The Child as Scholar

DetectiveSilhoette.png.jpeg“Teachers deprecate their office when they do the work of learning for the child by preparing lessons that have been diluted, predigested, and are void of thought… meals of sawdust. The work of the teacher is secured in preparing lessons with ‘prophetic power of appeal and inspiration.’ The communion develops from mind to mind, and the teacher acts as guide, philosopher, and companion.” Charlotte Mason

To inquire is to engage in the act of asking. It is human nature that leads us on a path of questioning, testing, discovering, acting and reacting; indeed, it is through this questioning that humans relate to and define their place in the world. John Medina (2008) describes it as an “unquenchable need to know” in babies, stating that “this need for explanation is so powerfully stitched into their experience that some scientists describe it as a drive, just as hunger and thirst and sex are drives” (p. 265). We were all babies at some point so it stands to reason that we have all experienced this seeming insatiable need to know. Sadly, I would argue that this drive diminishes for many, and seems to become nearly extinguished for others altogether.

As a student in middle and high school, I don’t recall ever being engaged in inquiry-based learning as described by Dell’Olio and Donk, “students’ experiences as they grapple with a question or problem, engage in a systematic procedure to solve that problem, and communicate what they discover to others” (2007, p. 320). I was part of a year-long class as a senior called Great Decisions, a yearly Foreign Policy Association (in partnership with PBS) sponsored series of eight foreign policy issues effecting America. Though we grappled quite vehemently (and vocally) with the issues, we did not engage in additional research outside of reading our text, there was no communication of any learning discovery outside of the confines of our class discussion and we did not engage in self-reflective thought. Nonetheless, it’s one of the learning experiences that I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to as I was discovering and shaping my place in the world and I believe has a great potential to be shaped into an inquiry based model of examining foreign affairs. This is a link to the Great Decision website:

Unfortunately, it seems that in this age of high-stakes testing and what feels like knee-jerk reactionary scramble to close the achievement gap, inquiry-based models of learning simply may not be possible. Indeed, Dell’Ollio and Donk (2007) believe that “In an age of federal and state legislation that increasingly evaluates student progress on the basis of standardized test scores, the time required to use inquiry in our classrooms may soon become a luxury” (p. 347). Yet, it has long been argued by constructivist-minded educators that value exists in students engaging in learning where they ask questions and respond in deliberate ways. As John Dewey so succinctly pointed out,  “learning is the sum of action plus reflection” (Dell’Olio & Donk, 2007, p. 348) and we are warned that, “a steady diet of Direct Instruction, which is based on behaviorist learning theory, will continually focus students’ attention on the past, on what has already been discovered by others” (p. 349). It stands to reason that if students are engaged in actively seeking answers to their questions while engaging in metacognition of their learning process, they move beyond the passive consumption of information towards production, honoring that natural baby instinct to explore, know and test.

As a teacher, I have been fortunate enough to teach grade 5 at an International Baccalaureate (IB) school while in Mongolia. It is during the final year of primary school that students in an IB school engage in Exhibition, typically a six to eight week small group inquiry unit. While all primary students engage in thematic units of inquiry, Exhibition is where it all comes together as students identify a local or global issue that is important to them, engage in research about that issue, identify an action plan based on input of all stakeholders, then put that plan into action. Self-reflection undergirds the process as students think about their own thinking and who they are as learners. There is a culminating celebration at the conclusion of Exhibition as students share their inquiry with the school, parent and community at-large.  Just a few examples of Exhibition inquiry projects that my Grade 5 students engaged in;

  • Partnering with Snow Leopard Trust of Mongolia; students raised money through a fair to “adopt” two Snow Leopards from the wild.
  • Partnering with Millennium Challenge Foundation and Asia Development Bank to sponsor the purchase of energy efficient Ger stoves (coal burning) for low-income Mongolian families.
  • Sponsored viewing and led discussion of Whale Rider to discuss issues of violence against women.
  • Sponsoring local orphans to come to our school to interact with the rest of primary for “play dates” and set-up play dates at the orphanage for Grade 3 and Grade 4 classes.

This is a screen shot from the IB website that talks about units of inquiry and the Exhibition.

Screen shot 2013-01-22 at 11.16.16 PM

It seems that a common refrain by some in the general public is the lament that today’s youth are ill-equipped academically and socially for life after high school, that they lack basic job skills, must take remedial writing and math courses their first year in college and are basically irresponsible for their own learning. When pointing the finger, we must look at the common denominator; because if we believe what John Medina tells us that “For little ones, discovery means joy” (2007, p. 273) then the common denominator is the adults in the room. If we are to follow Charlotte Mason’s sage advice that “The child is to be responsible for his or her own learning as a scholar, a high calling affirmed by a teacher” then it is up to us, the educators, to provide the opportunities for students and teachers to have the time, training and support to engage in a meaningful discovery of learning. I will be the first to admit that private international schools have resources and curricular “freedoms” that are not present in US schools; and I would argue that it shows in the achievement levels and intrinsic motivation present in the majority of the students. It is not through a condensing of the curriculum to meet the artifice of standardized testing that we will achieve equity in opportunity for America’s children; inequity is a larger systemic cancer that has invaded all the major organs of American society and must be addressed in it’s own right beginning with how we fund schools. But what we can do is bring the job of discovery and learning back to education. We cannot afford not to take the time.


Dell’Olio, Jeanine M. & Donk, Tony. 2007. Models of Teaching: Connecting Students Learning With Standards. California: Sage.

Foreign Policy Association. Accessed on January 22, 2013.

Medina, John. 2008. Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

The International Baccalaureate. Accessed on January 21, 2013.


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