

This is as much about knowing what to share as it is about knowing what to leave out. Students often get very frustrated at this stage as they want to include everything they have found. Helping them to understand that only information which answers their questions should be used and helping them to select what to omit can lead to real development and learning.

Things to consider

How are you supporting your students in learning to discern what they need to leave out? This lesson is about understanding how they have enhanced and built on what they already knew or they may even have developed a new perspective or opinion. These can be great discussion lessons where students pull together their understanding before getting ready for the Express stage.


This is where students are able to share their knowledge and learning – and not just the information they have found. Students who have progressed to this stage are able to give ideas and reasons for their new understanding of the topic.

Things to consider

Students will already know how they are going to present their new understanding. It will either be a written piece, a class presentation or something more creative like a podcast or website containing what they have learnt. School librarians can support all of these skills. Many students have the skills to be creative but need to be supported in finding their own authentic voice.


While reflection is built into every stage of the FOSIL cycle, a broad overview of how the process worked, looking at what went well and what students might do differently next time, is all part of the learning.

Things to consider

We would recommend you look at these graphic organisers created by FOSIL to guide students in what to think about before they finish their project.


Inquiry works best when the school librarian and teacher work collaboratively from the planning stage. Not only will the teacher get the resources they need but they will also get expert support in teaching the skills that students require to navigate the inquiry process.

Further information & resources

If you want to learn more about FOSIL and IFLA I run a small friendly membership that you can find out more about here or individual on-demand webinars here

Update by Darryl Toerien

It is worth noting that the model of the inquiry process that FOSIL is based on grew out of Barbara Stripling's early work on teaching library research as a thinking process, as opposed to a thoughtless information-gathering activity. Research is aimed at “generating evidence for [answering] the chosen/ given question through empirical investigations of various kinds and/ or from consulting relevant [and reliable] sources” (Wells, 2001), and is integral to inquiry, mainly in, but not limited to, the Investigate stage of the inquiry process. Research, therefore, and by definition, both requires and develops problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. More broadly, the skill sets and individual skills that enable the inquiry process make it clear that problem-solving and critical thinking are not limited to the research process/ Investigate stage of the inquiry process. Equally clear, is that inquiry is not limited to research and/ or problem-solving and critical thinking.

What is vital, though, is that these and related skills are developed systematically and progressively within a learning process and subject area teaching and learning. This does not, of course, make extracurricular inquiry - such as the HPQ, EPQ and EE - unnecessary and/ or undesirable.

It is also worth noting that inquiry - properly understood - is both central to the instructional activities of the librarian and encompasses all of the instructional activities of the librarian. I am exploring this for an article for *ACCESS*, the professional journal of the Australian School Library Association, and will share it as soon as it is published.

I am looking forward to the next article in your series.

Darryl Toerien

Wells, G. (2001). The Case for Dialogic Inquiry. In G. Wells (Ed.), *Action, Talk, & Text: Learning and Teaching Through Inquiry* (pp. 171-194). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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