The Inquiry School: A Sketch of a High School for the Next Generation
The American high school today stands at the center of an intensifying
polarity. Powerful political and educational forces in most states are
pushing for the development of common standards for all students,
regardless of their cultural heritage, resources, and interests. At the
same time experience and research has told us for decades that
adolescents learn most powerfully and effectively when they are actively
engaged in learning that they perceive as significant. These two
perspectives seem totally contradictory. This essay sketches out a model
for a high school that could bridge the polarity between these two
perspectives and result in high school graduates who are both competent
and knowledgeable according to a set of common standards and skilled,
thoughtful, and lively self-directed learners.
The American high school today stands at the center of an intensifying
polarity. Powerful political and educational forces in most states are
pushing hard for the development of common standards for high school
graduation for all students, regardless of their cultural heritage,
resources, and interests. At the same time, experience and research has
told us for decades that adolescents learn most powerfully and most
effectively when they are actively engaged in learning that they perceive
as significant. And for the first time in thirty years many high school
teachers are trying-or beginning to try-to organize their curriculum and
instruction in accordance with this understanding.
These two movements-the push for common standards, and an individualized
curriculum mondification- seem totally contradictory. Yet perhaps not.
What I want to sketch out in this essay is a model for a high school that
could bridge the polarity between these two movements, transcend the
traps and limitations likely within either movement alone, and result in
high school graduates who are both competent and knowledgeable according
to a set of common standards and skilled, thoughtful, and lively
self-directed learners. I'll call this high school model the Inquiry
School, descirbing it as if it were a program already in place.
Guiding Principles of the Inquiry School
The Inquiry School is centered on the following six principles:
- High Standards and Accountability To These Standards
Learners must understand right from the start the outcome goals that
adults hold for them in a school. These goals. which we call "Standards
for Graduation," constitute clearly defined, high standards. As an
example, let us "make believe" that this Inquiry School is the accepted
model in the state of Washington. In this case, the Standards are
therefore based directly on the Washington Essential Academic Learning
Requirements, the outcome standards currently being developed by the
state's Commission on Learning, with specific standards in reading,
writing, communication, mathematics, science, social studies, arts, and
health/fitness. The Inquiry School will add standards for self-direction
of learning skills, collaboration skills, democratic skills, and
creativity skills. The Inquiry School will also require each learner to
articulate at least three additional outcome goals for herself/himself,
to be accomplished by the completion of the school program.
The guiding principle here is that when we show and tell young people
precisely what we expect they will accomplish, they will be much more
able to reach the standards than if we keep the goals obscure or
implicit. Learners must become familiar with the Standards at the
beginning of high school, and they must re-visit the Standards in an
ongoing way, so that they can measure their progress toward the
achievement of these Standards and re-direct their learning efforts as
A related concept is that the explicit and public nature of these
Standards for Graduation provides accountability for learners, teachers,
and the program of the Inquiry School as a whole.
- Choices and Empowerment
Learners in middle adolescence must play a significant role in guiding
their own learning if they are to achieve to the fullest of their
potentials. Young people will be much more responsive to standards set by
adults if they are also working on goals that they have determined for
themselves at the same time.
Teachers must have opportunities to invent and re-invent significant
elements of their school's curriculum and to design and enact
considerable portions of the school's teaching and learning activities,
if they are to achieve to the fullest of their capacities and continue to
grow as educators.
- Community and Colleagueship
Adolescent learners must spend their high school years in an educational
program that functions as a community for them. Within this community,
learners work with the same group of teachers and fellow learners over a
multi-year period, so that each individual learner can receive the
social, emotional, and intellectual support and challenges from adults
and peers that she/he needs for maximizing learning and growth.
Teachers need to work within a community of colleagues and learners if
they are to continue to grow and evolve as educators. Collegial
relationships encourage creativity, commitment, and high standards on the
part of all colleagues.
The nature of the Inquiry School as a community calls on both teachers
and learners to tackle the moral issues and master the skills of
community responsibility, democratic decision-making, and collaborative
- Inquiry, Teachers as Learners, and A Depth of Knowledge
Learners must take part in an educational program in which all
participants, including teachers, are actively engaged in inquiry,
learning, and growing. For adolescents to achieve to their potentials,
their adults teachers must model active, passionate learning for them in
an ongoing way. They must model expectations for a high level of
performance and for inquiry as a process that leads to a depth of
understanding, not a surface familiarity. The heart of this principle is
the understanding that both learners and teachers can articulate valid,
intriguing questions, can engage in processes of inquiry in relation to
these questions, and can learn from each other in a systematic way.
- Integrative Learning
Learners must be engaged in activities that integrate what are often
thought of as separate qualities and functions: for example, thinking and
doing; mind and body; the sciences and the humanities; study and
experience; and evaluation and application. Teachers must understand the
tremendous power of integrative approaches to learning and must apply
these integrative qualities both to their own learning and to their
teaching. This principle rejects the limitations of dualities and
promotes the understanding that learning must be inclusive and not
limited, integrative and not separative, interrelated and not
disconnected, and in context, not isolated.
