Authentic Exploration and Original Thinking

Notes on the spirit of inquiry in education

By Aline Garcia-Rubio ’93, Head of Upper School

In teaching through inquiry, teachers recognize our students’ desire to engage in a life of rich thinking and applied understanding. They thus design and refine courses that aim to build skills and knowledge while inspiring students’ curiosity and enjoyment of learning.

An inquiry based pedagogy is largely visible in the daily work of students in the classroom and it can be seen in curriculum design. In Modern World (our tenth-grade social studies course), teachers pose questions that guide students in the construction of understanding: “Consider the ways in which the major developments of the 19th century—industrialization, nationalism, and imperialism—continue to shape the course of events in the 20th century.” “Explore how two crossroads countries—China and Iraq—serve as microcosms of the broader trends in 20th century Europe.” “Inquire about the processes that nations used to balance the arrival of modernity with their own traditions.”

As the course progresses, teachers scaffold inquiries that guide students in finding answers to those larger questions. In their reading of the post-WWII period, they will explore the differences in ideology between Russia and America/Britain; they will ask the extent to which each superpower carries blame for the start of the Cold War. In their work through the Treaty of Versailles, they investigate the essential problems resulting from the treaty, in particular, how life became more precarious for new “minority” groups. And through their learning of Poland’s role in the Holocaust, students are prompted to understand their metacognitive processes: “How do you, as a Catlin Gabel learner, process such tragic, horrific events?” Students are shown a path to answer big questions through a series of focused inquiries. At the end of that course, they have built the skills and confidence to pursue their own questions.

Sometimes courses are designed, like Modern World, to cause a specific type of student questioning. Other times, students are self-directed through curiosity-inspired opportunities to pursue authentic learning. In the Modern Middle East, students select an investigation project. They are given 40+ questions to consider though they can choose their own inquiry. Some examples include:

  • What is your position on the divestment from Israel (BDS) campaign?
  • Should the US support the Egyptian government?
  • What are Turkish goals in the Middle East?
  • What Westerners have traveled to fight with ISIS, and why?
  • How have Palestinian refugees been treated in Arab countries?
  • What aspects of Islam would you like to further study?
  • Is the Iranian nuclear deal a good deal for Americans, or is it appeasement?
  • Did Obama blow it by not getting more deeply involved in Syria earlier on?
  • Are women making meaningful progress in Saudi Arabia?
  • Is there a clear Trump policy in the Middle East? If so, what is it?

Whether students are entirely self-directed or follow an path of inquiry laid out by their teachers, in every discipline, faculty make sure that students practice skills through iteration: they investigate, write, explain, find evidence, consider an opposing point of view, scrutinize the validity of claims, draw conclusions.

Inquiry-based learning is creative and invites original thinking. Once students have chosen two texts from a list* created by their teacher in the Making Home: Stories of Identity and Place course, they will lead a small group discussion followed by a creative response that will be utilized in a culminating panel. The assignment prompts students to choose a form they particularly enjoy and offers options that “go beyond the page,” for example a podcast, screencast, a comic book, spoken word poem, music video, or visual art project.

In Monstrous Transformations, the class is framed by its goal: to explore what it means to be human, and what it means to be “civilized.” Once students have examined works by Ovid, Chesnutt, and Marie de France focusing on the human body dramatized on gender, patriarchy, and feudal hierarchy, they create an original transformative story/drama/graphic tale that makes an allusion to one of the texts read in the term; they adapt themes they have discussed in the course, and perhaps the style of a work. They also write a metacritical process describing their inspiration, struggles, and successes. Inquiry-based learning is thus generative and includes original thinking.

Sometimes, a course allows for fully student-directed processes that further the growth of the learner. In Crime and Punishment, each student designs an individual assessment plan that defines a significant portion of their final grade. Their choice is guided by questions that cause them to identify a learning focus and the reasoning behind choosing it along with the specific skills that a student will hope to develop. Before their plan is approved, students identify their particular targets and how their teacher will assess their success. Students are explicitly told that they should aim “to make this class useful in your personal, intellectual, and academic development.”

Throughout the Upper School, skills and concepts carry over between one unit and the next, between one term and the next, between one course and the next, offering some flexibility on what students choose to work on individually and collaboratively. Whether learners ask questions about fracking, the chemistry of ceramics glazes, plate tectonics, probability modeling, or who can be cast for a role of a character from a specific ethnicity, our students are engaged in authentic exploration in their daily work, in and outside of the classroom. We are proud to be a progressive school that supports the natural spirit of inquiry that lives well in our school!

*Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray; A Force for Change: Beatrice Morrow Cannady and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Oregon by Kimberley Mangun; Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward; Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes, and The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.