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Inquiry-based learning in the early years

Rebecca Smith, an early years practitioner at ESF International Kindergarten – Hillside, Hong Kong

Rebecca Smith, an early years practitioner at ESF International Kindergarten – Hillside, Hong Kong

This is an overview of what inspired an early years educator to accomplish a research project which explored how early years practitioners perceive inquiry-based learning when utilizing the PYP curriculum framework with very young learners in Hong Kong.

I have worked in a few international schools that are implementing the IB’s Primary Years Programme curriculum framework in Hong Kong. My experiences include working in a co-teaching bilingual setting and an English medium environment. This exposure has given me more of an insight into some of the challenges of working in a multicultural and multinational context. It has inspired me to carry out a small-scale project on “The relevance of inquiry-based learning in the early years when utilizing the PYP” for my Masters of Education dissertation. There are already numerous studies around the nature of inquiry-based learning; however, it is still under-researched in the early years environment.

Inquiry-based learning is the trend within many private, international kindergartens in Hong Kong as it enables children to develop a sense of curiosity and an understanding of the world around them (IBO 2009) as they engage through play. Children who attend the early years range between the ages of 3 and 6 years. In 2012, however, the Hong Kong Education Bureau issued a policy which relaxed the starting age to 2 years and 8 months. This change has piqued my interest to see how early years practitioners, operating in an international educational setting in Hong Kong, regard the value and relevance of inquiry-based learning with very young learners.

In order to address this research, not only did I review the philosophical perspectives of early childhood learning by writers such as Dewey, Montessori and Vygotsky, but also schools of thought emerging from parental initiatives such as Reggio Emilia. Additionally, I focused on the literature relating to inquiry-based learning: how this style of learning has been defined by different researchers and the impact it is having on the structure of numerous early years’ programmes. Finally, the literature also focused on the concepts of professional development and learning: how they have been defined and the effect they have on practitioners, especially those working in the early years. The literature made specific connections to international education within Hong Kong and how professional development and learning within such settings is supported by communities.

My research and findings has supported what I do to facilitate the learning that takes place in the classroom. In order to develop a stronger insight into the children’s prior knowledge, increase their self-questioning skills and value what they are interested in, I organize the learning environment in such a way that will provoke the children’s thinking, stimulate their sense of curiosity and develop their passion for learning. A prime example of this is when I introduced a new unit of inquiry under the transdisciplinary theme How we organize ourselves. I set up the classroom using a selection of artefacts, for example, tickets, signs and maps in order to inspire the children‘s thinking in such a way that would enable them to make connections to the transdisciplinary theme (different forms of transportation).

Whilst the children began their exploration, I used a range of teaching strategies, for example, observations, photographic evidence and anecdotal notes, which enabled me to capture the children’s investigations. This evidence was later used across the classroom community, as not only did it help us reflect on the learning experience, but it also facilitated me when organizing the classroom in preparation for the next stage of learning: finding out. The year group team also arranged field trips which promoted the importance of children being exposed to real life experiences as they explored the use of transportation in their local community. One of trips involved us using different forms of public transport including: Hong Kong’s MTR system, star ferry, bus, etc. Taking part in this excursion enhanced the children’s conceptual understanding of function and connection.

Research shows that if facilitated appropriately, this style of learning encourages very young children to investigate in collaboration with others using different forms of communication and it enables them to make use of more capable peers and/or problem solve under supervision (Vygotsky 1978, Wilson & Murdoch 2004 & Department of Education and Training 2006).

I have learned a lot about the PYP since I began my learning journey in 2007 and have made some good progress through a social, collaborative and interactive approach. Working and interacting with people who are more experienced than myself, has helped me internalize what I began to learn during my first IB workshop – Making the PYP happen. This has taken place with the support from colleagues in my workplace, both past and present, along with members of the Hong Kong Southern China Network and other communities of practice in which I have participated. However, my learning journey is by no means complete because even 8 years on, I am continuing to learn new aspects of the PYP.

Rebecca Smith is experienced in the English Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), Montessori and the PYP (3-5 years). Since being in Hong Kong, she has worked within more than one international school which follows the PYP. This is what stimulated her to base her MEd dissertation research on how early years practitioners perceive inquiry-based learning when utilizing the PYP with very young learners.

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