New School San Francisco uses inquiry-based learning

inquiry based learning
Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

An innovative public charter school in San Francisco blends rigor and passion in inquiry-based learning

The New School of San Francisco is a public charter school in the city’s Mission District that believes children should drive their own learning from the youngest ages. That freedom is tempered by the kind of adult guidance that guarantees that they’re challenged, and that their learning meets state academic standards.

Opened in 2015, the school already copes with a massive waiting list, as parents clamor for what the New School offers. Little wonder: co-founder Emily Bobel Kilduff says the inquiry-based model the New School employs is rarely seen in public schools. It’s more common in the most exclusive private schools, which in the Bay Area can costs between $25,000 and $40,000 per child per year.

What does the New School mean by inquiry-based learning?

Here’s how school leaders described it in their charter application. It’s worth quoting at length:

The inquiry process is driven by one’s own curiosity, wonder, interest, and passion to understand an observation or to solve a problem.

The process begins when the learner notices something that intrigues, surprises, or stimulates a question – something that is new, or something that may not make sense in relationship to the learner’s previous experience or current understanding.

The next step is to take action – observing, raising questions, making predictions, testing hypotheses, and creating conceptual models.

The learner must find her or his own pathway through this process. It is rarely a linear progression, but rather more of a back-and-forth or cyclical series of events.

As the process unfolds, more observations and questions emerge, providing for deeper interaction with the phenomena – and greater potential for further development of understanding.

Along the way, the inquirer collects and records data, makes representations of results and explanations, and draws upon other resources such as books, videos and the expertise or insights of others.

Making meaning from the experience requires reflection, conversation, comparison of findings with others, interpretation of data and observations, and the application of new conceptions to other contexts. All of these serve to help the learner construct an improved mental framework of the world.

Inquiry Arcs

The New School employs what it refers to as “inquiry arcs,” discrete units of learning that span eight to 12 weeks. Typically, a class will work through three inquiry arcs during a school year.

Arcs begin with exploration, during which students launch the initial period of inquiry. It then moves to expression, in which students demonstrate their learning through “various forms of creation.” This can range from writing to artistic expression to teaching others, and beyond. Finally, the arc concludes with exposition, a final showcase of learning during which students reflect on their successes and challenges.

During the school’s inaugural year, 2015-16, with just kindergartners and first-graders, the first inquiry arc was “what is our community?” Students and teachers together defined the community in concentric circles: the classroom, the school, the Mission District.

Social-Emotional Learning

There’s also a major emphasis placed on social-emotional learning. The New School uses a curriculum called Kimochis, which means “feelings” in Japanese. Using stuffed animal characters – “Cloud” is moody, “Bug” is shy, “Huggtopus” is silly – children learn to identify and express feelings.

Finally, The New School is deeply committed to diversity, and intends to have its student body reflect the greater San Francisco community. Compositive strongly believes that developing the whole child requires students to learn in diverse environments that mirror the world in which they’ll be living and working.

Keeping a school diverse in a city like San Francisco is challenging, because the more savvy, well-educated parents are more adept at working system levers to get their kids into innovative schools. Because the school, as a charter, must take those who apply, the only way for it to remain diverse is to “recruit aggressively” among low-income families of color, co-founder Emily Bobel Kilduff said.

Though only in its second year, The New School is one to watch. As we develop plans for our own school, we will draw upon models we admire, and this is certainly one of them. 

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