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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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14 Responses to Inquiry-based learning in the early years

  1. Stuart Smith 15 December 2015 at 11:06 am #

    Hello Rebecca, I think we know each other through the IB early years project with Cecile. Your research is very timely as we look at ways to understand what inquiry-based learning means and how it is linked to structured inquiry and child-initiated inquiry within the PYP framework. Thank you for starting this discussion.

    The 21st century needs to move away from prescriptive, outcome-based education models such as the EYFS and integrate all learning through project-based approach which sees the children and teachers learning together. The teacher is a participant-observer and a facilitator who inspires the children through the environment and his/her enthusiasm for learning. Allowing children to express their theories on how the world works through exploration and discussions is part of the PYP classroom.

    We also did an amazing unit on the concept of transportation with the 5/6 year-olds. We travelled by foot, bus, underground, streetcar, train and boat all in one day. It was a great experiential study trip. We also saw someone keeping track of the number of cars using a road. So we went out to the street near the school and counted the number of cars using and discussed why they were using it and where they were going. Whenever I use photographs and notes on the children’s learning I like to sit with the children afterwards and listen to their perspective on what was happening in the photograph and tell them what I saw. It is a wonderful experience and an example of the original meaning of assessment – to sit beside someone and discuss the learning. Then the inquiry continues when the child forms new theories. I am also exploring how to get the parents involved in this discussion.

  2. Diana 15 December 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    It´s a very good proposal and sharing our experiences is the way to make PYP happens , actually young learners are natural inquirers, so we must careful and don´t stop their curiosity. It´s kind of hard to work withthem in a second language, however with a adequate scaffolding they can go through the process in a natural way.

    Congratulations for your research and keep sharing your discoveries.

  3. Rebecca Smith 16 December 2015 at 10:11 am #

    Hi Stuart

    Thank you for your comment regarding the article. Yes, we have worked together via the online discussion that was set up last year. It is Cecile who I would like to thank as she is the one who encouraged me to go ahead and write about the research I did for my MEd.

    The 21st century is certainly a turning point when it comes to inquiry-based learning: beit child initiated and/or adult initiated! I thoroughly enjoy the PYP and the opportunities that arise from my role as the facilitator.

  4. Rebecca Smith 16 December 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Hi Diana

    Thank you so much for your comment regarding this article. I thoroughly enjoy the PYP but yes, trying to deliver an inquiry-based curriculum framework through an additional language can be a challenge in itself. However, young children are automatic inquirers so we need to facilitate their curiosity in every possible way!

  5. Simon Davidson 18 December 2015 at 11:08 am #

    Dear Stuart,

    Units that are structured around pre-determined activities, such as the transport trip you describe, risk having little student-initiated inquiry. It is unlikely that many children in the class were involved in the decisions and planning of the multiple transports you describe. Inquiry should arise from, and develop, the pursuit of inquiry from the full range of children.
    Often the language of the PYP can be used to ‘dress up’ a ’teach-centred’ topic in the language of inquiry, to mask a teacher-centred approach. It may be better to see units as an open set of inquiry opportunities under the organising theme.

    This is where an ‘outcome-based education’ actually helps avoid being prescriptive, because it helps staff understand better the learning and skill progressions as well as the ‘multiple languages’ of children. Adults working with children can then better see how they could develop and be further extended through providing a rich range of opportunities. Without understanding how children develop, there is a risk that assessment is a record of some things children have done and said, without uncovering their actual learning or considering challenge and support.


  6. Rahila Mukaddam 27 December 2015 at 8:38 am #

    Hi Rebecca,
    Thank you for sharing your research and Congratulations on your MEd.

    Personally I feel IB is the best. I have been with the PYP for six years now and every time I go through Making the PYP Happen, I learn something new. Articles like yours are an additional bonus.

