Inquiry learning is deep learning

Early years education at Scotch Oakburn College in Launceston, Tasmania, is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Education Project and strongly fosters inquiry learning in its educational approach.

We share a strong belief that children are intelligent, creative and capable, with rich potential and curiosities. The image of the young child as capable of thinking and reflecting, questioning and finding answers lies at the heart of our practice. It influences our thinking, planning, interactions and the learning experiences we provide and inspires us to facilitate inquiry learning.

We do not see children as ‘empty vessels to be filled’. We respect and celebrate children’s prior knowledge by finding out what they do know and understand and what they can already do. Each child’s learning is personalised, in that their starting points will be different and their learning journeys unique, with no limit where each journey ends.

Because we believe children are born creative, we foster creativity through a wide range of materials and ‘languages’. Loris Malaguzzi wrote of ‘… a hundred languages … a hundred thoughts … a hundred worlds to invent, a hundred worlds to dream …’ (REAIE, 2011).

Our belief in the importance of working with children’s preferred ‘languages’ of communication and expression compels us to allow for the growth of particular talents, skills and passions. It fosters creative thinking and the opportunity to represent and communicate discoveries and understanding in a variety of personal ways. Inquiry learning provides scope for the child to imagine and dream, to invent and create and to express their discoveries in unique ways, operating in harmony with our invitation for children to speak ‘the hundred languages’. Whether communicating through painting or drawing, music or dance, construction or sculpture, writing or speaking, information and communication technologies (ICTs) or weaving, printmaking or collage, children are invited to represent their understandings and make their thinking visible for others to share.

Because we believe children are capable, we don’t ‘dumb down’ the way we speak, what we speak about or the experiences we provide. Learning is authentic, with real experiences using real materials for real purposes. Inquiry learning acknowledges that children are capable of thinking, of making decisions, of having a say in the direction of their learning pathway and of being responsible for their learning.

Because we believe children have unlimited potential, we use ‘provocations’ and open-ended challenges and questions to stimulate thinking, creativity and inquiry and we are continually astounded by what we hear and see. Inquiry learning provides opportunities for children and educators to discover and learn together, to be inspired and share a passion for learning.

Because we believe children are naturally inquisitive, we find out what arouses their curiosity and facilitate investigations that stimulate thinking and exploration in that area. Inquiry learning enables children to be the authors of questions, the builders of theories and the constructors of their own knowledge. Inquiry learning also stimulates further questions and investigation and develops a positive attitude towards lifelong learning.

Curiosities supported by positive relationships foster natural inquiry and enhance personalised learning.

Inquiry learning:

  • enhances a child’s sense of identity, enabling the passion a child has, that unique interest, strength or talent, that helps define who they are, to become part of their learning, leading their thinking, investigation and creativity
  • enables children to experience a sense of belonging, sharing a common interest, collaborating with reciprocal rights and responsibilities to learn through research and investigation
  • contributes to wellbeing, as the inquiry experiences contribute to engagement, motivation, positive dispositions for learning and creative thinking
  • encourages children to resource their own learning, providing the opportunity to connect with people, places, technologies and materials as children transfer and adapt prior knowledge to new understandings
  • stimulates the effective use of ICTs, as children access information, investigate and express their ideas using a range of ‘languages’ to represent their thinking and understanding.

An inquiry may start from a personal interest or wondering, or it may spontaneously arise from an observation made, a comment heard or a question posed by an adult or a peer. Some inquiries may be short in duration and not continue into the following days or weeks. Others, however, may evolve and grow to become ongoing investigations that stimulate deeper levels of thinking and understanding.

When our principal said, ‘Has anyone noticed the nest in the oak tree?’ little did he realise what an amazing journey of inquiry would unfold.

Children’s curiosities led them to ask and
find out:

  • How does a bird make its nest?
  • What materials are used in the nest?
  • Who lives in a nest?
  • Why is a nest round?
  • Do all birds make their own nests?
  • Is a bower a nest?
  • How could we make a nest big enough for five children?

The nest-building inquiry that followed provided opportunities for critical thinking, problem solving and creativity:

  • How thick did the clay need to be to ensure the nest was strong and didn’t break during the firing process?
  • How big should the nest be?
  • How could the sides of the nest be strengthened when they were too floppy?
  • How could the nest be made comfortable to use as a ‘reading nest’?

Links were made to the children’s imaginative and real worlds through picture books and interacting with the environment. Children used pen, clay, ICTs, written and visual text, wire, fabric and natural materials to research, represent and communicate their discoveries.

Some inquiries may involve the entire learning community, perhaps instigated by the educator but shaped by the children; others may involve a group of children who share a similar interest; while some may involve just one child, working independently with support.

A dead bee brought to school by a child, followed days later by photos of a hive being built under another child’s grandma’s barbecue was the provocation for an extended inquiry into bees, hives, how long bees live for and how honey gets to the supermarket. In addition to morning meetings, documentation of thinking, research and excursions, some children chose ‘the language of sculpture’ to create bees using wire and paper and others contributed to the construction of a hive for the bees to live and work in.

Inquiry learning can take many different forms but its essence remains the same. At Scotch Oakburn College a culture of thinking, questioning, finding out, using all our senses, making discoveries, expressing our thoughts, creating, representing our understandings and communicating meaning using many ‘languages’ is what we strive to achieve and inquiry learning is our road map for this journey.

Bronwyn Bushby
Early Primary Co-ordinator
Scotch Oakburn College

Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange (REAIE) (2011. The Challenge: Re search for a new culture of childhood 15 (2).

Every Child magazine – vol. 18 no. 2, 2012.

Don’t forget, Every Child is tax deductible for early childhood professionals

You can purchase ‘Supporting Child-led Inquiry’  ECA Learning Hub module here.