By Suresh Thangarajan Good Sheperd International School

Education involves a passion to know that should engage us in a loving search for knowledge.” (Freire, 1998, pg.4)

Inquiry-based teaching aims to increase student engagement in learning by helping students to develop the hands-on, minds-on skills needed for the 21st century. This approach is conducive for the complex work of learning. It prioritizes the prior knowledge and experience students bring to the classroom and it promotes active problem solving, critical thinking, and the shared construction of new ideas.

An Introduction the 5E Learning Cycle

The learning cycle is a widely recognized model of inquiry-based teaching. The origins of the learning cycle date back to the 1960’s and the work of Dr. Robert Karplus. After trips to the classroom, Dr. Karplus felt the desire to know more about how to teach well. Therefore, he continued to work with the elementary students as he studied the work of Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist renowned for his work in education.

During this time, Dr. Karplus and a colleague, J. Myron Atkin, developed a style of learning called “guided inquiry” (Atkin & Karplus, 1962). This style of learning focused attention on student ideas and observations as the basis for learning. It included the stages of exploration, discovery, and invention. Atkin and Karplus hoped to support students in drawing on their own experiences and findings as a way to develop inferences and make sense of phenomena.

It is this notion of guided inquiry that is at the heart of most learning cycle models, including the 5E model. The 5E model was developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) and includes five learning cycle stages, each beginning with E. These stages are Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration, and Evaluation.

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In line with the guided inquiry tradition, student ideas take a central role in each stage. The BSCS model evolved from the work of other instructional models and incorporates findings from research on teaching and cognition.

It draws on the work of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and others, as well as the findings of a synthesis report on how people learn put forth by the National Research Council and the National Academies of Science (1999).

This 5E model consists of the following phases: engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation. A brief explanation for each “E” in the 5E Instructional Model is given below. It also summarizes the instructional emphasis for the different phases.Engagement

The teacher accesses the learners’ prior knowledge and helps them become engaged in a new concept through the use of short activities that promote curiosity and elicit prior knowledge. The activity should make connections between past and present learning experiences, expose prior conceptions, and organize students’ thinking toward the learning outcomes of current activities.


Exploration experiences provide students with a common base of activities within which current concepts processes, and skills are identified and conceptual change is facilitated. Learners may complete activities that help them use prior knowledge to generate new ideas, explore questions and possibilities, and design and conduct a initial investigation.


The explanation phase focuses students’ attention on a particular aspect of their engagement and exploration experiences and provides opportunities to

demonstrate their conceptual understanding, process skills, or behaviours. This phase also provides opportunities for teachers to directly introduce a concept, process, or skill. Learners explain their understanding of the concept. An explanation from the teacher may guide them toward a deeper understanding, which is a critical part of this phase.


Teachers challenge and extend students’ conceptual understanding and skills. Through new experiences, the students develop deeper and broader understanding, more information, and adequate skills. Students apply their understanding of the concept by conducting additional activities.


The evaluation phase encourages students to assess their understanding and abilities and provides opportunities for teachers to evaluate student progress toward achieving the educational objectives and outcomes.

After exploring and imbedding the 5E phases of inquiry based learning, the following questions can be answered for further understanding of the process.

  • What benefits of inquiry based teaching can be seen in a classroom?
  • What are the key features of inquiry based teaching?
  • What were the “take away” thoughts/questions? What connections can be made to our own teaching practice?


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Contributing Author:

Suresh Thangarajan is currently serving as Coordinator, Curriculum and Professional Development & Head of Department of Mathematics at Good Shepherd International School, India. During his tenure as Coordinator, he held many administrative responsibilities. Suresh has played an active role in the accreditation/review process of the Council of International schools, IBDP and NEASC. He has attended many workshops, conferences, subject specific seminars both in India and abroad. Suresh has participated twice in the IBDP Curriculum Review Meetings for Mathematics held most recently in the Hague. He is an examiner and moderator for IBDP Mathematics HL since 2007. He has met the requirements for certification as an independent Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning Concept based Curriculum & Instruction Presenter and Trainer. He regularly conducts professional development sessions for the members of staff of Good Shepherd International School.

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