Head of School Updates, Jan. 18 2019

Dear Parents, Students, Faculty, and Friends,

This Friday-Sunday, Pudong teachers will attend professional development with a worldwide leader in inquiry-based education, Kath Murdoch. We are fortunate to have Kath here at Pudong and will be hosting close to 150 educators from around Asia to ensure that our classrooms are aligned with research and best practices in effective learning.

In light of that, it seems an opportune time to share more about what an inquiry-based education actually means, and how it is different from the traditional form of education that I (and probably you) received when we were children.

My hope is that the better we all understand the philosophy of inquiry-based learning, the more we can strengthen the home-school partnership to help students succeed.

As I’m sure many of you know, SCIS has a few defining attributes. Some schools believe in rigid systems and ask students to fit within those systems; SCIS prides itself on developing a system that can be flexible to meet each child. Similarly, the IB takes a whole-child, approach with it’s philosophy. Instead of rote tests, each child strives to make personal connections to construct their knowledge using inquiry. Unlike traditional units which focus on one topic, the inquiry approach requires that teachers shape their units around meaningful questions which are worth uncovering. This requires a shift – in how we teach, how we view learning, and how we report student learning (grade). As a system of schools, it is something we have been focused upon for the last four years in order to earn our IB Authorization for the IB Programs (PYP, MYP, and DP) in the spring of 2017. 

It will be our job as a school to share what makes the IB and SCIS so unique. As parents, you have some ‘homework’ as well; seek to understand what makes the IB philosophy so unique.

Research links students’ success to the partnership between families and the school. The belief in a true community is something SCIS has valued ever since it opened its doors in 1996. As a community, we will need to work together to ensure that we share a common understanding of what learning means. When parents and educators share a common understanding for student outcomes, it’s the students who ultimately win. 

What is inquiry, and how is it different? To borrow the words of Kate Murdoch, “to suggest that learning is not about inquiry is, in many ways, nonsense. The act of inquiry is critical to our learning and growth.” (Murdock, The Power of Inquiry, 2015.  p11) Yet, often in schools, there is a tendency to push a learner’s natural curiosity to the background. In short, many current teaching practices “present information (rules, laws, principles) together with examples, then ask students to replicate what they have been told.” (14) Inquiry-based learning is based in inductive practices – wherein the learner is challenged to gather and analyze information, review it against existing knowledge, seek connections, notice patterns and gradually build an understanding of a concept.” (14) It is grounded in a belief called constructivist learning, where students need to build (or construct) their own knowledge by connecting it to previous knowledge instead of disconnected memorization and recall of information. The IB itself makes this link clearly by stating that students “become enduringly skillful when learning is authentic and in context. The curriculum should emphasize the active construction of meaning so that students’ learning will be purposeful.” (Making the PYP Happen, IBO)

Allowing the space for students to question sounds great, but I wonder if they are learning any content. How does that work? And, how do teachers actually ‘teach’ with an inquiry mindset? At SCIS, each subject’s curriculum is tied to national standards (example: the USA’s Common Core). One of the great misconceptions of inquiry-based learning is that students may not learn facts and meet standards because they are asking and exploring questions. Inquiry is a philosophy and it is led by the teacher. In effective inquiry-based classrooms, you will still see drills, lectures, and didactic learning. But those methods are not the default. They are means to an end – developing students’ skills in order to give them the tools to effectively navigate the exploration. Quality learning is always linked to standards. Inquiry classrooms believe that students will have a deeper understanding and longer retention of the standards when they build it themselves. Teachers strive to keep students focused on a relevant exploration.

So, how might my child’s unit be planned differently using inquiry? A typical unit is usually focused on a single topic (examples: The French Revolution or Persuasive Writing) with a goal of “What do I want students to know?” An IB Unit of Inquiry starts with the goal of “What do I want students to understand and be able to do?” Initially, you can see that it is rooted in action, applying their learning to be transferred elsewhere. The term understanding is an important and complex term. What does it mean to understand? It is more than summarizing or recalling information about a topic. Understanding comes in layers as we make connections. We peel these layers back like an onion depending on the depth of our understanding. With this we come to see the difference – and the power – in inquiry. IB units of study are different than traditional units because they are focused on over-arching essential questions of inquiry – questions that are concept-driven (not topic-driven), are worth pursuing and whose understandings can be applied in other situations. An example, shared by SCIS Pudong Upper School Principal, Dr. Volpe, will illuminate the difference.

Exploring the MYP question allows connections. It is easy to see that the example of Chinese migration can still be the focus of study, but the goal is to apply those understandings to the broader world. Two aspects of inquiry are worth noting.

  • Strong inquiry questions are concept driven, not topical. They can be used at a variety of age ranges and involve multiple disciplines (geography, economics, science, civics). Using our onion analogy, these questions provide the opportunity to allow different learners to peel back the “next” layer at the level of understanding, challenging each learner.
  • Inquiry learning requires more work than traditional learning. It is not linear. It is somewhat messy as learners inquire and continually shift their understanding. This type of learning more accurately reflects how we all learn in the real world; it is shown below.

By reviewing the models, we can infer that classroom practices within inquiry classrooms also differ compared to traditional classrooms. Practices are never an “all or nothing” choice, but it is fair to say that inquiry classrooms will have…

Inquiry-based learning can be big, ugly. So that’s a beginning towards understanding Inquiry. We’ve unpacked one concept. It can be a bit of educational jargon. But stick with it. And, just as we expect our students to be inquirers, we ask the same of parents as we unpack other aspects of what makes SCIS and the IB Program so unique.

Seek to understand. Ask questions. After all, we’re just peeling back the first layer of the onion.


On behalf of everyone here at SCIS, know that we are grateful for the opportunity to help play a part in helping to shape your child each and every day. I wish each of you a relaxing weekend.

Derek Luebbe
Head of School


Photos from Around Campus


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