The Role of the Adult in Inquiry-based Learning

Spielgaben Blocks (An Everyday Story) Building a clock {An Everyday Story}

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I always thought that answers were important. It took me a few years into my teaching career before I realised that ‘what’ I taught my students wasn’t half as important as ‘how’ they approached their learning.

When I only had 9 weeks to teach a history unit on the Renaissance, the emphasis had to be on metacognition; understanding our own thought processes. My students might pick up some interesting information, or have their interest sparked about some fact, but what was most important was helping them to learn how to learn; how to find relevant information, determining a reliable source, recognising bias, asking questions, forming and testing hypotheses and articulating a point of view.

These learning skills needed to be the focus of every lesson; the content was simply the vessel.

Patterns with Spielgaben and Andy Goldsworthy (An Everyday Story)Spielgaben Pattern Work - An Everyday StoryNow that I am homeschooling Jack and Sarah, my approach remains the same; learning and thinking skills first, content second.

So how do we emphasis those important learning skills without focussing too heavily on content?

Do we sit back and a let them explore?

How much input does the adult have in the child’s learning?

Carla Rinaldi says it best:

The Reggio Emilia Approach - An Everyday Story

Our children guide us. But we are partners in their learning. We don’t answer their questions; for answering their questions denies them the opportunity to discover it for themselves.

We help them to grow in their learning by looking for the answers together. It is not a one-way street of information flowing from the adult to the child. It is circular, a partnership; flowing seamlessly between us, each of us asking questions, searching for answers – learning how to learn.

The adult has a crucial part in the learning process; we are a sounding board, we offer suggestions, we ask questions, we listen, we help make plans, we provide resources, we keep momentum going when needed, we teach them how to find information, we value their opinions and suggestions and we support their ideas. The adult has a very important role.

This is real learning; focussing on the process not the answers. For when our children know how to learn, the ‘what to learn’ is limitless.


Jack and Sarah are exploring patterns in nature with our Spielgaben set and Andy Goldsworthy’s: A Collaboration with Nature

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12 Replies to “The Role of the Adult in Inquiry-based Learning”

  1. This pretty much sums up why the current focus on NAPLAN in schools and Kumon style teaching styles are missing the point. Thanks again for sharing your insights and beautiful little family!

    1. Yes, I just read something today which said, “What we teach children to love and desire will always outweigh what we make them learn”. I thought that was so spot-on; teach them to love to learn, teach them to want to learn, teach them how to learn…. don’t make them learn.

  2. Kids who are encouraged to love learning and discovering as an end in itself will i think always love learning no matter how old they are.The answer really isn’t that important its what you discover on the way.

  3. I always love reading your learning insights. Beautiful post.

  4. Thank you Kate, your words are always so wise 🙂 I will be sharing this!

  5. This is such important stuff!

    I think my girl’s prep teacher thought I was a little nuts when I started my first ever parent teacher interview with ‘I don’t care so much about what they have learned, I just care that they are happy and want to come to school’… but I feel so strongly about that that I don’t mind if people think I am a little crazy!

  6. Hi Kate, your posts are always thought provoking. You have inspired us and helped us encourage my son’s love of tinkering (his grandparents old computer has had literally hours of work/learning/amusement). Can you please tell me what Jack is working on in the second photo?

  7. AnnyMommy says:

    These are nice ideas! Make sure to balance all this right brain stuff with left brain work too. That’s where Reggio may fall short and may need to be balanced out by other approaches too. Are you doing phonics and teaching reading as well?

  8. hi! can you tell me please what material is Jack using in the 2nd picture from the top- my daughter is very much into the gears now and this looks perfect! thanks

  9. Talk about timing! Just today I was thinking about my stepson (who has a developmental delay) and his potential move next year to a mainstream school and I decided that what schools should be focussing on is skills, not knowledge. Knowing how to work something out/find something out is a much more important skill than having pre-determined knowledge that may never be used again.

  10. You put this so eloquently.

  11. Great quote from Rinaldi which really sums up the entire inquiry approach.

    I wouldn’t put it in “right brain vs left brain” though. What I do think is that there is teaching skills vs teaching content. Both skills and content are pretty arbitrary. We were taught sewing weekly in our local public school from yr 2 to yr 6 back in the 80s – it was seen as a necessary skill. Now using a computer is seen as a necessary skill. Content back then was that Captain Cook discovered Australia and then there was a Gold Rush. I’m hoping Australian history content has changed a bit since then, but even so, you can’t cover all of history no matter how long you teach for!

    In regards to skills, I’d say a child-led approach would focus on skills that the child thinks valuable at that time rather than skills that an adult has chosen. I think it is important to note that both are arbitrary. No one can predict 100% which skills someone is going to need in the future. In a literacy-based society such as ours, most children will realise that reading and writing are tools they’re going to need, and ask to learn (or pick it up from the environment, depending on how they learn). Whether that is phonics or whether it’s another method will depend on the child.

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