News & Events

The Spirit of Inquiry at Catlin Gabel, Pt. 2
Posted 03/16/2019 04:00PM



Generating original ideas that make an impact

Notes on the spirit of inquiry in education


Part two of a two-part series  

Read part one


by Steve Pape

Catlin Gabel Interim Head of Middle School

March 8, 2019


At Catlin Gabel Middle School, our commitment to the spirit of inquiry means that we encourage students to own their learning, ask their own questions, and seek their own answers. We do this because we recognize that students living in a changing world will have the greatest potential for making a positive impact if they are self-motivated, independent, adaptive, and flexible learners. For this reason, our curriculum goes beyond instruction in rote knowledge and drilling in basic skills. It provides students with opportunities to tap into their curiosity and to generate their own original ideas for making a positive impact. Through this approach, we foster in students an instinct for asking questions and increased confidence in their own potential for answering them, which will serve them well regardless of what their futures hold. 

Students at Catlin Gabel Middle School get a chance to flex their inquisitive muscles both inside and outside of class. For one example, in 8th grade science students are currently studying sustainability through the broad question, “What opportunities are there for Catlin Gabel to more fully live up to its commitment to sustainability?” This unit focuses on the science content and skills around energy, pollution, and climate change. It also asks students to apply their learning to their daily lives by investigating specific opportunities on campus to make a positive impact. Some students are focused on reducing use of plastics. Some are proposing improvements to our food waste stream. Others are looking for opportunities to refine our approach to conserving electricity. By taking their direction in these applications, we are including their voice. This approach opens the door to their intrinsic motivation and offers them a chance to make their own meaning out of the academic concepts they are studying.

Our approach to experiential learning emphasizes a similar approach to inquiry. One of the STEP projects this year invited inquiry through a student-centered focus on improving accessibility of our campus. Inspired by adult-led opportunities to learn more about universal design (watching a video, meeting with people of diverse abilities, visiting facilities built according to universal design principles) students generated their own questions about Catlin Gabel’s potential for increasing its accessibility. They asked:

  • How can we make our campus more inclusive through art work?
  • How much does it cost to make existing buildings more accessible?
  • What opportunities do we have for improving accessibility through the 30 year plan?

With teacher coaching and guidance, students were able to design opportunities to find out more and propose improvements. They presented these to peers, teachers, and the board in February and early March. By framing their own investigations, students understood their projects as meaningful and important. By answering their own questions, they came to see themselves as active problem solvers already contributing positive impact in their community.

The impact of this approach on the students themselves is that they come to understand their education as something they are actively creating, rather than something that is happening to them. They see themselves as active agents today, rather than students biding their time until they enter the “real world” upon graduating. Most importantly, our students come to understand that recognizing and exploring what they don’t know is often more powerful than focusing on what they do know. With this realization students embrace the spirit of inquiry and, in the process, become more self-aware and empowered to learn whether they are in a classroom with a teacher, in conversations with friends, lost in their own thoughts, or out and about in the world making a difference.

An independent preschool through 12th grade day school in Portland, Oregon
8825 SW Barnes Road,
Portland, Oregon 97225 |
503-297-1894 |

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