If you hear “inquiry-based learning” and think it simply means asking a student what they want to learn, you’re only seeing a small piece of the picture.
When you ask a middle school student what they want to know about a topic, oftentimes the answer comes back, “I dunno.” Sound familiar?
Solving for “I Dunno”
An important part of sparking curiosity in students is giving middle school students just enough information and context to get them going. Sometimes you might ask a question or present a real-world problem. Other times, you might use a high-interest written piece like an article or a book for students to brainstorm what they would like to explore.
At Bosque School, an independent school for students in grades 6–12 in Albuquerque, all this is happening in the classroom and more. But what about learning outside of the classroom walls?
An Expanded Classroom for Bosque Students
As Mrs. O’Hanlon, head of the middle school, explains, “In 6th and 7th grade, they're out in the bosque doing research. They are going to rivers and testing the turbidity of water. They are putting on their waders, getting into Las Huertas Creek, and coming up with data.”
A significant portion of the science learning that middle school students do, as early as 6th grade, is part of a multi-year, real-world research project. Students collect scientific data that is used by government agencies such as New Mexico Game and Fish that are used to make multimillion-dollar decisions.
Teachers are often surprised at the questions students ask while working on such projects. They say that they learn just as much as the students! You could say that the middle school is truly a learning community.
You Have to Know Stuff Before You Can Do Stuff
“Mr. Daly (science teacher) does a lot of math because the kids have to learn how to plot things on a graph. You’re learning how to use math within science to collect data and make use of it, interpret it,” according to O’Hanlon.
Bosque middle school students collect data on the porcupine population close to campus. They also measure leaf litter looking for clues about how the ecosystem is changing. Students have the opportunity to impact climate change right now as part of their daily studies!
Of course, not all students will grow up to be wildlife biologists, but according to Mr. Daly, “It’s important for students to be able to find their passion. And it may NOT be science, but the way we teach allows for more students to actually find their niche within science that they can be passionate about.”
Research Shows that Learning Across Subjects Works Best
A big part of inspiring curiosity in students is for teachers to model their own curiosity and lifelong learning. Interest in—and experience with—world cultures is a fun way teachers get students excited to learn.
“I'm just thinking of a 6th-grade project that the humanities teachers did, which sounds simple, but it was really kind of cool how it worked out. Ms. Pedrick (English teacher) reads a book that's based in Vietnam, and then Ms. Jenkins, the social studies teacher, teaches about different Asian countries because that’s her angle on more of the social studies side. Then the kids pick their own topic of interest that connects to something around Asia, and it's kind of a passion project.”
Students connect with a topic, such as music or food, to dive deeper into learning about the countries they are reading about. At the 6th-grade level, it’s all about combining students’ prior knowledge and interests with classroom experiences to develop a natural interest in learning.
Teachers even bring the arts into disciplinary learning. A current parent who has two students in the middle school, marveled at the way her son learned a music piece from Japan in his strings class. “He was coming home saying, ‘Mom, it was really hard!’” But, in the end, he was impressed that he learned it.
The More You Know . . . You Know What You Don’t Know
Have you noticed that it's hard to get interested if someone starts talking about a topic you know very little about?
Research shows that “the more we know about something, the more intense our curiosity is about what we don’t know.” (The book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie has a lot to say on this topic!)
Bosque School Dean of Academics Geetha Holdsworth describes the teaching approach at Bosque School as “constructivist.”
Students have to integrate new learning with what they already know. Taking the time to reflect on their learning experiences is important, rather than speeding through topics or trying to cram in a lot of information.
According to Traditional Education, You’re a Bucket
Traditional learning assumes that students are empty buckets to fill with as much knowledge as possible for an end goal, such as a test. The ultimate end goal is an ivy league college, which might seem like the best marker of success.
With inquiry-based learning, students can apply what they know in meaningful ways now in middle school. They build upon what they learn, even becoming subject matter experts by the time they graduate! Students choose their future based on learning experiences that generate the most excitement and curiosity.
Communication Skills With a Purpose
To get their ideas across to others, students need to know how to use the tools of the trade. Even though they are early in their learning, middle school students have a good sense of what “engagement” means.
It’s important for students to know how to write clear and engaging paragraphs to share what they are learning.
Students write essays and give presentations. Throughout the time they do this work, they also learn soft skills like digital citizenship and social-emotional literacy, all of which help with the whole picture of being an effective communicator.
Are You Academic Enough?
Responding to the question, “What would you say to someone from outside the school who assumes the academics at Bosque School are not rigorous enough?” Mrs. O’Hanlon had this to say:
That depends on how people measure rigor. You go into a classroom, you want people sitting in rows and just listening to the teacher? That's not what you're going to see [here]. Sometimes they do have to learn to listen but that’s not what you're going to see in middle school classes all the time.
But you are going to see them taking in information, synthesizing, and doing something with it. We do have those core skills, like vocabulary study, or let's practice our math facts, or let's do this grammar lesson, the things that people think of as rigor.
There is more than one way to learn. Each student learns differently. If there is one thing traditional education models get wrong, it is the idea of teaching students how to be passive learners. Or rather, enforcing behaviors that make it look like students are learning, when really they are learning how to be compliant.
What Should We Ask Ourselves–For the Students’ Benefit?
A question to ask ourselves is, what are our values? And does the education model that our students experience to reflect the research into how people actually learn?
Are we putting too much pressure and expectation on the student to be perfect, to achieve an outcome that we have in our heads? Or are they forging a unique path that is much more meaningful to them?
This Mindset About Failure is a “Win!”
Overall, when we look at the best type of mindset students can bring to their learning at Bosque School, one thing comes up again and again. It’s being ok with being wrong or being ok with failure.
After all, can we really bubblewrap our kids against failure? They have to know what it feels like to be wrong sometimes.
As Mr. Daly says, “Students are always hesitant to share their ideas because they don't want to be wrong. You have to be wrong in science; that's what it's about. That's how we make progress. So I guess that the mindset is to be brave.”