How Inquiry-Based Learning Fuels Student Success at North Park Elementary School

Inquiry-based learning fuels students’ creativity and curiosity while empowering them to be global citizens.

Schools on the cutting edge of crafting student learning today know a lot more about how kids learn best thanks to years of brain research. And that ultimately means putting the power in students’ hands with exploration and inquiry-based learning, something Emily Friend sees in action every day at her school, North Park Elementary School (NPES) on Chicago’s North Side.

For many parents, school looks much different than when they were kids. Rather than sitting quietly in class memorizing facts and formulas, inquiry-based classrooms like those at NPES focus on hands-on, experiential learning, with students actively questioning and formulating wonderings about topics.

“That really is what taps into deep connections and builds those pathways to actually learn the facts and formulas later on,” says Friend, Director of Teaching and Learning at NPES, an independent PreK-8 school. It’s all about “having the freedom to be flexible in their thinking, to be curious and to be creative in their problem solving and solutions,” she says.

From the earliest learners to the teachers and administrators and even the students’ parents, everyone at NPES is putting their critical thinking skills to good use with debate and discussion, to learn and solve problems in the classroom and the world around them. Friend shares how their inquiry-based learning focus is at the heart of student success.

Inquiry begins with the youngest learners at NPES

Children learn best when they really care about the topic, Friend says. NPES’s preschool teachers, through a Reggio Emilia inspired program, observe the children’s interests and then incorporate these inquiries in their lessons rather than following a pre-established curriculum.

For example, teachers this year noticed the 4– and 5-year-olds, who have essentially grown up with COVID-19, gravitated to the baby dolls and were exhibiting a lot of caretaking behaviors and interest in health. To build on that, teachers asked the students what they wonder about when it comes to health, doctors and their own bodies, she says. “That’s where inquiry really comes alive, when kids start questioning and asking those deep questions,” says Friend.

Teachers then began pulling out materials related to a health inquiry, including tongue depressors and stethoscopes, and invited in medical experts so kids could ask their own questions. Students visited a local doctor’s office to see healthcare in action. This is just one of many examples of NPES’s effort to “bring inquiry into the world and make that connection beyond the classroom walls,” she says.

Building math skills through inquiry at NPES

At North Park, students aren’t drilled on facts and computation formulas. Instead, Friend says inquiry-based learning is rooted in the belief that kids need to play with math and ask questions first, then learn the strategies that work best for them to find the right answer.

“Instead of focusing on teaching kids the numbers out of context, it’s about playing with numbers and understanding what they mean. So yes, they might be able to write the number five, but if they don’t understand what it is, they don’t have that foundational understanding, they are really just recalling and memorizing.”

She describes a recent lesson where NPES fourth graders learning about volume of a 3D cube spent five days exploring cubes — building with them, examining them from different angles, holding them — to get a deeper conceptual understanding of volume before being taught the formula. If they ever forget the formula, they’ll still have a deeper knowledge base that they can pull from to solve the problem creatively and accurately. “They don’t need the formula because they understand the concept. It equips them with tools to actually think about the math that makes sense,” Friend says.

Those kinds of lessons, tapping into kids’ sense of wonder, are happening in every classroom every day, she says.

Inspiring kids to think deeper at NPES

NPES students are encouraged to be curious and creative in their thinking – and make an impact beyond the school walls.

After reading an article about pollution and its impact on certain Chicago neighborhoods in their STEM class, NPES fourth graders wanted to know why. So, the class began a deep environmental justice inquiry, asking about the link between pollution and the socio-economic status of the city’s neighborhoods. The research prompted many questions about wealth distribution while also giving students a deep dive into math, science, social studies, and literacy, she says. “It began with an inequity they saw and building an empathy around the inequity and then them coming up with some solutions using the design thinking process,” Friend says.

Through inquiry, NPES seeks to equip its students to think bigger.

“The more we can empower kids to go through the whole inquiry process and have an outcome that is impactful, and find those innovative solutions, I think the more we’re going to see true global citizens, who really feel empowered to make a difference in a world that has a lot of challenges,” Friend says.

The adults at NPES, too, are being urged to use inquiry to make their own differences at the school: Friend says teachers are working on how they can use the school’s newly redesigned campus and Innovation Space to enhance and innovate their curriculum while administrators are thinking creatively about how they can hire, recruit and attract diverse families and faculty that reflect the composition of the city of Chicago.

“There is such a richness in the diversity of thought that comes into a group setting, in the diversity of ideas, in the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds,” Friend says.

It’s that type of thinking that happens every day, in every way, at NPES.

North Park Elementary School is dedicated to raising confident, self-reliant individuals, in partnership with families. Learn more about North Park in person at an upcoming admission coffee, Oct. 18, Nov. 18 and Dec. 7, with more dates available in 2022. For more information, visit npeschool.org.

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