A parent’s experience of inquiry based learning

Last summer, our team spent a few weeks in San Francisco (and Chicago), catching up with our Chief Tinkerer (GP) as well as learning from other interesting schools and organisations in the field of education.

One of the schools that we got to know of (through GP), is the New School San Francisco. GP shared with us his perspectives as a parent (since both of his kids go to the New School), and we were rather inspired by what he shared about the school’s teaching philosophy and approaches.

We figured our Saturday Kids community here might be interested as well and hence invited GP to write a guest post for us. Read on to find out more.



I’m a parent of two boys, both attending the New School of San Francisco, a newly established public charter school. What first attracted my wife and I to the school was their embrace of inquiry based learning as a core of their instructional philosophy. We got to know the founding team as they prepared to open the school, and formed part of their first class. This article discusses some of the things we’ve observed about the program, and I hope it’s useful to other parents / educators who are considering this as an educational approach.

. . .

What is inquiry based learning?

In a nutshell, inquiry based learning is a way of teaching, that is focused on creating learning skills, rather than simply transferring information. Though the core principles have been discussed for almost 100 years, it has been codified in its current form since the 1970s. Originally developed to support science education, it is now being used to support multiple subject areas.

Education is changing

A great deal of the interest in inquiry based learning is driven by the fact that the world our children are growing up in is changing, and that existing educational philosophies don’t seem to be preparing them for this new world.

It is expected that careers and employment may change over the course of a lifetime, and hence the ability to adapt and learn in new circumstances will be very valuable.

Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that inquiry based approaches may be better at developing a fundamental understanding of some subject areas, such as science.


Process: Inquiry-based learning in practice

Inquiry based learning at the New School is used within various contexts, but the most important is the “Arc”, a process which takes place over the course of a trimester. Students will generally complete 3 arcs over the course of the year. Inquiry is given dedicated time, but other subjects will also reference the inquiry arc.

Inquiry based learning arc

The arc starts by exploring questions that students have about the world around them. In theory, this is used to select an inquiry topic. In practice, teachers propose subjects from a smaller set. This is because a “pure” inquiry approach could take a long time, and requires considerable work by teachers to prepare, since they can’t prepare detailed curriculum without knowing the subject.

Research topic
Good topics for inquiry are relevant to student’s lives, and able to encompass multiple subject areas. For example, some recent inquiry subjects we’ve covered at the New School include:

  • Animal locomotion
  • How are organizations governed (rules & laws)
  • Weather cycles in nature
  • How food is made

A key part of the inquiry arc is getting students to present their work. This is treated as a celebration, an Expo Night where students show off their work to the community. It is important that students get used to the idea of being able to apply and explain their work, since this is, in itself, a valuable skill.

After completing the arc, it is typical to reflect on what worked well and what didn’t. This process of reflection involves the students, and is taken into account in the teacher’s own review and planning process for subsequent arcs.


Things to consider

1) Choice of topics

The choice of topics for an inquiry arc is key: it is important for students to be excited about it, and achieve the right balance between teacher direction and student involvement. At the New School, for the younger grades, arc topics are chosen by the teachers, but as more senior grades are added, there will be more student involvement.

All the arcs for a given class year share an overall theme: for example, all 3 of the kinder arcs are about community, and the first grade arcs are all about “changes over time”.

However, even though the overall theme of the arc will be set by the teacher, they can evolve in different ways. For example, two kindergarten sections ended up taking the same topic in very different directions. They were both working on the arc topic “how does weather affect the community”.

One section became very interested in the water (rain) cycle, and at the same time, very concerned about the welfare of the homeless people they saw on their way to the park every day. In order to bring these themes together, the kids decided to record videos of themselves as meteorologists discussing the weather cycle, made DVDs, sold them (mostly to family) and contributed the money to organizations that work with the homeless.

The other section was very interested in extreme weather events, and also the story of the “3 Little Pigs”. For their expo, they combined both of their interests by designing and presenting pig houses designed to resist extreme weather (instead of wolves).


2) Role of the teacher

It is impossible to roll out an inquiry based learning program without making other changes. Traditional educational approaches make implicit assumptions about the role of the teacher and the source of their authority. These change quite a lot: the teacher shifts from being the sole source of truth, to being more of a learning coach. The teacher may not have all the answers at the outset, and works collaboratively with the students in planning the arc.

This change in teacher roles has a couple of implications:

  • First, the relationship between teacher and students is less hierarchical. I have noticed at the New School that students are very comfortable engaging in substantive conversations with teachers on many subjects, and the relationship feels collegial.
  • Second, given this change in role, it is necessary to rely on different approaches to maintain order and discipline. At the New School, this is not done through threats of punishment and promises of rewards, but rather by a constant reinforcement of the school values. Acting in accordance with the school values is acknowledged with “glow” cards that kids appreciate, whereas actions in contradiction to values are met with a “grow” card, an opportunity to reflect on consequences and to modify behavior.

These principles can be applied in other situations, but are essential for inquiry based learning to work.


3) Balancing with traditional instruction (and practice)

A challenge with inquiry based learning is how to incorporate subjects where a certain amount of practice and memorization is important. For example, basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills require a degree of repetitive practice to become automatic.

I’ve noticed that programs that started out as 100% inquiry, such as Brightworks, have gradually incorporated more traditional approaches in some subject areas. The inquiry arc will still apply to these subjects, but time is spent reinforcing these skills.

The New School has taken a hybrid approach since the beginning, and literacy/numeracy are given dedicated time and a different approach.


4) Inquiry at home

The New School does not issue traditional homework, however students are given assignments to complete over the course of the week. This helps keep parents informed and engaged with the current subjects their children and working on. In addition, assignments related to the inquiry arc allow students to set up some self-directed activities, that can involve their families.

. . . 

Over the past 4 years, we’ve watched how the school has grown, and experienced first hand what it means to our children’s growth and education. I hope this article helps to provide some insights into this program, and that it was a useful read for you.


What do you think? If this resonates with you, and if you have any comments or questions to share with us or GP, we’d love to hear from you! Let’s connect over email, here.

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