Investigative activities are often used in subjects like maths, science or design and technology and can achieve active learning in the classroom, if planned carefully. This article by Jean Brewster looks at different types of investigation in CLIL and the process skills students can learn through them.

What is an investigation? Why are investigations important?Fig. 1 Types of investigation and process skills | What kinds of thinking skills and language are involved? | Fig. 2 Language functions and possible thinking skillsConclusion

What is an investigation? Why are investigations important?

When working on the topic symmetry in maths at primary level, a simple investigation might pose questions like: Where is the line of symmetry in 2-D shapes like squares, triangles and circles? Is there more than one line of symmetry? Does the size of the shape change the results? To answer these questions learners can be engaged in practical activities using mirrors or folding shapes and making a table to show their findings. They can then ask a further question: What is the total number of lines of symmetry for each shape? Are they all the same?

An idea for a science investigation might focus on the solubility of substances, arising from questions like: How well or how quickly does sugar dissolve when we make lemonade or a cup of coffee? Learners are likely to be asked for their predictions which include the effect of different variables, such as the type of sugar, or the temperature, type or amount of liquid used. At secondary level, an investigation might focus on the question: How does the concentration of acid affect how quickly metal reacts?

The only way of testing these ideas, as opposed to the teacher simply telling learners the answer, is for learners to carry out some practical work - an investigation.

Investigative activities like these are often used in subjects like maths, design and technology or science and may be a requirement of those curricula. They require students to pose questions or formulate statements that they can test in one lesson or over several lessons. By drawing on a series of skills, such as observing and measuring, and building on concepts with which they are already somewhat familiar, learners put together an overall method to solve a problem. As part of the process students learn how to think about variables in more detail, thus developing the concept of a fair test and learn about the proper scientific method in carrying out an investigation.

Investigations can be seen as key experiences that promote learning in CLIL classrooms because they provide opportunities for meaningful engagement and active learning. According to Harlen and Qualter (2007), engaging and meaningful activities in maths or science classrooms should enable learners to:

  • develop their scientific or mathematical ideas and concepts;
  • develop investigative or process skills using speaking skills and literacy skills;
  • develop scientific and mathematical attitudes;
  • develop cooperation and the sharing of ideas in a supportive classroom environment.

In subjects such as science, maths or design and technology, interaction with materials of various kinds gives learners the opportunity to ask questions, observe the scientific, technological or mathematical aspects of things around them, collect and record evidence and draw conclusions. Investigations are often seen as the ultimate aim of learners’ practical work in schools, but if they are to achieve active learning, where students effectively develop and refine ideas and concepts in the subject, they must be planned carefully. The best examples of investigations are those that have a clear purpose and focus and where the students understand concepts well enough to carry them out.

Investigations are also an ideal context to develop process skills, also known as enquiry or investigative skills. These skills include learners raising questions and hypotheses about phenomena, predicting, planning and designing activities, making observations, having discussions, testing ideas, interpreting and communicating findings, drawing conclusions and, finally, evaluating actions. Developing scientific or mathematical attitudes includes showing the need for open-mindedness, the willingness to reconsider evidence and flexibility in taking new evidence into account when drawing conclusions. To help support these attitudes teachers need to encourage an atmosphere where learners can discuss naive ideas in a non-threatening atmosphere so that there is plenty of discussion and, hopefully, refinement or revision of opinions. 

The choice of an investigation can allow pupils to demonstrate their true level of attainment. There are three key factors that help determine the level of difficulty of an investigation:

  1. the level of the conceptual understanding to which the investigation is linked;
  2. the nature of the variables;
  3. the degree of complexity of the results.

Harlen and Qualter (op cit) suggest five types of investigation, each of which develops different process skills in terms of language and thinking; they can be said to progress from easy to more complex. Fig. 1 shows examples of these five types linked to possible process skills. 

Fig. 1 Types of investigation and process skills

Type of investigationExamplesTypes of process skill
Information-seekingDoes water contract or expand when it freezes?
Which things dissolve in water?
How many lines of symmetry does a circle have?
gathering information; planning, predicting and observing the evidence which provides answers to the questions; illustrating the evidence; drawing simple conclusions; making simple generalizations
Comparing or fair testingWhich kind of paper is the best for mopping up water?
Which wind-up toy travels the furthest?
Do the tallest people have the biggest feet?
same as above plus focus on comparison
Pattern-findingIf we fill bottles with different amounts of water and blow across the top to get a note what do we notice?
What do we notice about the length of a shadow at different times of the day?
What is the link between perimeter and area?
same as above plus finding the relationship between variables associated with the behaviour of a thing or substance; finding patterns using either cause and effect or association – recognizing these are not always directly linked; focus on the interpretation of findings and using graphic organizers for presenting data
Hypothesis-generatingI wonder why the mirror steams up when I have a shower?same as above plus testing out hypotheses; understanding the need for fair testing and the role of variables; focus on exploration and testing
How-to-do-it investigationsHow can I design something which will float on water and carry five marbles?
What is the best design for a model wooden bridge that will support four model cars?
same as above plus allowing more freedom for students to draw on their knowledge and understanding of concepts, their experience, ideas and different skills

What kinds of thinking skills and language are involved?

