By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
“Why’s the sky blue, daddy?”
The question may be best-known as a cliche for youthful curiosity, but it gets to the heart of the child-like thirst for knowledge that’s driving a different approach to teaching. It’s called inquiry-based learning, and its lessons derive directly from the questions asked — and ultimately answered — by the children themselves.
Teachers at NSU University School in Fort Lauderdale are using the process with students as young as 4 years old, guiding them through hands-on exploration, problem-solving and discovery.
“Inquiry is a natural process that begins at birth,” says Kim Dyer, leader of the kindergarten team at the highly regarded private school, where inquiry-based learning is practiced into the 12th grade. “As children develop, they form a lot of their understanding of the world through the process of inquiry. Research tells us that they learn best when given the opportunity to inquire and explore.”
For example, in one of the year’s first lessons, students explore their bodies from the inside out by inquiring about such organs as the heart. The teacher doesn’t know what students will learn until she asks them: “What would you like to learn about the heart?”
“From this one question, we then create a list of what they would like to learn and inquire about — a wonder wall,” Dyer says. The youngsters come up with inquiries like, “What does my heart do in my body?” or “Why does my heart seem to move fast sometimes?” or “How do I exercise my heart?”
“We use these questions to focus our activities and research and plan activities through which students discover answers to their own questions,” she says. “By using real-life situations, we are able to engage the child and challenge his or her thinking. That is the premise of inquiry-based learning.”
While more traditional teaching methods involve teacher-centered activities, inquiry-based learning shifts the teacher’s role to that of a co-learner.
“We offer students an environment that is hands-on and child-centered, where the educator sees himself working with the children to learn together,” says Dyer, who teaches one of the schools’ five kindergarten classes. “Children are given the time, space and resources to become deeply involved in their investigation. The classroom contains materials and space to explore and encourages curiosity and wonder.”
One of those rooms is called the Inquiry Lab, where students are given the materials and time to interactively learn about science and technology. For instance, for the lesson about the heart, students discover how to find their heart rate with a stethoscope and then, with a teacher’s assistance, use a timer to count the number of beats while resting versus after having done 15 jumping jacks. The findings are logged and added to a class graph to compare the results.
“Our students love going to the Inquiry Lab,” Dyer says. “They love the opportunity to work and explore with others their age. The smiles on their faces when they make a discovery says it all!”