Ask An Academy Expert: Alison Vliet

Inquiry-Based Learning

Buzzwords abound in education, but “inquiry-based learning” is much more than a new term. It is a paradigm-shifting pedagogical approach that places the student front and center as an active participant in the learning process, versus being a passive recipient of information. The key is to spark student interest when introducing a new topic, thereby increasing engagement, deepening understanding, and enhancing retention. 

Inquiry-based learning is more of a philosophy or approach than a specific program. While there is a lot of flexibility, there is a general structure it follows. First is a period of orientation. This is where the teacher introduces a new topic or concept to students using research, direct instruction, and hands-on activities. Next is questioning. During this phase, students develop questions about the topic, making predictions and hypotheses along the way. After questioning comes investigating, where students, with the teacher as a guide, take the initiative to research, test their hypotheses and predictions, and seek out the answers to their questions. Finally comes the concluding and discussing phase. During this final step, students analyze and reflect on all the information they have collected and shift to the role of teacher as they present their findings to a variety of audiences. 

There are many benefits to students from inquiry-based learning. It provides more responsibility for them, making them more invested in their learning. Plus, it is engaging and allows students to develop a deeper mastery of skills and concepts. Additionally, it fosters greater collaboration and community among them, as they work in small, fluid groups to accomplish goals. 

Likewise, there are positives for teachers using inquiry-based learning. They are no longer the givers of all knowledge, lecturing to a whole classroom from the front of the room. Instead, they are able to work as informed guides alongside students, individually and in small groups, gaining ample and rich opportunities to observe students as they work together to solve real world problems.

In Cape Fear Academy’s Lower School, inquiry-based learning lives and breathes in each of our classrooms everyday. With our littlest students in LE1, there is no limit to the questions they choose to investigate that help them deepen their understanding of the world around them. What does this plant need to grow? How can we build a taller tower without it falling over? How can you tell how someone else is feeling? What happens when we mix red and blue paint together? 

As students progress through Lower School, the inquisitiveness becomes more focused. First grade does a long-term ocean study that changes from year-to-year based on the questions our students ask. How can we take care of the animals in the ocean? What can we do to keep our oceans clean?  How do our actions impact the ocean community? The ocean study culminates with first graders shifting into the role of teacher, as they share their findings with one another, their Lower School peers, and parents. 

Before leaving Lower School, fifth graders embark on a multifaceted inquiry-based learning project, BizWorld. For this endeavor, students form small groups, identify a problem in their community, create a solution, bring their solution to fruition, then educate and sell it to the public before donating all of their profits to a local charity in the community. 

Inquiry-based learning isn’t reserved only for the classroom teachers here in Lower School. Our specialists also utilize it in their focus areas as well. In Future Minds, students are taught programming software and then challenged to design their own games. They also learn how to use design tools in the Innovation Lab to create posters, 3-D models, and other products of their choosing. During Guidance, our counselors use role playing and social-emotional scenarios to explore topics such as friendships, big emotions, and conflict resolution.

When used alongside other sound pedagogy, inquiry-based learning enhances our already strong curriculum in Lower School by providing opportunities for student-driven, highly engaging, real-world learning experiences.

-Alison Vliet, CFA Dean of Lower School Curriculum & 2nd Grade Teacher