Inquiry as knowledge-building - Mid-Pacific Institute

Elementary School Principal's Blog

Inquiry as knowledge-building

Posted on September 3, 2016

by Dr. Edna Hussey on September 3, 2016

Inquiries are in full swing in every classroom, one of our favorite times of the week when our children exercise their cognitive 'muscles,' drawing upon their prior knowledge and experiences to make sense of new learning. At Mid-Pacific, inquiry processes are situated in science and social studies content primarily, but are also applied to other learning disciplines. While inquiry is an approach to learning, we also regard inquiry as a mindset for how we encounter the world. An inquiring mind is fueled by self-generated questions, curiosities, wonderings, and speculations, and constructs meaning through observation and collaborations with peers. Often "knowledge" is associated with information coming from sources revered, vetted, authorized, or credentialed. Google images bring up "knowledge" as static images: a stack of books, a golden key, a light bulb lit up, a brain, even owls! As we have come to understand the nature of knowledge as we see the phenomenon in the classroom, knowledge across the domains (intellectual, social, emotional, physical, spiritual) is never static, generated daily in the exchange of ideas, questions, and wonderings among students and adults. Inquiry is a complex framework for the complex, deep learning and knowledge-building that our students experience. (Graphic image from Google Images,

One of the sure signs of knowledge-building is looking for evidence of how our students use prior knowledge to apply to new situations. In the M 3-4 classrooms, teachers asked students, "How were the Hawaiian Islands formed?" in order to understand what students already knew (prior knowledge) so that they might plan better pathways for learning. This assessment -- asking students to draw their theories -- provides such a wealth of information. In the following images, a few students called up the concept of Pangaea, which they had learned as first and second graders. It's the theory of a supercontinent that dismantled over millions of years to form the separate continents in present time, which they had learned as first-second graders, and which is the basis of another theory, continental drift. If you read the drawings, these students use the continental draft theory to explain how the Hawaiian islands were formed, having broken away from the continent of America.




Another student reveals in her drawing an understanding of how landmass accumulates somehow to form an island. The teacher would want to dialogue with the student to ask what contributes to the island growing and growing.


Other students reveal familiarity with the notion of pressures or forces in the earth causing volcanoes to form. Though vague in their explanations intially, there will be time to shape and refine their understanding as they venture beyond the classroom to observe on research trips how the islands were formed, discuss their learning with one another, and build structures to explain their understanding. And they'll return again and again to their initial theories throughout the inquiry process to repair their theories.

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Parents, this is learning for the 21st century.

E Kūlia Kākou! Letʻs strive and aspire together!

For our children,

Edna L. Hussey, Ed.D.