Critical Thinking, Inquiry, and the School Librarian

Looking @ Critical Thinking, Inquiry, and the School Librarian - Learn how research links critical thinking, content, and inquiry based learning, and how the School Librarian is the expert who has the knowledge & training to incorporate critical thinking & content into true inquiry based learning. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #researchskills #criticalthinking #inquiry #copyrightTo flourish in our modern global world, students need critical thinking skills. Thus, many educators are turning to inquiry based learning, and an Internet search explodes with models for teaching it. What most teachers don’t realize is that their best resource already resides within their own school: the School Librarian.

School Librarians are adept at integrating curriculum, critical thinking, and inquiry based learning, and this is exactly what educational researchers have discovered is needed.


The Foundation for Critical Thinking describes a critical thinker as one who:

  • raises clear and precise questions
  • gathers, assesses, and interprets relevant information
  • derives well-reasoned conclusions, tested for relevance
  • is open-minded, evaluating assumptions, implications, and consequences
  • effectively communicates solutions to complex problems.

According to a recent article in The Hechinger Report, teaching critical thinking skills in isolation isn’t effective because students aren’t able to transfer skills between disciplines: critical thinking is different within each discipline, so the skills needed for one subject area aren’t necessarily relevant to another subject area. Rather “the best approach is to explicitly teach very specific small skills of analysis for each subject.”

And this is where content knowledge becomes important. In order to compare and contrast, the brain has to hold ideas in working memory, which can easily be overloaded. The more familiar a student is with a particular topic, the easier it is for the student to hold those ideas in his working memory and really think.


The crux of inquiry based learning is that it piques a student’s curiosity and motivates the desire for answers—it is self-directed, not teacher-directed. The numerous models for inquiry based learning take students step-by-step through the process, but we can consolidate them all into 4 basic stages:

  1. Develop background knowledge & formulate focus questions
  2. Research to discover answers & build understanding
  3. Analyze & interpret information, then synthesize into a worthy action or product
  4. Impart results & reflect on the action/product and the process

Inquiry by its very nature requires students to apply critical thinking, or what educators often refer to as higher-order thinking, at every stage of the process. But, we cannot assume that our students have the necessary knowledge and skills to be successful at inquiry learning; it’s our responsibility to give them the guidance and time needed to learn.

Unfortunately, most teachers have no idea how to do this. Leslie Maniotes & Carol Kuhlthau summed this up in a Knowledge Quest article:

In typical schools of education teachers do not learn in their teacher education courses about the research process. …teachers are simply relying on their own experience in school to direct their approach to research. … Although teachers have good intentions, they don’t realize that their traditional research approach is actually not supporting student learning. (p9)

Maniotes & Kuhlthau point out that teachers are particularly ignorant about the difference between the exploration stage and the collection stage. During that exploration stage is where students build the necessary background content knowledge so they can think critically throughout the rest of the process. When that stage is (too often) ignored, both the inquiry process and the resulting product suffer, and students are even less likely to learn, use, and transfer critical thinking skills.


The one person in the school who has all the necessary knowledge and training to guide students through inquiry learning is the School Librarian. As Maniotes & Kuhlthau put it:

School librarians know the inquiry process like language arts teachers know the writing process and science teachers know the scientific method. (p11)

School Librarians examine multiple inquiry models as part of their graduate coursework. This makes them the perfect person to explicitly teach students an inquiry process relevant to the subject area, especially if given time to help students through that crucial exploration stage.

School Librarians excel at finding information and media—content—and integrating it into any lesson. Their broad familiarity with everyone’s curriculum gives them the expertise to integrate the right critical thinking skills for the subject area and to find relevant background content for the exploration stage of the inquiry process.

School Librarians are also authorities on critical thinking: the library’s Information Literacy curriculum is all about analyzing, evaluating, inferencing, synthesizing, and communicating complex information in multiple formats. Ann Grafstein of Hofstra University ties Info-Lit to critical thinking and to content knowledge:

Information literacy is a way of thinking about information in relation to the context in which it is sought, interpreted, and evaluated. …effective critical thinking crucially involves an awareness of the research conventions and practices of particular disciplines or communities and includes an understanding of the social, political, economic, and ideological context….