    I agree with what Simon says about ‘dressing up the language’ to provide inquiry opportunities. Isn’t this why when we plan a unit, we don’t just have lines of inquiry but provocations as well. Also setting up your classroom like you do is very important for provoking the thoughts of the students as the classroom is definitely the ‘third’ teacher. Whether it is project-based or game-based, it is ultimately all inquiry as the children/students learn the concepts in various ways. In this regards, IB not just the PYP, is perfect as it employs all four Cs; creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

    Once again thank you for getting the conversation started here. I would love to read your dissertation if you don’t mind. Please connect with me on or @HilaaMukaddam on Twitter. I would love to learn more from you. Thanks.


  7. Rebecca Smith 2 January 2016 at 11:55 am #

    Hi Rahila

    Thank you for you compliments regarding my article. Yes, I thoroughly enjoy the PYP as if implemented using a wide range of open-ended resources, it really does promote the use of imagination, collaboration, communication etc. even with very young learners!!

  8. Bertha Agekum 5 January 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    Dear Smith,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. I’m always excited to read articles posted on this blog, because I’m sure to learn something new, and a better understanding of the PYP. Congratulations to you, and thank you all for sharing.

  9. Rebecca Smith 6 January 2016 at 3:28 pm #

    Thank you Bertha.

  10. marianne 9 January 2016 at 1:31 pm #

    Hi Rebecca. I enjoyed reading your post as I had been wondering how your research had gone. I was also on the Early years Basecamp group with you, Stuart (hi !) and others. It is good to see that so much has come from it. I hope its not too late to ‘wriggle into’ the conversation.

    You have produced such a lot that is valuable to us all at this point in early years in the PYP. I support wholeheartedly the emphasis you put on creating a stimulating environment for inquiry through carefully chosen materials and organised spaces and would say that this often poses a challenge for educators working in schools not necessarily prepared or supporting educators in this. The use of provocations both to ascertain prior learning and to stimulate curiosity and inquiry , as well as teacher led questions in this regard are fundamental. It would be great to see more of this happening. There is no doubt whatsoever that you have created interesting provocations and stimulated interesting teacher led inquiry.

    I do also have some questions and reflections after reading your article and the dialogue that has followed( because its interesting and makes me think..)

    My first reflection centres on the notion of inquiry based learning itself. As you point out many educational theorists, researchers and practitioners bring different cultural, scientific and practical meaning to the word. Giving young children the time, environment and relational input to be able to follow their curiosities and learn through play is not in itself a new or innovative concept. Robert Owen was supporting this approach to education in New Lanark, Scotland back in the early 1800 when he opened the world’s very first nursery school. I think that inquiry based learning becomes more provocative ( and interesting) when we start to be concerned not only with creating stimulating environments and supporting learning experiences but also with asking HOW children are learning and how they construct their learning process and theories of knowledge that they build. I would be really interested to hear more about HOW you supported their construction of knowledge made the children’s learning PROCESSES visible. It is positive that more and more educators are giving value to what children say and do but as educators we then need to understand how to read between the lines, reflect on that and analyse. I would agree with Simon that the risk here is that the educator’s role stops before that happens. . I have to be honest I have a bit of a ( personal :-)) problem with the word facilitator for precisely this reason. It is not only the educator’s job to provoke and facilitate learning and experience but also to consider, reflect, analyse, understand, give value to and take forward the learning. In this sense the educator is not only a facilitator but a RESEARCHER. It would be great if you could give some feedback on your experience of this. Until we fully take this on board we risk falling short in terms of early years education within the PYP. While formal assessment and summative assessments generally are obviously inappropriate at this stage in learning we must find ways of making visible and giving value not only to what they have done and said but to HOW they have constructed their learning. Early years education should not only be about creating experience but also about building knowledge and understanding and ensuring that we give value to it .

    I said I had a few reflections and questions but I’ll post this for now as it seems to be getting rather long.

    THanks again for sharing this Rebecca. It is valuable to all of us.


  11. Rebecca Smith 11 January 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    Hi Marianne

    Thank you for your feedback and questions in connection to the article. Yes, I do remember working with you on the IB online forum…I hope it starts up again soon!! I thoroughly enjoyed being part of it as it enabled me to reflect on my own practice as well as make connections to the research I was doing for my dissertation.

