George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Fostering a Culture of Inquiry

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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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Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Chief Operating Officer, Francis Parker School, San Diego


Thanks for sharing your experience and passion for inquiry-based learning. I won't take time and bandwidth preaching to the choir, but let me link you to a couple of folks who are taking this the paths of questioning and inquiry in truly exciting ways. Bo Adams and Jill Gough at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta have piloted some remarkable classes, in particular their Synergy 8 class for eighth graders that is one of the outstanding examples of pure transformation through inquiry that I have ever seen. You might want to check out their blogs and get in touch.

I am not a famous person or author, but I am really proud that Bo and Jill have used my book, The Falconer, to help in their thinking. It is based in teaching I have done at elementary, high school, and college level and I hope contributes to the discussion on how we can overtly teach the skills of questioning, problem-finding, and synthetic and creational thinking.

Keep us appraised of other developments in Calgary!

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

Dear Susie
I work with a group of colleagues who have developed six global projects that we would like to share with other groups or countries. If anyone is interested in working with us please feel free to contact me. They are all 21st Century, Global, PBL activities, and are designed to use technology as an integral part of the classroom experience.

1. The Water Project
2. The Air Quality Project
3. Creating and sustaining a Forensics Science Program
4. Delivering a Project Based Learning Class in the online and blended learning world.
5. Developing an internship program in your school
6. Creating and Agri-business program for your school.

Meghan J.'s picture

Thank you for your insight. I am currently a science student teacher and intend to implement place based, inquiry and project based learning in my future science classroom. I am aware that current research literature and teacher best practices supports this framework for learning, however, in my limited experience have not seen it largely implement at a district scale. The majority of what I have seen is that one school or teacher will implement this framework, typically, the whole school has been more likely in the charter or private school setting. I am interested in your perspective as to what you perceive to be the major barriers are in the US to the large scale implementation of this framework and best practices? What would need to occur for this to be at a larger scale implemented i.e. funding and other forms of support from top down?
In your blog post, you mentioned a wondering on how Charter schools in the US utilize these practices including how they collaborate. How would you go about answering the questions you posed "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?" . Do you know of any research being done in this area on these specific topics? Do you perceive that Charter schools have more flexibility to implement these types of practices? If so, what would need to happen to translate that to the public school setting? At what scales would these changes and supports need to come from? How as a singular teacher can I advocate for these practices at a larger scale in the profession? Do you perceive standardized testing to be a barrier or not influential in the possibility of implementing inquiry, place based, project based learning? The Calgary School has been over a decade using these practices, what are some of the key reasons in your opinion they have cast such a large web or awareness outside of their school? How did they start on this path?

Thank you for your insight on this topic.

kristinad's picture

I am currently enrolled in a professional inquiry program and the class i'm working on right now explores collaborative inquiry; the coming together of professionals to find a solution to a common problem, as well a collaborative inquiry among students. I'm still new to the teaching profession and wanted to get a better idea of if and how collaborative inquiry is present in our schools? How are schools, school boards and teachers being encouraged? how are they being supported?

any thoughts or insight would be great, thank you.

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