IB Units of Inquiry – A Different Way to Learn


Nana comes in to school, to the delight of the 5th grade, after discussing her personal migration story via Skype earlier in the year. Other speakers included migrants from Sri Lanka, North Africa and France. The students wrote reports on each and followed migration in current events as part of this unit of inquiry.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, our kids are in the midst of their first year at an IB (International Baccalaureate) School. One of the main tenets of their education philosophy is that children are “naturally inquisitive and will learn most effectively through inquiry driven curriculum”, so as a result, Zoel and Leeloo spend a good part of each day, you guessed it, inquiring. About what you may ask? Well, each grade has six pre-determined subjects into which they will inquire over 6-week sessions during the school year. For example, Leeloo who is in 2nd grade has tackled: Where in the World Are We? (a study and comparison of places and cultures around the world); The Arts (a look at different ways in which humans express themselves); Communities (research into how people work together to provide services and meet people’s needs); and she’s presently working on Buildings, a study about the design of structures and their impact on our life. Zoel, who is in 5th grade, has been looking into: Body Systems (a study of the body systems and personal health); Migration (a look at historical and present day migration, its causes and effects, challenges and opportunities); Identity, (research into how people present themselves, the impact of cultural and societal norms, how identity changes over time); and he’s now working on Governmental Systems, how different systems work and their impact on people and institutions around the world. Last I checked, he had been named head of the 5th grade Communist party (Since my mom and I presented our family’s experience with Communism to the class in the Fall, I choose to think that this is his teacher’s way of having a little fun with me.)

When they’re working on these units, there is a lot of discussion, expressing of opinions, research, student and expert presentations, and the creation of materials relevant to the topic, but there are not a lot of worksheets, quizzes or otherwise easily gradeable stuff. In fact, there are just two report cards per year, one in December and one at the end in June. The result is the loosey goosiest year of my kids education to date, and that may be why Noah’s new online progress reports (that Christine mentioned yesterday) with all their detailing of quizzes, modules, packets, and the like, initially seemed so appealing. From over here, a bastion of bureaucratic incompetency, it looks so magnificently efficient and organized. I’m sure the Italian and International parents at our school would oh and ah at it, marveling at the ingenuity and modernity of those Americans. But in the end, although I do so miss the efficacy of our culture, I’m still with Christine on this one. I don’t think I want to be able to dissect my kids’ world at that level (although I understand why it would be tempting with such a splendid spreadsheet at your fingertips!)

I’m uncomfortable with the Orwellian aspect of it, but I’m also wary of the backend that has to exist in order for this data monster to work. It requires input that can easily be expressed numerically, and I think by definition that means more things done via worksheets and packets that can be graded swiftly (How do teachers do this much grading and still have time for teaching?) Since a school day can only be so long, I suppose that means less taught in a more hands on way, with students researching and discussing their way through a new topic or a confounding problem, building and creating to understand subjects or  taking time to go down deadend roads only to be gently guided back by teachers or other knowledgeable folks. This more interactive way of teaching and assessing is definitely more subjective and would be very difficult to capture on a database.

This is not to say that our new school’s system is perfect. One negative of all this inquiring (and also of its international, multilingual nature) is that some basic skills in the areas of math, reading and writing can get lost in the mix, and because there are only two marking periods a year, it’s really up to the parents to be vigilant, even deciphering the grunts of a tired tween, so that they can wave a flag if they see their child has missed something. We’re lucky that both of our kids have come here with a very solid start in the basics (Thank you Garrison School!), so that they can take full advantage of the pool of knowledge and culture they get to dive into while inquiring. Perhaps because of that foundation, I can feel totally comfortable with nothing but their reactions to what they’ve done in school on a given day as my progress report. This week it’s been Leeloo’s glee at being able to present to her classmates her favorite building in the world, Prague’s Dancing House (Dad is appalled that she’s discovered and loves Frank Gehry, but these are the perils of autonomous research.) And for Zoel, the joy came from creating a propaganda campaign for his Communist party and winning the primary elections in the elementary school (Mom is appalled and has made a pact with son not to speak of this, ever, to his Cuban exile grandparents.) So far, we’re doing okay with limited information, and were thrilled they keep asking questions.

As part of the unit of inquiry having to do with communities, the 2nd graders wrote and perfomed a play about the different roles that people play in a community. Here Leeloo, the local obstetrician, helps deliver her friend Isabella’s baby, with a plastic knife no less!
Almost out!
Elementary school students watch the delivery! A riveting Friday morning assembly!

Leave a comment