Inquiry-Based Learning in Pre-School Builds Foundation for Success in Primary and Secondary Grades

Inquiry-Based Learning in Pre-School Builds Foundation for Success in Primary and Secondary Grades

The much-maligned Common Core State Standards are designed to prepare students to be “college and career ready” by emphasizing inquiry-based learning and critical thinking. Most experienced educators agree that this approach engages students in powerful ways that helps them grab onto their own learning and move it to higher levels.

As a veteran teacher of preschool children with developmental delays, I quietly struggled with this concept and its relevancy to my work. After all, my typical class consists of three-year-olds who have just begun to talk and are learning to get along with other children. What can I do to help get them on a path toward post-high school goals?

Through my 20 years in the preschool classroom, I’ve made four global observations about the disconnect between approaches to teaching in preschool as compared to teaching in the primary grades. I outline those observations based on what we know about early learning, what begins to happen once children enter kindergarten, and what the result is for many children for whom school has become a place where they struggle, are discouraged, or even feel like failures.

  1. We know that open-ended, hands-on meaningful experiences within authentic contexts provide optimal opportunities for young children to develop intellectual capacity. Yet we still fill up their days with academic drills in which they are expected to learn letter names and sounds, numeral names, and other content that is presented without any relevant context. Then we wonder why many young children, especially boys, and particularly boys of color, struggle to learn. The result is that too many children in the primary grades are identified as having special needs simply because they need a different approach to learning.
  2. Young children rely on opportunities to build social and problem solving skills within engaging learning contexts. Yet, we still spend most of our time teaching through large group instruction with little time for children to interact with peers and practice problem-solving strategies. Then we wonder why so many children have trouble in social settings or feel unsuccessful in getting along with other children. The result is that by the time they reach third grade, many of our struggling learners don’t have significant friendships – they dislike school, the teacher and other kids because they feel so isolated and unsuccessful.
  3. We know that young children are able to respond to divergent questions and learning opportunities that allow them to find a variety of solutions to a problem. Yet, many teachers still present many learning activities within a context of a single, correct answer, especially on tests. The result is that many children feel driven to find the “right” answer without fully understanding the scope or context of a question.
  4. We know that young children can develop a sense of independence and can bring significant direction and meaningful questions to their own learning. Yet we limit the input of young children about what they want to learn and how they want to explore content in the scientific and social worlds. Then we wonder why children become detached from the study of science and social studies, as they grow older, seeing these fields as mostly meaningless to their experience.

Our nation has strongly embraced the idea that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects can be important for students to understand in order to be college and career ready. In recent years, middle and high schools have promoted opportunities for students to engage in STEM experiences such as robotics programs. Robotics exemplifies inquiry-based, hand-on learning that encourages different ways of thinking, problem solving, and design to achieve the goal. These skills are essential for college and career readiness.

If this approach is suitable for middle and high school, it’s time to apply the same principles to preschool and primary grades. In recent years, I’ve created STEM-based learning opportunities through the use of ramps and pathways, water pipes and tubing, building with blocks, and gardening and exploring nature. These approaches are ideal for young children and provide an experiential basic understanding of STEM subjects such as physics, biology, and engineering. A myriad of questions that elicit higher level thinking can be of asked of young children, even preschool kids, as they are engaged in STEM-related learning experiences. Examples include:

  • How do you plan to build this structure?
  • What do you think will work best when you try to build it?
  • What will happen if you do that?
  • What was the most difficult part of building this? Why do you think so?
  • If you want to make it stronger/lighter/taller/faster how do you think you will have to change it?

Inquiry provides a meaningful, vigorous context for children to develop a broader language base, including advanced vocabulary that will be useful to them as they learn to read. (After all, it is easier to learn to read a word that is already familiar than a word one hasn’t heard before.)

Academic learning and assessment both fit naturally within learning experiences that allow children to use inquiry skills. What is most notable is that in these learning contexts, when young children have had input into the learning topic and how it is being studied, they are especially motivated to engage with the topic and the tools they need to study it, write about it, document what they are learning, and analyze their experiences to demonstrate their success in learning. These integrated experiences benefit the whole child.

Furthermore, children develop persistence, confidence, curiosity and other attributes when engaged in inquiry-based learning. I have seen this in my own teaching. A three-year-old boy was determined to find a solution to a ramp that did not allow forward movement of a ball. A peer had overlapped two sections and the ball bounced backward instead of continuing forward. Rather than rearrange the two pieces myself, I encouraged him to continue his inquiry, asking questions about his thinking. He tried several solutions before eventually sliding the overlapped piece far enough forward so that the overlap was minimized. The ball still bounced, but momentum carried it over the smaller obstacle.

What I learned from the experience is that the child who is allowed to solve a problem without unsolicited assistance will persist, even struggle, in order to discover a solution. Such a child will carry that experience, along with the confidence gained, to the next experience, undaunted when encountering obstacles to her success. Conversely, a child who has been given too much support, or just given the answer will look to the teacher to provide the answer, stalling his development of thinking and problem-solving skills.

Just as children must understand the foundation to learning is in making meaning of the world, we as teachers must understand we can, and should, develop children’s intellectual capacity before we introduce them to academics. In my experience, this means that young children must engage in inquiry and project-based learning experiences and have the opportunity to solve problems and explore possible answers to higher level questions. This not only helps children become college and career ready, it prepares them for many other challenges in life.

Dr. Jonathan Gillentine is an Early Learning Resource Teacher for Windward District in Kaneohe, Hawai`i. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and a Hope Street Group Hawai`i State Teacher Fellow.

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