So, it is the School Librarian who can weave together relevant content, an inquiry process, and critical thinking skills to help students develop authentic, worthy products.


My Library Lesson Curriculum Matrix - Composite example of an older version for the 1st grading period.

Sample Library Lesson Matrix

Through my years as a Middle School Librarian I experimented until I discovered the best ways to incorporate Information Literacy into any library visit. It’s important to scaffold short lessons and I use my Library Lesson Matrix to determine which strategies and skills are timely in each grade level, across all grade levels, and throughout the school year to cover the Info-Lit skills necessary for students to move on to the demands of high school.

My Library Lessons present inquiry strategies & skills in a way that students understand why, when, and how to use them. I’m a form fanatic, so I use infographics to illustrate strategies and processes, and I use graphic organizers for conceptual knowledge because they help students develop the understanding for themselves. I also use short videos (~3 minutes) to make explanations more engaging and understandable for students.

I help students build critical thinking skills as they learn the 3 components of Information Literacy, listed here with a few practices and resources that have been most successful with students, most appreciated by teachers, and have garnered positive feedback from my colleagues:

Problem-solving Models

Image of Problem Solving Models Comparison Chart - Overview of 14 Student Research Models

PSM chart

Simple brainstorming can be a quick & easy way to begin a project; however, planning and exploration must be the beginning of any large inquiry. You will want to download my FREE chart of 14 different problem-solving models to help you choose a design process for any inquiry assignment. My own PACE model is a simple design to “pace” students through a project from planning to evaluation.

image of PACE Research Model
Join my mailing list and you’ll gain access to the graphic template and assessment rubric, as a PDF or editable .docx.

Search & Evaluation Skills

This component has 3 parts: source selection, search strategies, and resource evaluation. I like to use KWHL charts to guide students in the selection of materials suitable to their needs and abilities. I encourage them to use our library online subscription services for the most reliable information by showing this video:

clip of keyword search formIt’s crucial to allow students time to develop keywords so they receive useful results quickly. My successful keyword search form is available on my Free Librarian Resources page. For evaluation I use a simple ABC acronym. An earlier post explained why that’s all I use with my middle schoolers.

Academic Honesty

image of Academic Honesty Slogan: Give credit when credit is due. Why? Because it's the right thing to do!It may surprise you that I don’t teach “plagiarism;” I’ve found it’s much more effective to focus on the positive message of academic honesty. I have 2 lessons, with short relevant videos and hands-on activities, that introduce

1) Intellectual Property and how to do bibliographic citation, and
2) Copyright & Fair Use along with proper note-taking and in-document citation.

See my Intellectual Property and Copyright
lessons in NoSweat Library, my TPT store.
product cover for No Sweat Library Academic Honesty-Intellectual Property & Bibliographic Citation product cover for No Sweat Library Academic Honesty Lesson-Copyright & Fair Use

Collaborative planning with teachers for inquiry/research/info-lit lessons is essential, but it’s so hard to convince teachers to allow me more than a single day for these important lessons. Those that do see that students produce better products more quickly, and they make my Library Lessons part of their planning for the next such assignment/project…and they tell others about it!


Inquiry based learning and critical thinking should always begin with the School Librarian. Their raison d’être is helping students inquire and think critically as they take in content knowledge to produce multimedia products that can change our lives.

Barshay, Jill. “Scientific research on how to teach critical thinking contradicts education trends.” The Hechinger Report. Teachers College at Columbia University, September 9, 2019.

Grafstein, Ann. “Chapter 1 – Information Literacy and Critical Thinking: Context and Practice: Abstract,” Pathways Into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice. Chandos Publishing, 2017.

Maniotes, Leslie K.; Kuhlthau, Carol C. Making the Shift: From Traditional Research Assignments to Guiding Inquiry Learning. Knowledge Quest, v43 n2 p8-17 Nov-Dec 2014.

line of books laying down - indicates end of blog article


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