Why Inquiry-Based Learning?

“When your child asks, ‘Why is there a moon?’ do not reply with a scientific answer. Ask him, ‘What do you think?’ He will understand that you are telling him, ‘you have your ideas and mind and your own interpretation, and your ideas are important to me.’ Then you and he can look for the answers, sharing the wonder, curiosity, pain–everything. It is not the answers that are important; it is the process–that you and he search together.” Carlina Rinaldi, Director of the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy

Why Do We Support Inquiry-Based Learning?

This is the heart of inquiry-based learning: learning that comes from real curiosity and a desire to uncover meaning and knowledge. Learning that is self-driven so that it impacts our perspective and our way of understanding the world.

Inquiry-based, or emergent, learning is dependent on the children. It requires that the adult listen intently, with ears and eyes, to discover what knowledge the child is pursuing and then set up investigations and experiences that provide children with the means to test their own theories and ideas.

It is vital that those experiences go beyond researching books and the internet to find answers. Those resources should be used minimally, if at all, in this context. Providing factual answers before children have had a chance to form and test their own ideas shortcuts important cognitive growth and flexibility. Yes, it’s tempting to be sure our children have the “right” information, but (as I’ve often said to worried parents) it’s not like they will graduate high school convinced that worms live in houses like ours or that the sun moves around the earth.

Meaningful, Purposeful, and Authentic

So what does it mean to provide “meaningful, purposeful play” and “authentic, real-life experiences?”

It means that we adults consciously provide opportunities for exploration and play that is born from the child’s own curiosities and interests. It is allowing children to do real problem-solving without providing prepackaged solutions or expectations. It is being open to the unexpected discoveries that young children make while pursuing their own learning. Meaningful, purposeful play is consuming and engaging. Most of all, it is intrinsically motivated.

It is often inspired by a driving question or line of inquiry.

It’s the difference between “Train Week” and a child or children hearing a train and wondering spontaneously about the sounds they hear. It’s then responding to that natural line of inquiry. It’s facilitating children’s pursuit of their own answers to “why do trains make that chug-chug noise?” through encounters with a real train (if possible) and then supporting children as they test their own theories. Where is the sound coming from? What parts of the train make sound, and what are those sounds?

Powerful and Confident

While reading books, doing web searches, looking at images, and creating train crafts may be fun and provide some factual information, those types of experiences are too far removed from the child’s real world to be significant and authentic. Those resources are certainly valuable, but they should be used only after children have formed their own hypotheses. We want children to develop as powerful and confident problem-solvers, theorists, scientists, artists, and creative thinkers.

Curiosity, discovery, and creation are potent catalysts for deep experiential learning. Why wouldn’t we want to draw on them?

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, says, “What we teach children to love and desire will always outweigh what we make them learn.”

Let’s teach children to love to learn. Let’s teach them to want to learn and how to learn. Let’s not “make” them learn.

Besides, wouldn’t you rather visit a train yard that watch a video of trains?

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