I recently had the good fortune to view an early screening of the film Good Morning Mission Hill and to hear the director, Amy Valens, talk about the Mission Hill School and her experience of filming in their classrooms. Afterwards, I had a discussion with an administrator of a school in Brooklyn, New York where I am currently doing professional development with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. I have been trying to convince the early childhood staff that the children will learn more and be much happier if the teachers can embrace a culture of inquiry. Except for a few classes, it has been an uphill battle. Sometime, midway through our discussion, this lovely young administrator looked at me with frustration and said, “What do you actually mean when you refer to an inquiry-based classroom?”
We definitely had a failure to communicate. This confusion probably was due to my misguided assumption that I was laying down a strong foundation of understanding before encouraging teachers to make physical and instructional changes. I returned home perplexed and obsessed with thinking about this conversation. It kept me up for most of that night.
The next morning I sat at my computer and began to think about the concept of describing an inquiry-based classroom some more. I created an outline of what I might expect from a classroom where inquiry, exploration and play would intrinsically be the foundation for an early childhood curriculum. With the help of my two wise friends, Julie Diamond and Shelley Grant, I came up with a few bullet points that outlined some understandings that I believe a teacher should have in order to create an inquiry based classroom.
This outline is by no means complete. It’s a work that is very much “in progress.” I am hoping that my blog readers will comment and add suggestions for revising this list. I welcome your thoughts! In this time of standardized testing, evaluations, and finger pointing we need to redirect and bring the attention back to what children, teachers and schools REALLY need.
Some Characteristics of an Inquiry-Based Classroom
The teacher has an understanding that the child comes to school as a fully formed person, not as an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
∗ This implies respect for who the child is and for all the knowledge that the child brings to school from his/her background.
∗ The teacher will develop a curriculum that begins with what the children already know and builds on the child’s sense of wondering.
The teacher understands that as an educator of young children, it is important to be flexible and that the daily schedule is conducive to the age of the children being taught,
∗ Young children need large blocks of time for exploring, building, pretending, etc.
∗ Children shouldn’t be rushed from one activity to another.
∗ Inquiry and Choice time (or whatever you are calling the work/play time) should be at the heart of your program, particularly for pre-k, and kindergarten. Because of that, it needs to be scheduled early in the day.
∗ In the first and second grade too, Inquiry and Choice Time shouldn’t be left for the end of the day because children will be tired from a day of academics and, therefore, will most likely not get the most out of this rich part of your program.
The teacher understands that the child’s curiosity should be scaffolded and nurtured throughout the day.∗ There are opportunities for questioning and explorations all day, throughout the curriculum.
∗ As an example, if the teacher plans to teach the spelling of the sight word “it,” the children might be asked what they notice about the word, what will help them to remember it, etc. Perhaps one child might say, ”It starts with the same letter that Inge’s name starts with only it’s the small “i. ” The teacher acknowledges that as a valid strategy for remembering the word. Another child might add that “it” is a small word because it only has two letters.
∗ Rather than beginning with drilling the spelling of a new word, the children are encouraged to bring to the lesson what they already know and to share it with the class.
∗ Teachers are taking notes on observations throughout the day. These notes are reflected after the school day and used to plan new lessons and centers based on this valuable information.
The teacher understands that it’s important to be teaching the children not the subjects. There are many opportunities for children to engage in self-initiated experiences and for children to feel encouraged to innovate on an idea or project
∗ There should be an area in the room where children can keep on-going projects, for example an art project or a Lego construction.
∗ Children should be encouraged to return to a center another day to continue work on a project.
∗ The block center should be away from traffic and should be large enough for a group of children to comfortably work there together.
∗ The teacher makes sure that there are appropriate tools, materials, books and blank paper (even blank booklets) in each center.
∗ It should be clear where materials belong. Labels with drawings or photos can be taped on shelves to show children where to get and return materials.
Failure should be seen as a part of learning and as an opportunity to take a risk.
∗ If a child is having a behavior problem, the teacher should speak privately with the child. Public behavior charts are basically shaming charts. They are up with the expectation that someone will “be bad.” Children who don’t get their name moved to a “red light” are anxious about being good. Children who have difficulty with self-control become known as the naughty children. There’s basically nothing positive that comes of these charts (they might keep a class in check on the short term but they do so much damage and little teaching in the long term.) As Alfie Kohn writes, “ Reward charts — with or without punishments — shouldn’t be used because children aren’t pets to be trained. Rewards, like punishments, are basically ways of doing things TO people (to make them obey), whereas the only way to help kids grow into decent, responsible, compassionate people is to work WITH them (to solve problems together).”
∗ It’s much more productive to concentrate on “acts of kindness” where a child observe a classmate performing an act of kindness, shares this with the class and it gets posted on the bulletin board. This encourages empathy and community.
The children should feel part of a community and a member of a joyful class. The children should feel a sense of shared ownership of the classroom.
∗ Time is set aside for class meetings where children share their observations, questions, and the work that they have completed or works in progress.
∗ These meetings are opportunities for children to take part in meaningful dialogues.
∗ The teacher enters into the conversation both as a facilitator and as a model.
∗ The teacher never refers to himself/herself in the third person when speaking to a child or to the group. We are, as teachers, modeling social behavior. I don’t think that anyone would sit with a group of friends and say, “Mrs. Dinnerstein enjoyed that book.” Bring back the “I to class conversations!”
∗ The children and teacher decorate the room with the children’s work and not with commercial charts, borders and other materials that can better be produced in the classroom. Someone sitting in a factory in, say, Michigan, does not know the children in your class.
∗ It’s much more effective to have children and teachers collectively come up with class rules.
∗ Children can create number and color charts if it appropriately comes up in class discussions.
∗ Having their own work decorating the room, such as their own alphabet chart hanging across the front of the room, gives the children pride in their work and in their classroom.
∗ The room is organized into clear areas. (In my classroom, I integrated tables into each center, giving the classroom the look of a laboratory for learning and experimenting rather than having tables clustered together.)
∗ Children understand how to use the materials in each area because the teacher has explicitly taught how materials are cared for and where they are stored. The teacher also teaches the routines for going to centers or activities, and cleaning up when the period is ended.