- Self-Knowledge: Reflection and Analysis
Learners must be engaged in learning about their own qualities and
characteristics in terms of variables such as learning style and multiple
intelligences. Learners need to develop skills of self-observation,
reflection, self-analysis, and self-assessment so that they can identify
their strengths and limitations within these systems of description.
Learners must learn to draw on their strengths and develop beyond their
Teachers must be engaged in similar kinds of learning in relation to
themselves as individual learners. Teachers must learn to model the
application of such self-learning for the learners and to help learners
apply their self-knowledge to specific tasks and challenges.
Structure of the Inquiry School
The structure of the Inquiry School includes two separate yet related programs:
- The GROUP Program: learners who will be in grades 9, 10, and
11 in traditional schools
- The MENTORED Program: learners who are in their final year in
The Group Program
The GROUP Program consists of approximately 150 learners formerly in
groups labeled grades 9, 10, 11, with as many teachers as the local
funding formula provides currently for this number of high school
students. Included in this translation from the current structure will be
not only classroom teachers but all adult educational personnel except
for a single school administrator, who will administer a number of
GROUPS.) In the state of Washington, at current funding levels, this
allows for at least 7 teachers. Learners will enter this program as they
arrive at what use to be the beginning of 9th grade. Most will spend
three years in this program; some may be ready to move to The MENTORED
Program in less time.
The life of The GROUP Program is organized by a cycle of interaction
among four kinds of activities titled: Exploration of Standards,
Assessments and Presentations, Questions Projects, and Individual
Exploration of Standards, Assessments, and Presentations
The GROUP Program devotes its first two weeks of operation each year to
the tasks of Exploration of Standards and Assessments and Presentations
in some of the following ways:
- Teachers and older learners present the Standards for Graduation to
all learners who are new to the program. This consideration of the
Standards includes a careful examination of the meaning of each standard
as well as exploration of a variety of examples of achievement of each
standard. Through this effort, each new learner gains an initial
understanding of what goals The GROUP Program holds for her/him.
- Returning learners (formerly in groups labeled grades 10 and 11) meet
in small groups both without and with teachers to consider their
individual statuses in relation to the Standards and to devise plans for
the next several months so that they can focus on particular learning
- Some returning learners give presentations of their Individual
Projects (IPs) from the previous year to groups of new learners, so that
the new learners can gain a sense of how the process of conducting IPs
- New learners take part in a variety of assessment activities to help
them develop greater self-knowledge, particularly in relation to the
constructs of learning style and multiple intelligences and to their
current capacities for self-direction and responsibility. Returning
learners may choose to participate in some of these assessment activities
to renew and deepen their self-knowledge.
- All learners take part in a series of expressive, aesthetic
activities that help them gain greater awareness and understanding of who
they are as individuals and what holds value and meaning for them now.
- New learners are assigned to a teacher advisor (TAD), and each new
learner and TAD meet. Returning learners also meet with their TADs. For
new learners, part of the agenda for this meeting is to work on the
initial development of their three or more self-determined outcome goals
for their Inquiry School experience. Returning learners also explore
these self-determined goals with their TAD and may add to them, revise
them, and/or decide to conduct a final assessment of a particular goal at
- Teachers present information about the year's first set of Question
Projects (QPs), and learners choose which QP they would like to
A QP is a set of activities through which a teacher (or teachers; some
projects may be team-taught) and a group of learners seek to explore and
answer an important and intriguing question. The questions must be
meaningful, genuine, and integrative.
Examples of QP questions in an Inquiry School in the Puget Sound area:
- What makes a story a tragedy?
- What impact has the business of gambling had on Native American populations in Washington State?
- What's the value of knowing how to solve problems with two unknowns?
- How do you solve these kinds of problems?
- What effect did the interstate highway system have on Washington's economy, culture, and politics?
- What would the universe be like without gravity?
- Has the age of empire ended? What is the future likely to be for the large nation state?
- What does it mean to be rich or poor in Washington? In India? In Norway? In Russia?
- What is the current state of the art in recombinant DNA research and application? What does this research mean for our lives?
- What sense can we make of the great increase in the number of democratic governments in the world over the past decade?
- What are the likely effects of the increasing number of hours that children and youth devote to experiencing electronic media?
- What effects are telecommunications having on our lives?
For each QP, the teacher(s) develops a curriculum and facilitates the
engagement of learners in that curriculum. Of course the teacher(s)
includes opportunities within the curriculum for learners to articulate
their own interests within the context of this question and to explore
these interests. Each QP lasts two or three weeks, depending on the
year's schedule. At the start of each QP cycle, teachers present the
various offerings for study, and learners choose which QP they wish to
The heart of the The GROUP Program's activity lies in a rhythm of
alternation between QPs generated by teachers and Independent Projects
(IP) generated by learners.
