Inquiry-based Learning – workshop by Paul Epstein

This workshop was held on 6 Oct 2018, Third Hong Kong Montessori Conference. I only went to the 3rd out of 3 sessions.

Although trained at the 3-6 level, I want to know about inquiry-based learning; it will be the way I support my children as they grow up, homeschooled or beyond school.

“Questions put inquiry to life.” Learning begins when we ask. Nothing is too petty to wake the brain up and provoke interest. When shown a photo of a starfish, a factual/knowledge statement would be “This is a starfish.” Instead of saying this, it will be more interesting to generate questions such as “What does a starfish eat?” “Can a starfish feel?” “Why is a starfish rough?”, or using a 4-year-old’s voice, “Do starfish poop? *chuckle*”

Model asking questions on a daily basis. (Just as you have to model self-regulation by speaking out thought processes.) Use ‘thinking’ words often.

At the centre of an inquiry-based learning is an essential question. An essential question is the bridge between reality and: 1) central idea/concept; 2) evidence; and 3) activities. To develop an inquiry-based curriculum, first consider desirable outcomes of the learning, then set the evidences of successful learning, and finally lay down the actual learning plan. Real world application as well as explanations must both be incorporated as learning evidences.

The teacher develops these curricula and coordinates on a cross-discipline level. Throughout schooling, there are specific concepts to be covered. The Montessori curriculum itself has specific learning outcomes.

To come up with an essential question, one begins with a big idea — an essential concept — which is a topic. The topic is discussed, clarified and pursued, until it is broken down into essential questions. The most essential one will be chosen and pursued for 8 weeks (4 under humanities and 4 under science) — this depends on the school schedule. Younger children (such as 6-9) will have to come back to the question every day. Place it in sight!

There are a few types of questions: factual/knowledge questions, descriptive questions, explanatory questions, conceptual questions, debatable questions. An inquiry study must incorporate ‘why’. The whole inquiry curriculum should be a little bit of a stretch, like ‘scaffolding’.

After establishing the area of investigation, we offer some ‘prompts’ — this discussion takes the objective of transferring from what the children are familiar with, to the unfamiliar. Such references include text, newspaper clipping, a quote, or a song. The discussion will allow us to see what the children already know.

Then, children will be given a list of activities to do, and a list of skills to master. The activities will be assessed according to a ‘thinking rubric’ as opposed to a ‘content rubric’. We want to judge children’s investigation; everyone starts at zero. The process of understanding is timeless.

Elementary children (6-12) prefer hands-on, physical experience like demonstrations before discussing questions. Adolescents prefer questions first, to be shortly followed by activities.

“Three-period activity” – I don’t exactly remember what the periods are respectively, but there is an emphasis on including an element of the real world. For example, students can meet with a real expert. The emphasis of learning is not to know a subject or discipline, but to be in touch with the thinking process of the professional.

Thoughts: I especially like how the ‘essential question’ can be pursued across disciplines (4 weeks under humanities and 4 weeks under science). Q-and-A should never be linear, nor should they be definitive. Questions can continue to be thrown and discussed, with the aim of clarifying or opening up new dimensions for work and thought. It isn’t that we cannot ask questions in another setting; questions, curiosity and the resulting quality of learning depends greatly on culture, attitude and communal support.

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