“The kids had so much fun with this they didn’t even realize they were learning!” I’ve heard this a lot about the interactive programs I’ve developed. Learning is an organic and motivating process that is intrinsically enjoyable when investigations grow from our own questions, curiosities, and experiences. Curiosity drives scientific discovery and growth in all realms. We learn best when we are at the center of our own learning. I’ve long been a proponent of inquiry-based learning, a learning process through questions generated from the interests, curiosities, and experiences of the learner.
I realized, though, that I needed to expand the inquiry-based learning model: If the question, investigation, and outcome(s) are truly meaningful to the learner, I propose that she or he will apply this newly-acquired knowledge in her or his own life by sharing knowledge and by taking concrete action in the world. In this way the model expands from the personal or internal learning cycle to the public sphere (society). Traditional theories have kept the learning within a closed cycle, but I see a “public sphere” trajectory that then wraps back to the personal learning cycle. My theory is informed by my own personal experiences and my experiences in both formal and informal learning communities. I believe that it is this process that moves people out of inertia to take steps that create social change, or to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and discovery. It is this process that compels us to transmit knowledge, understanding and compassion to others. This concrete application of thoughtful knowledge sparks change and fosters greater knowledge and understanding in our classrooms, communities, nations, and the world. Brad Larson and I have written more about this here, specifically related to our work on the Smithsonian National Zoo’s website Conservation Central which moves users to real-world exploration.
Inquiry-based learning is a cyclical process: The learner asks questions –> these questions lead to the desire for answers to the question (or for solutions to a problem) and result in the beginning of exploration and hypotheses creation –> these hypotheses lead to an investigation to test the hypothesis/ses or find answers and solutions to the question and/or problem –> the investigation leads to the creation or construction of new knowledge based on investigation findings –> the learner discusses and reflects on this newly-acquired knowledge, which, in turn leads to more questions and further investigation…it never ends!
Expanding this process beyond the self can have profoundly positive social implications globally. When true inquiry is supported inside and outside of the classroom the learner feels valued and respected and learning blossoms. He or she comes to see learning as an intrinsically fun and enjoyable life-long process to be shared with others. Nurturing the natural curiosities within a child helps create a child who strives for knowledge and understanding both within herself and in the world around her. We desperately need to do a better job of this in our schools today!
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