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It’s Alive! The Compelling & Challenging Cycle of Inquiry-Based Learning

By Marie-France Perron

Lakes and rivers evaporate into the clouds; water vapor condensates into rain and snow; our planet’s water masses are replenished and it starts all over again. Much like the water cycle, being a teacher is a never-ending journey filled with initiatives, adventures, trials, and errors. Every lesson is a testament to our devotion, motivation, and desire. Every day, we wake up to something new and every year we try to better ourselves with innovative professional goals and challenges. This year, I’ve decided to tackle inquiry-based learning (IBL). While teaching the early years, I spent a good part of my career promoting play-based learning. It has been proven, time and time again, that students learn best when participating in an activity rather than listening or watching something happen. According to Aristotle, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them” (Ross and Brown 2009). Now, realistically, what is play? How different is it for a four-year-old child to play with blocks or an eight-year-old student to build a pyramid with straws or a fourteen-year-old to use her knowledge of physics to build a sturdy bridge? Are they not all “playing”? In fact, they are all inquiring. What about adults? If you buy a piece of furniture at the IKEA store, all you receive is a set of images and numbers, which most of us do not even look at. Are we not inquiring our way into building our TV stand? Everyone has the ability and necessity to participate in inquiry throughout their lives. Constructivist theorists believe that children learn best when actively involved in an activity through investigation and inquiry (Fraser 2006). For this reason, it is imperative that parents and teachers alike foster the development of inquiry-based skills and behaviours in children of all ages. Inquiry-based learning consists in developing one’s already acquired knowledge through questioning, investigation, and reflection. Students and teachers learn by asking questions to promote critical thinking, doing research, reflecting, and taking action. Children, with the guidance of their teachers, wonder, explore, test, and come to conclusions. They construct conceptual understandings of the world around them (Marshall 2017), rather than isolated facts. American philosopher, psychologist, and educator, John Dewey, described the inquiry process as asking questions, investigating solutions, creating new knowledge, discussing the discoveries and experiences, reflecting upon it all, and asking new questions to continue learning (Villamarin, n.d.). As educators, we focus on the growth of the whole child; the development of personal, social, emotional, and academic skills. We provide students with authentic learning experiences, which encourage them to become independent learners who take responsibility for their learning (“What is the PYP?” International Baccalaureate, 2017). This year, one of our school goals is to use guided inquiry for teaching and learning. My colleague and I decided to give it a try in Grade 2. We quickly noticed that we both use inquiry in many areas of our teaching. We provide opportunities for discussion, reflection, and investigation. What we hadn’t done is a complete inquiry cycle as described above. We decided to focus on living things. After a whole-class discussion, many questions asked and some answered, our students came up with this theory: living things need specific conditions to survive. We then decided to test this theory by growing beans. Students chose to create imperfect environments in which to plant bean seeds. One simulated a landfill, the other was inundated, and the third received little light. Our tests had to be fair and only had one changing factor: all the other conditions stayed the same. We also planted some seeds in perfect conditions in order control our results. The results were exciting to observe, draw, and discuss. Our students came to reasonable conclusions and arrived at a logical explanation of their theory. “I was surprised that nothing had grown in the landfill.” “I was sure something would grow, even if it was little and frail.” We concluded our inquiry cycle with reflection upon what this means for living things faced with imperfect conditions around the world. Our students took action by preparing an assembly to teach the rest of the primary school not to throw trash on the ground in order to care for our planet. Next, we plan on furthering our questioning as we study water and its impact on living things around the world! It was a challenge to follow the steps of the inquiry cycle. My colleague and I have a lot to learn, but it was definitely a success. We learned by doing, and I can say I understand the cycle much better than I did when I read it on paper. It is evident to us that inquiry-based learning provides students and teachers with the opportunity to develop the skills needed to be reflective inquirers, life-long learners, and global citizens in the 21st century. >Marie-France Perron is a Grade 2 teacher at the International School of Havana. >References:> Aristotle, Ross, W. D., & Brown, L. 2009. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Fraser, S. 2006. Authentic Childhood: Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom. Ontario, Canada: Thomson Nelson. International Baccalaureate. 2017. “What is the PYP?” Accessed December 21, 2017. Marshall, S. 2017. “Developing Conceptual Understanding Through Guided Inquiry” [PDF File]. Villamarin, A. n.d. “Inquiry in the PYP” [PDF File].

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