The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

The Inquiry School: A Sketch of a High School for the Next Generation

David Marshak
Seattle University


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:

  1. 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 needed.

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 action.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 current limitations.

    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 school.

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 Projects.

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 goals.

  • 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 works.

  • 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 this time.

  • Teachers present information about the year's first set of Question Projects (QPs), and learners choose which QP they would like to explore.

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 undertake.

Individual Projects

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 skills.

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 activities, etc.

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.

Mentor Program

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.)

    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 Graduation.

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.


Gamberg, R., et al (1988). Learning and loving it: Theme studies in the classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gregory, T. (1993). Making high school work: Lessons from the open school. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kohl, H. (1976). On teaching. New York: Schocken Books.

Marshak, D. (1995). Reconnecting with students: How to make our high schools communities. The High School Magazine, 2 (3).

Moffett, J. (1994). The universal schoolhouse. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stevenson, C., & Carr, J. (1993). Integrated studies in the middle grades. New York: Teachers College Press.

All material within the HORIZON site, unless otherwise noted, may be distributed freely for educational purposes. If you do redistribute any of this material, it must retain this copyright notice and you must use appropriate citation including the URL. Also, we would appreciate your sending James L. Morrison a note as to how you are using it. HTML and design by Noel Fiser, ©2006. Page last modified: 2/25/1999 6:41:21 PM. 21560 visitors since February 2000.