George Lucas Educational Foundation
Inquiry-Based Learning

Fostering a Culture of Inquiry

One school emphasizes inquiry in its PBL

December 12, 2011

Visit the Calgary Science School in Alberta, Canada, and you'll hear students in grades 4-9 investigating intriguing questions in every subject. For example: How can we use augmented reality to improve product designs?How can we apply literary elements and work with local experts to create high-quality graphic novels? How do cycles of revision improve our artwork? How might we impact voter turnout for a local municipal election? How do we deep our students' mathematical thinking?

Now in its 13th year, the Calgary Science School has had a consistent focus on problem-based and inquiry-based teaching and learning. Authentic, student-centered learning is embedded across all subject areas, and much of the learning is supported by innovative and powerful uses of technology and outdoor education.

Inquiry also infuses the school's approach to professional development. Instead of taking part in sit-and-get workshops, teachers conduct action research, participate in lesson studies, and have time with various instructional support staff to design inquiry-based projects with colleagues. Professional development tends to be teacher-directed, learner-centered, collaborative, and with an emphasis on critical analysis, according to Neil Stephenson director of professional development and collaborative outreach for the school.

"The name 'Calgary Science School' can be a bit misleading," Stephenson says. "We focus on more than just science education. Rather, we're trying to embed the disposition of a scientist into everything we do -- we want everyone in our community doing research, critically thinking, and collaboratively building knowledge." It's all part of a goal to build a culture of inquiry, and not just in classrooms. It extends to teaching staff, to school leadership, and to the larger educational community.

How does Calgary Science School define inquiry-based learning? Stephenson outlines the school's instructional approach in an online publication, Introduction to Inquiry-Based Learning. The story of Calgary Science School offers a good reminder that inquiry doesn't end with asking good questions; it also involves sharing results.

Adding Value with Outreach

As a Canadian charter school, Calgary Science School has a dual mission. "Our mandate is to continue to push our practice forward and be innovative in meeting student needs -- but at the same time also add value back to the educational system," Stephenson explains. That means finding ways to take the school's story to a broader audience so that others can benefit from the lessons learned.

One method of outreach is the school blog. It offers a platform for teachers to reflect on projects and share insights. When he started the blog two years ago, Stephenson acknowledges that he was the primary author of Connect!. But in recent months, more and more teachers have started posting project examples and reflections. "It's gaining momentum," he says. Recent posts have discussed the benefits of using Edmodo with students, reflected on a ninth-grade identity project that led to publication of a digital poetry anthology, and described development of a digital inquiry resource to help students explore questions about the Renaissance.

Internally, the blog provides an institutional memory and project archive. For teachers from outside Calgary Science School, the blog offers a library of inquiry-based project ideas that can be borrowed or adapted. The school hopes that teachers both around the country and beyond might use the blog to find inspiration and new ideas for inquiry-based, technology-supported teaching and learning.

In another outreach effort, Calgary Science School invites collaboration with other schools. "If teachers see a project on our site that they'd like to join, we can connect with them via Skype. Our teachers welcome that kind of collaboration. It's great professional development," Stephenson says. The school often hosts networking days, where teachers from around the city gather to share teaching ideas and collaborative build projects.

In yet another outreach effort, Calgary Science School will host ConnectEd Canada, a national education conference, in May 2012. In the mold of EduCon, hosted by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, ConnectEd Canada will emphasize conversations rather than presentations. And because it will take place on a school campus, there's a heightened opportunity for student voices to enrich the discussions.

U.S. Contrast

Hearing about the outreach that happens regularly at Calgary Science School, I can't help but wonder what would happen if U.S. charter schools had a similar mandate to add value back to the public system. A recently released report puts the number of U.S. students attending charters at more than 2 million. In the spirit of inquiry, I wonder: How many charter schools are sharing insights to enrich the broader educational community? How could we encourage more collaboration between charters and mainstream public schools?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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