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What is Inquiry-based Learning

and why is it so important for 21st Century Learners

Inquiry-based learning is a way of supporting children's development through co-learning and inquiry. Instead of an educator telling students everything they need to know, inquiry-based learning places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the center of the learning experience. Inquiry-based educators understand and emphasize the importance of 21st Century Learning skills and early brain development considering both of these in their practice. 
What is 21st Century Learning
Twenty-First Century learning skills are the skills children will need to succeed in  our technological and global society. Though these skills have been developed  over many decades of research, they were solidified through the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) project, that included the National Education Association and the United States Department of Education. Twenty-first Century skills creates a framework for skills development that will help all children succeed. As a society we are preparing children for a future we will barely recognize. A future where 40% of the current jobs no longer exist. This is why the inquiry-based learning and 21st Century learning skills are so important. 
We know children need to develop academic skills such as literacy and mathematics, but equally important are the 4 C's which are Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. Too much focus on academic skills through overly structured curriculums can take away from developing these 4 C's. In fact, we know from research that a focus on structured academics too early is not developmentally appropriate, can cause toxic stress, can turn children off to learning, and can be detrimental to their development of self regulation skills. 
As we see more and more of the negative effects of pushed down academics in older children, we are also discovering there are few long term benefits. Children who may be ahead in literacy and math skills when entering kindergarten mostly lose that advantage by the time they enter 3rd grade. In the mean time, these same children are losing out on the 4 C's. In fact, for the FIRST time since data on education has been collected children are now testing lower in creative skills. This is at a time, when we need more creative thinkers and problem solvers than ever. 
How brains develop
A child's brain develops by constantly building new neural pathways. The more they experience the more neural pathways they build. This is mostly happening during the first 8 years of life. The opposite, however,  is also true. Their brains prune the pathways that are not being used. This pruning may account for why young children are losing creative skills as they focus more on academic skills they are less exposed to creative endeavors. 
We must stop going against the biology of early brain development and instead embrace it. A young child's brain is designed to learn from birth. They do this by exploring, by being curious, and by asking questions. If you doubt this, spend time with any 3 or 4 year old. Children are born to develop the 4 C's. Unfortunately, as we may be seeing in their loss of creative skills, we maybe going against their natural development.
If we continue to push down more and more academics we will see this loss
become even more evident. We are already seeing it in children's ability to self-regulate. Children learn how to self-regulate by engaging in deep explorations, working with others, making choices about what and who they work with, and setting their own boundaries when appropriate. However, today's children rarely get to engage in anything in an in-depth way, they are generally told which areas to be in, they are told what activities to do, told to sit still for long periods of time, and transition every 20-30 minutes. This is not a recipe for developing self-regulation skills. 
How inquiry-based learning works
Inquiry-based learning doesn't go against brain development, instead it works with it. In an inquiry-based approach the teacher acts as a facilitator to the learning of children. They set up an environment that encourages children to explore and work with others. Teachers become learners alongside children encouraging them to ask questions and to research the world around them. They encourage academic development in developmentally appropriate and meaningful ways. For example it is meaningful to read about and write down what you are learning when exploring a topic.  It can also be important to measure the height of a structure you built. In this way literacy and math skills develop naturally as children explore. For older children the same is true as you research topics. Inquiry-based learning fully engages children in the 4 C's and uses those four C's as the catalyst for academic learning.
For example, with older children learn about physics by researching how a catapult works, building a catapult, using a catapult, analyzing how it functions, and redesigning it to make it work better. A project that engages children in STEM, but also in 21st Century literacy skills. As children study the catapult, they read lots of meaningful research and write meaningfully about their experience. Again, research tells us that when experiences are meaningful, we are much more likely to learn from them. If they are also fun and engaging then we create a life long love for learning.  
No where is this approach more effectively used
then in the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. This is
why we at CEY use the Reggio Approach as a guide to
work with inquiry-based learning. 
Want to learn more about this approach and bring
this approach to your schools. Contact us at
Kyung Hee Kim (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295

McNally, S. & Maguire, R. (2015). Keep calm and carry on:

Children’s self-regulation in early years settings. Children’s Research Digest, 2(2), 47-53
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