    I totally agree with your comment regarding ‘how’ children learn and the ‘processes’ that are used as if you’re not careful, the UOIs can end up being too adult led/directed if the resources/provocations used are not open-ended enough. As a teacher, I am always evaluating and reflecting on my practice and the learning outcomes as well as affiliating the children’s inquiries. As I teach 2 classes (AM & PM) I like to document the UOIs by creating a learning journey which is shared across both classes (and is as much for me as it is for the children).

  12. Rebecca Smith 11 January 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    Marianne…excuse the typo * facilitate is what I should have written!

  13. Marianne 20 January 2016 at 5:59 pm #

    Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for getting back to me. i’m interested in the idea of the learning journey and i can see how that can create visibility of learning for the children and yourself. I’d be interested to know who else is involved- who this is shared with. With something as subjective as visible representations and annotations we always need that other view point to create as clear an understanding as possible and of course to further discussion and inquiry..would you agree? Do you share this documentation with co teachers or assistants? do you collaborate on the interpretation and evaluation process? and … are you given much TIME to be able to do this? :-9 just interested in how other settings are dealing with this … within my setting we are aware of the need to ensure that children’s learning is valued and evaluated as objectively as possible in ways that put the emphasis on where the children are now in their lives as opposed to next steps and predetermined objectives..but its a challenge!

    Hi Simon… don’t know if you are still around…I enjoy reading trough the reflections on this blog and a couple of things you say in your comment make me reflect- the truth is I’m not sure I’ve understood and I’d be interested to hear a bit more.. I totally agree about the need for child initiated inquiry and feel we need to see an awful lot more of it- but the following phrase confused me:

    “It is unlikely that many children in the class were involved in the decisions and planning of the multiple transports you describe. Inquiry should arise from, and develop, the pursuit of inquiry from the full range of children.”

    have I understood you are saying that all children in the group should be involved in inquiries for it to be valuable to the class group? I am unsure how that could be possible given that we should encourage the children to follow their interests and curiosities.children will not all generally be interested in the same theme, provocation etc. This makes me reflect on my own classroom at present where one child has become fascinated about how his own name is written (4 years old) insisting that it is written with one letter missing .. this has taken him into an inquiry into where he can find his name, how it sounds and can be sounded out.. it has seen him go and compare to other class names where the same letters can be found and it has seen two other children become curious and become involved ..eventually in explaining to him why the letter is needed… this has been progressing over a couple of weeks and their are now 6 children involved but it is not something that has directly involved all the class. THe other children have been involved through exposure to the documentation which see then reflecting and posing ideas and comments on what is happening and what should be done. I don’t know that this is necessarily a good example of inquiry but it does reflect how children go through a natural process of inquiry within a natural co-constructivist environment. I feel that Early years learning should be all about LEARNING but it should be within an environment that reflects home and community as opposed to SCHOOL..

    I’m fairly new to the IB but believe strongly in inquiry based approaches to learning and I struggle personally with the idea of ‘outcome-based education’ within an inquiry approach. I don’t really understand how I can decide in advance what my outcome will be for the children before I have understood where their curiosities are taking them. My own(very personal -not speaking for IB here) fear is that the outcomes that adults choose for children almost always underestimate what our youngest children are capable of achieving both in terms of skills and and in terms of creativity and imagination.In my experience that have always astonished me in their wonderment for the surrounding world and shattered my expectations both of them and for them. It would be good though to have my ideas challenged:-)

    Just thought.


  14. Jenny 3 January 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    I am new to the IB and have just moved away from the British Curriculum. I work in Early Years (4-5 year olds). I have to admit that I love the inquiry approach but I do have a question: I am struggling to get children to be interested in certain units of inquiry: such as our sharing the planet one, where the focus is on plants. what if some children are not interested in that and want to find out about dinosaurs? or cars? or superheroes? I have always followed the children’s interests, but am struggling to when I have to follow the units of inquiry. How do you do it? TIA

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