My son was born two weeks ago and his days are full of firsts: first walk outside, first bath, first time being licked by our dog. As his eyes open more and more, I can see his little brain full of curiosity. Sometimes he looks intently at something, trying to figure it out, while other times his eyes dash around the room as if they’re trying to keep up with the endless stimuli.
My son’s wide-eyed wonder about the world (well, in the two hours a day when his eyes are actually open) got me thinking about learning through inquiry. As kids get older, we want them to continue to approach the world with a sense of newness. By investigating the world around them, we can engage kids in a cycle of inquiry that will get them excited about learning.
So what exactly is inquiry? It’s an approach that engages kids in hands-on learning, leading to deep understanding. Instead of teaching at kids, we engage them by asking and answering their own questions. Let’s start by comparing and contrasting teaching through inquiry with “traditional” teaching:
- Students ask questions, teacher answers
- Subjects are taught in isolation
- Failure is thought of as something to avoid
Teaching Through Inquiry
- Students ask questions & investigate answers
- Subjects are taught in real-world contexts and students are encouraged to make connections
- Failure is seen as an opportunity for learning
Following these steps can help kids of all ages harness their interests and become self-directed, joyful learners:
The first step to engaging kids in learning is to encourage them to look at the world with curiosity. Follow your child’s interests. If your daughter is interested in skateboarding and you try to teach her about the Bill of Rights, there may be a disconnect. Instead, think about how you can use your daughter’s love of skateboarding to teach about local skateboarding laws, then make connections to federal laws and the Bill of Rights. Notice what your child is interested in, centering learning around those interests whenever possible.
Quick Tip: Model how to follow your own interests by talking about your own learning. What are you curious about? How are you harnessing that curiosity to learn more about your interests?
After embracing your children’s interests, you can then encourage them to ask questions about what they see. My three-year-old is a master of asking me questions. “Where did the sun go?” she asks when clouds pass over the sun. Instead of automatically answering her question, I’ve been directing the questions back to her. “What do you think?” I’ll ask.
Quick Tip: When looking at something new, have your child participate in a “See/Think/Wonder” thinking routine. Begin by asking your child what to describe what she sees and then what she thinks about what she sees. Finally, ask your child to wonder about what she sees, making a list of questions that she can then try to find answers to.
This is where the power lies. By teaching kids that they have the ability to investigate their own questions, we give them permission to make learning their own. This is the difference between saying “Today we’re going to learn about bugs” and “I see you’re really interested in that ladybug. What do you wonder about the ladybug? How can we answer your questions?”
Investigating is about both process and content. When you ask your kids to find the answers to their questions, you’re encouraging them to both gain content knowledge and figure out how to gain that knowledge. Through investigating kids learn how to consult books, experts, conduct experiments, etc.
Quick Tip: Help your kids to make an “investigation plan” by spelling out exactly how they will answer their questions. Identify possible sources of information and help your child evaluate the best places to go to find the knowledge they hope to gain.
Reflect & Adjust
Learning becomes more meaningful and long lasting when we are given time to reflect. After your child completes a cycle of inquiry, have her think about what worked/didn’t work and make plans for what could be done differently next time. Kids do this naturally. My infant son is all about drinking milk. He makes sure that we know when he’s hungry by making grunting noises, then wiggling his arms and legs, then crying. When one tactic doesn’t work, he tries something else. He repeats this process again and again until he gets what he needs.
If my son was older, I’d ask him to reflect on his attempts to answer his question (“How can I get milk?”). We could evaluate which tactic was the most effective and make a plan for how to use his findings in the future.
Quick Tip: Make sure to reflect on both what worked well and what didn’t work. Frame failure as an opportunity for learning. When things don’t work out, celebrate what your child has learned as a result.
Approaching learning with curiosity has big benefits. As this article summarizes, curiosity prepares the brain for learning and makes subsequent learning more rewarding. Kids naturally see the world with curiosity– our job is to make sure that sense of wide-eyed wonder never goes away.