At the end of each QP, each learner, individually or in a group, develops
an Independent Project (IP) that in most but not necessarily all cases
relates to the QP that she/he has just completed. The learner(s) begins
the IP by posing a significant question of her/his own and then sketches
out a plan for exploring the question through an IP.
Learners who are new to The GROUP Program are monitored carefully in
their IP work by their advisor and a peer-tutor, who is a more
experienced learner in the program, until they demonstrate effective
skills for IP work. Some new learners may be paired with a more
experienced learner in a project as a way of helping them to learn these
Each IP lasts for two or three weeks, depending on the year's schedule.
At the conclusion of each IP, learners assess their own work, both in
itself and in relation to the Standards, and are evaluated by a team of
peers, parents, community members, and teachers. Learners also present
what they have learned to an audience of peers, teachers, parents, and
community members at a public forum.
This cycle of alternation between QPs and IPs ensures that learners and
teachers both enact an array of diverse roles throughout the learning
process. For part of the time, teachers generate curricula and lead the
learning process for young people. For another part of the time teachers
step back and serve as advisors and helpers. Likewise, for part of the
time, learners take part in activities that adults have designed and
organized. For another part of the time, young people design and direct
their own learning activities, both in groups and individually.
The GROUP Program includes three learning blocks during its school year,
with one 15 week block plus two weeks vacation followed by a 14 week
block pus two weeks vacation and another 15 week block plus four weeks
vacation. The schedule for the first block is:
First two weeks: Exploration of standards, assessments, meetings of learners and advisors, self-knowledge
Three weeks: QPs
Two weeks: IPs
One week: Assessment, presentations
Three weeks: QPs
Two weeks: IPs
Two weeks: Assessment, presentations, self-knowledge activities, closure
Two weeks vacation
The second block of 14 weeks begins with a single week of assessments and
meetings and then follows the same schedule as above through its duration
(followed by another two week vacation). The third block of 15 weeks
follows the same schedule as the second block, with two weeks at the end
for additional self-evaluation and closure activities. (The third block
is followed by four weeks of vacation.)
Thus, the Inquiry School operates for 44 weeks each year, with a total of
8 weeks of vacation.
The second element of the Inquiry School, the MENTORED Program, consists
of 50 learners who are in their final year in the school and two
teachers, who serve primarily as advisors. One primary activity of the
MENTORED Program is to involve each learner in 35-40 week work placement
at about 30 hours per week. The other primary activity is the completion
of all remaining Standards for Graduation by the learner.
In this final year of the Inquiry School (some learners may enter this
program prior to their final year if the learner, parents, and teachers
agree that this is desirable), each learner will do the following:
1a. The learner will assess her/his accomplishments thus far in relation
to the school's Standards for Graduation. (Learners may demonstrate their
accomplishment of a particular Standard for Graduation at any time during
the four years of the school's program. Since some standards will be
established by the state of Washington through examinations and other
modes of assessment, learners will be able to complete these assessments
whenever they are prepared to do so.)
Of course, the sketch above is rough, and its specifics will need to be
filled in by an Inquiry School's teachers, learners, and extended
community members. A school such as this will also need to act as an
effective learning organization: to monitor and assess its own workings
on a regular basis and to change its structures and processes continually
according to insights and data gained from such analysis and reflection.
Nevertheless what I believe I have presented in this sketch is a path
through which we can transcend the current knot of polarization between
state-wide standards and the need to personalize learning for
adolescents. What I've presented is an idea of how we can bridge the
polarity between these two contending positions and, through this
bridging, achieve an outcome that includes the better impulses of both.
b. The learner will present her/his self-assessment in relation to the
Standards for Graduation to a committee consisting of peers from The
Mentored Program, her/his TAD, and his work placement mentor (described
below). Based on this presentation and the advice received from committee
members, the learner will develop a plan for completing all remaining
Standards during the coming year.
2a. With his TAD and a teacher from The MENTORED Program, the learner
will explore what kind of work placement she/he would like to pursue.
(The teachers from The MENTORED Program will develop many contacts for
possible work placements and mentors throughout the community, with
government, non-profit, and for-profit organizations. These teachers will
monitor the quality of both the work placement and the mentor for each
learner. They will also convey information about possible work placements
and mentors to learners, although learners may find their own placements
and mentors, with teacher approval.)
b. The learner will select a work placement, negotiate work with the
supervisor at the placement, and establish a mentor/mentee relationship
with an appropriate person within the placement. (The supervisor and
mentor may be the same person.)
c. The learner will work at her/his work placement as agreed. The
learner will meet on a regular basis with her/his mentor, a teacher from
The MENTORED Program, and a group of peers from the program. At the end
of each 9 weeks, the learner will review her/his progress with her/his
mentor and make any revisions as needed.
d. At the end of the work year the learner will make a presentation to
her/his peers in the MENTORED Program as well as guests from The GROUP
Program about what he/she has experienced and learned through her/his
work placement. The learner will also present her/his portfolio of
"standards met" to the combined faculties of both programs, participate
in a ceremony honoring her/his accomplishments over the past four years,
and receive her/his certificate of achievement of the Standards for
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