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Whatever happened to inquiry?

Middle Years Programme (MYP) graduate Rebecca Vasconcelos, now an international Primary Years Programme (PYP) educator, reflects on modeling inquiry to develop curious learners that are capable of critical thinking. This is ­­her third story in our graduate voices series.

Whatever happened to inquiry?

By Rebecca Vasconcelos

“Inquiry, when authentic and guided, allows for voice, choice and a purposeful search for meaning”

Whatever happened to inquiry? If there is one thing you should know about me, it’s that I am passionate about teaching my students to be critical thinkers and challenge assumptions based on evidence. I love everything about inquiry and yet, somehow and somewhere along the road, this got lost, restricted or constricted to curriculum expectations, lack of trust or a control dependency.

Luckily, a big turn of events has been taking effect worldwide, a little at a time―dare I say, a little more during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic―as teachers and programmes, such as the Primary Years Programme (PYP), encourage a more inquiry-based learning environment. It’s past time schools begin trusting the process and believing that kids are resilient enough to be their own changemakers. I personally feel the responsibility of reshaping education, every day I am at work―don’t you?

Even though I am not in the position of a parent, I still wonder … how would I go about raising a child in today’s world? How can I best prepare them to live independently in a world that is vast and changing fast? A world that will very likely be different in 20 or so years. If our choices define our journey, what kind of skills and knowledge would support autonomy? What sort of behaviors do I want to model? What types of habits would I want to encourage? Which tools will help guide this child to whatever it is they want in life? After all, isn’t this one of the biggest questions of all time? What do I want in life? Who do I want to be? How do I want to live?

“Students’ meaningful and active participation in their concept-based learning was the turning point for success in all areas of education”

Well, we often assume children don’t know that yet―even though they have the best answers for it. As a true supporter of process over product, I believe most of us are still finding out what we want and will forever be learning about ourselves. So, at what point does a child give up on their dream to become what they wholeheartedly once wanted? And do they instead choose to become something society says is best? When do we begin reading the news without posing a single question? When do perspectives become so narrow that we can’t see further than our own? Whatever happened to UnGoogleable questions? I guess the less we practice an inquiry mindset, the less need we have for questioning and even less for developing critical and autonomous thinking. Throw yourself in the pit every now and then. That is for sure what I want from my students.

As a teacher, I’ve been finding inquiry to be the most prosperous approach to learning. What we should be doing is offering the best tools, resources and skills for students to own their learning through in the process of discovery. Inquiry, when authentic and guided, allows for voice, choice and a purposeful search for meaning. It’s no news that students (as well as everyone else) learn best when the topic is something they can relate to; when it’s connected to any of their previous knowledge, feelings or background and when it stokes their curiosity.

In my first month of teaching fifth grade, my students quickly and observantly noticed there would be no tests, no quizzes or sheets of papers that were handed out for solving. No long math expressions that needed an answer on paper. As fifth graders, they questioned if I was able to teach them something they didn’t know. All they had been doing thus far was posing mathematical questions related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and were expected to create a game demonstrating their understanding of the new acquired expertise while creating opportunities for others to learn.

“A teacher’s role in today’s world is to model and facilitate learning by developing higher-level thinkers”

One day, we sat down, and I asked them, “What’s the point of teaching people math? What’s the point of learning math?”, “What are the traits of a lifelong learner?”, “How do we put them to practice?”, and lastly, “What’s the role of a teacher?”.  The answers were quite shocking and formatted by a generation of parents that perhaps were educated to memorize and drill calculations. Long story short, as the months went by I had never experienced a classroom with such involvement, commitment, curiosity and partnership. I wonder what would happen if we didn’t teach what a calculator can do.

According to Google, “an inquiry is any process that has the aim of argumenting knowledge, resolving doubt or solving a problem”, but then again, why is Google always a right go-to? I’ll ask again. Whatever happened to UnGoogleable questions? Questions that provoke and engage curiosity and scare most teachers away for being so daring.

For our PYP exhibition, which occurred at the end of the school year and was completely remote, students had to include UnGoogleable questions to their inquiries and interconnect all concepts and lines of inquiry to world problems and the SDGs. It was truly no surprise that they exceeded in formulating higher-level questions, bringing depth to their process of researching through the lens of different perspectives. After all, they’d been doing it since that first month!

Our fifth graders successfully presented their exhibition online as spectators from all around the world participated. They confidently lead their inquiries, knowing we helped them achieve meaningful learning and understanding. All the co-planning paid off. It was fulfilling to see them fully engaged and using their higher-level thinking skills.

Overall, the exhibition showed the students and our community what inquiry-based learning is all about. It put to show how students’ meaningful and active participation in their concept-based learning was the turning point for success in all areas of education. As for me, I learned and solidified my beliefs that a teacher’s role in today’s world is to model and facilitate learning by developing higher-level thinkers, engaged autonomous learners and independent inquirers. How do we do that? We model and create as many opportunities for students to experience, exchange and connect.

I would like to invite you, either a teacher, parent, learner or simply a reader, to listen more, provoke thinking, inquiry, wonder, guide, question and be open-minded and open-hearted to drive your own passions. In a classroom, every child has a passion; at home, they do too. Let’s be that person that helps them drive it.

R Vasconcelos600

Rebecca Vasconcelos is an international teacher, currently teaching in the Primary Years Programme (PYP). She completed the Middle Years Programme (MYP) at Shanghai Singapore International School in Shanghai—China, continued her studies in U.S. and Brazilian high schools and is now a Master in Education. When not involving her students in decisions about their learning through authentic inquiries, you may find her gathering friends for a game evening on weekends. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at alumni.relations@ibo.org. We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter Instagram and YouTube!

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