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Enquiry Based Learning in the Primary classroom | Derry Richardson

The term ‘Enquiry Based Learning’ (EBL) was first coined back in the early 1900s when two esteemed psychologists, Vygotsky and Piaget, took a closer look at the mechanics of how we learn, or more accurately, how children learn.

This surfaced a debate: is learning something you do, or something you’re taught?

Around 1936 Piaget undertook a systematic study of cognitive development. Piaget was intrigued by the reasons children gave for wrong answers to questions that required logical thinking. He believed that these incorrect answers revealed striking differences between the thinking of adults and children. What Piaget sought to understand was the way in which fundamental concepts like the very idea of number, time, quantity, causality, justice and so on emerged.

‘Discovery learning’ was one outcome derived from his work in the 1960s. The idea that children learn best through doing and actively exploring was seen as central to the transformation of the primary school curriculum in England.

Although crucially the work of these two great minds contributes to the EBL practices we see today, it was Vygotsky’s work which is more recognisable in the primary classroom today.

According to Vygotsky, adults are an important source of cognitive development. Sometimes also referred to as ‘The More Knowledgeable Other’ (MKO), they have a higher ability or a better understanding of the subject being investigated/ researched. While it is implied this is the role of the adult Piaget stressed the importance of peer to peer support and collaboration on successful learning.

The ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) is a crucial concept linking together this work to form the basis of EBL we recognise in today’s classrooms: The ZPD is the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner, such as a more knowledgeable peer, an expert, via scaffold or specific instruction.


Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development – where we set the learning for most progress.

How does EBL benefit you as a teacher and facilitator of learning?

When you become a facilitator for children to take responsibility for what and how they learn, you help them gain a deeper understanding of the work they are covering, as well as building and developing skills required for tackling issues that will arise in the real world. Through this facilitation, you will be encouraging them not to just seek information and facts based on the initial outcomes, but to search further into their own interests and relate these to real life contexts.

As they take more ownership of their learning, you will see an increase in ownership and participation. They get to see the work as more relevant to their needs, which will enthuse and inspire them to apply themselves more in lessons.

EBL allows for independent and differentiated learning, group and peer-to-peer, meaning the children are able to work at their own pace, realise their own abilities and challenge in a positive learning environment, when well established and integral to the teaching and learning.

Join Derry Richardson as she explores enquiry based learning in more detail in her upcoming webinar.


Derry Richardson is an outstanding classroom practitioner and leading mathematics teacher, with experience teaching across the primary phases and early years. Currently, she is the Head of Professional Development for Oxford University Press’s Education Division.