Process skills, also known as enquiry or investigative skills, are central to reasoning and the development of understanding. Interest in process skills arose from a concern with meaningful learning (see a discussion of the work of Ausubel and Bruner in authors like Littledyke 1998). Meaningful or active learning was a reaction to early approaches that mostly focused on memorization of facts and content. However, in UK schools in the 1970s, for example, early approaches to process science based on discovery learning tended to over-emphasize process. This often meant that learners’ naive ideas about curriculum content were not challenged or developed and some scientifically accepted ideas were not taught. Sometimes teachers told learners what they were supposed to have ‘discovered’ by themselves!

The current emphasis on constructivist learning and its concern with meaningful or active learning means that ‘students constantly make links, challenge their everyday ideas and see how their new ideas can be applied to understand the complex forest of experience that surrounds them everyday.’ (see Ross et al 2004:56). This is a difficult task – teachers must ensure learners have opportunities to ask questions, and discuss their ideas. If these ideas are naive, teachers need to challenge learners’ views and present alternatives. Teachers also need to encourage the development and use of process skills, and ensure a good range of lower and higher order thinking skills, as appropriate.

Process skills involved in carrying out investigations include planning, learning how to pose the right sort of questions, planning steps in an investigation, determining how variables will be controlled to make a fair test, predicting outcomes, hypothesizing, obtaining and considering evidence, comparing predictions with evidence, drawing conclusions, communicating findings and conclusions in a variety of forms and evaluating the quality of different stages in the investigation. Eventually students can be encouraged to design and plan their own investigations.

In an earlier article I discussed the kinds of language functions required for certain types of thinking. These are shown again in Fig. 2 with an outline of possibilities rather than a definitive guide.

Fig. 2 Language functions and possible thinking skills

Higher order thinking skills
Creatingmaking, designing, constructing, planning, producing, inventing
Evaluatingchecking, hypothesizing, experimenting, judging, testing, monitoring
Analyzingcomparing, organizing, outlining, finding, structuring, integrating
Applyingimplementing, carrying out, using
Understandingcomparing, explaining, classifying, exemplifying, summarizing, understanding cause and effect
Rememberingrecognizing, listing, describing, identifying, retrieving, naming, finding, defining
Lower order thinking skills

Let’s take one example of a process skill in developing understanding. What knowledge or awareness of language do teachers need to encourage students’ understanding and use of notions like cause and effect or hypothesis?  At primary level, students first need to become familiar with the essential logical connectors so and because. This can be easily done with everyday experiences that move on to more subject-oriented contexts.

We didn’t water our plant so it died.

In the geographical topic of volcanoes expressing cause and effect might look like this:

The Earth’s crust cracks and forms a vent, so lava rises up.
A vent starts to form because the Earth’s crust cracks.

The idea of using the if and then construction must also be introduced.

If there is too much pressure (then) steam is forced up.

Additionally, students need to learn how to use cause and effect verbs, such as make, lead to, force, cause, result in, give rise to and related verbs such as effect or influence, or nouns such as cause, consequence, result, outcome. In later years the connectors required for school work need to include more ‘bookish’ connectors such as thus, as a consequence / as a result, consequently.

The pressure makes the steam rise up / forces the steam to rise up.
This leads to / causes
This is why … / Consequently / As a result

To focus on these constructions in a written text, students can be asked to read descriptions of a process with cause and effect and underline causes in one colour and effects in another. They can also match parts of sentences which can be thought of as effect(s) and match these to the corresponding cause(s) and vice versa. Finally, students can draw flowcharts showing how a cause can lead to several effects or conversely, how an effect can have several causes. When hypothesizing, students can use a construction such as, I wonder what will happen if we … . Expressing opinions and degrees of certainty is also useful, such as I think + modal verbs, for example: I think it may / might  / can / could / will / would … . Other words like maybe, perhaps, possibly, probably, definitely (not), certainly will / won’t will also be useful.


Practical work in subject lessons often has a central place in school learning. It may consist of basic skills exercises and observation exercises, such as using a thermometer, becoming familiar with a range of graphic organizers to record information, or illustrative work and investigations. Practical work is assumed to motivate learners since students enjoy doing something physical and practical. However, as Ross et al write, “Practical work that lacks purpose and focus cannot provide motivation.” (2004:12) Additionally, we must remember that practical work does not necessarily result in active learning, especially if the learners perceive it as merely ‘recipe following’ and remain cognitively unengaged. Part Two of Investigating Investigations in CLIL will consider the stages of an investigation, examples of investigations and how to evaluate them.