An Exploration Into Inquiry-Based Learning

Melissa Butler writes a guest post for the Spark blog on her use of inquiry-based learning in her Kindergarten classroom at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5.

To inquire is to wonder. To essay is to try. To know is to create.

I am a teacher who has been wondering about teaching and learning for almost 20 years. Formatively, I was influenced as an educator by the work of Paulo Freire and William Pinar. For me curriculum has always existed as its Latin infinitive: currere, a process of self-reflection in dialogue with others and the world. Thus, curriculum is not a noun, it is a verb. And in this way, there is a central place for human agency in the process of constructing knowledge.

It is my desire to work with children (and teachers) in contexts of their own self-discovery in relation to what they learn to create in and for the world.

What does this mean for in-school and out-of-school learning contexts? The layers are multiple and just as I teach in order to wonder about knowing, I write in order to wonder about knowing. Thus, my thinking here spins from a place of play and intends to open a space of dialogue more than tie up threads into a ball of what can be known or held.

The notion of arranging learning contexts that grow from students’ questions is not new, nor is the idea of knowledge as something constructed. But I often wonder about how such ideas get introduced to teachers and how they are supported in learning contexts.

It seems to me that inquiry-based learning often gets reduced to a method of practice that can be implemented in steps, much in the same way that processes of writing have been reduced to a list of writing steps. I am thinking that perhaps inquiry-based learning could be explored as an approach influenced by certain assumptions, certain ways of being. In this way, perhaps we might consider a question such as: What habits of learning encourage student agency and creativity in our world?

Through my experience, I have discovered certain habits of mind especially powerful in growing learners who create knowledge for themselves and others. Curious learners notice, appreciate, show rigorous persistence over time, connect with others and find pleasure in the playfulness and process of wonder.

I offer a scene from a study of found objects with a class of first graders:

As Dante (the names of all children have been changed)sits at the circle, he pulls out an almost completely corroded metal button and says “I found this on the street. Isn’t it beautiful?” He passes it around the circle while children ask him questions and he shares the colors and shapes he sees inside its form. My heart fills up in this moment. This is a big departure from the Dante we knew at the beginning of the year who worked hard to be tough and keep his distance. Now Dante’s button gets placed on a table to be sketched by others. As children sketch, they notice more about the button. Jordyn finds a rock that she thinks looks a little like the button. Others ask questions about how things get corroded and why some people say things are ugly when they are beautiful. Children connect objects to what they are learning about geometry and pattern, what they are learning about description and story as readers and writers.

My work with this class of children taught me how important it is for children to develop an appreciation of beauty in small things, and how explicit teaching of how to notice carefully, sketch from many perspectives and speak precisely matters in children’s development as learners.

And here is a scene from a Kindergarten class working with Circuit Blocks as part of the Children’s Innovation Project:

Children are setting up a circuit with one light, then two lights and then three lights. We want them to notice what happens each time another light is introduced. Many children get frustrated and think their lights are broken as they fail to be bright once all three are in the series circuit. But then Kristen says “Ms. Melissa, I said something smart to my group. I said there isn’t enough power to share with all the lights!” And this begins a conversation about many things beyond how to create a parallel circuit. Children practice the habit of persistence in looking closely and trying again and again. Children find pleasure in the act of setting up a circuit where nothing happens. They like to talk with each other about Kristen’s discovery. They continue to return to this discovery throughout the year.

Spaces that encourage and support children’s creative expressions are important if we want children to develop their own agencies to contribute positively to our world. Perhaps the best thing we can do as educators to support such learning spaces is to continue to be curious ourselves: to wonder, to try, to create.

Published December 06, 2012