Inquiring Minds

If you ask any student or alumni to summarize the Burlington City & Lake Semester, there will likely be a smile, but there may also be a pause… After all, with so many ingredients, BCL can be hard to describe. Past blog posts have focused on experiential learning, youth-adult-partnerships, restorative practices, place-based learning, problem-based learning, systems thinking, and social justice. There is one more ingredient that deserves some time in the spotlight: inquiry-based learning. 

A spirit of inquiry is pervasive in BCL. While it is formally channeled into students’ independent “Inquiry Projects,” it is also part of our culture. Over the course of the semester, students become more and more comfortable with open-ended questions, many of which don’t have easy answers–or answers at all. Curiosity bubbles up with peers, with community partners, and in their journals. It is hard to see, but you can feel it. It’s the wind in our sails. 

Students at Perkins Pier, opening up questions with Watershed Alliance educators about what “sustainability” really means.
Ali and Sylvano grapple with David Harris’s story, and why society makes resilience so difficult.
Maria, Anna, and Nils at HULA Lakeside, envisioning how their business plan could help our community thrive.

In an anonymous survey, students from this Fall’s cohort (“BCL7”) had a chance to reflect on their experience with inquiry-based learning. As always, students have keen insight into what learning looks like, and what it feels like. 

When and where in your BCL experience have you felt inquiry (or an “inquiry mindset”) most powerfully? 

I have felt most curious in our small group discussions, when I am able to draw on the things I’ve learned to contribute to the group. Those are the moments I thrive.

I have been the most curious during our consultancy with Parks and Rec about Calahan park. I felt the most personal relevance during that unit. I also was able to bring more questions and insights because of my experience going to the park and the fact that the topic was 100% new to me.

I felt the most powerful inquiry mindset when we were at the Sailing Center. There were lots of things around us that were interesting to me, mostly because I love the waterfront and the things they have down there. I was curious about the Moran Plant, about the drainage systems, about electric bikes, and about the Sailing Center’s strategy for getting more people down there.

I definitely felt an inquiry mindset back when doing the snorkeling activity. That’s when I really got interested in the lake and the Barge Canal, both its history and it’s potential as a park. This really inspired me and set up my first inquiry project.

I’ve felt inquiry most powerfully when we meet with community partners and then are given the chance to reflect on the topics or issues at hand. This could include doing a quick journal write after talking with the community partners or breaking into smaller group discussions. When I take this time to dive deeper I become more curious and engaged in what I’m learning.

I have felt inquiry most powerfully when we learn from community partners who share their story (David Harris, Algenis Garcia, Judy Dow) because it makes me feel more eager to try to solve problems when we hear about them on a personal level.

Reimagining Calahan Park with parks designer Sophie Sauve. 
Algenis Garcia, owner of The Shop, on St. Paul St., sharing his story about business, identity, and community. 
Discussing equitable access to the lake with Owen Milne, Director of the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center.

What does it FEEL like to do “Inquiry-Based Learning?” 

There is more freedom in what you learn but there is also more responsibility. In a regular class a teacher will assign a topic and you have to research said topic, but it might not be something you enjoy. In BCL, there is room for you to choose what you’re interested in and dive deeper.

I really enjoy thinking this way. I like the idea of learning through experience, and usually it makes you more interested in what you’re learning.

I like having the opportunity to be creative even when a method of learning doesn’t necessarily find an answer. Inquiry-based learning has led me to explore many more topics, which has made me more engaged.

It feels engaging, insightful, and beneficial to do Inquiry Projects, especially when you’re interested in them. However it definitely feels like a lot of work at times, and the prep isn’t so easy. Still, I like what you learn through doing them.

I really like the projects where we choose what we learn. That’s fire yo.

It’s amazing. It’s really motivating to be at the center of my own learning. It makes me start questioning things everywhere I go, and helps me find interest in new things that I would normally not have been interested in.

In BCL, synthesis activities are typically inquiry-based. This leaves room for students to make connections and meaning–and to open up new questions.
With Land Stewardship Research Associate, Lina Swislocki, even seemingly simple questions —  like “What is a lawn for?” — open up expansive space for dialogue.
BCL students come back from a neighborhood walk with UVM Place-Based Education undergrads, still talking about whether this pocket of the Old North End is thriving. 

How does your experience of Inquiry-Based Learning influence your thinking about school and learning in general? 

I feel that in conventional school there isn’t much inquiry at all. Everything is decided already. There is a set script and if you don’t follow it you get behind.  In BCL, I really like being able to spread so many branches and to learn about new things that I am interested in. It feels more like work I’d be doing independently in my life.

I think inquiry is a cool way to learn because the kids are more engaged. This is easy, because it’s the thing that they want to learn about. This makes BCL unique.

I think Inquiry Projects have made me more skilled at research and helped my creativity.

There is a little bit of Inquiry-Based Learning in the rest of my classes. It’s definitely encouraged at school, but it’s not the center of our learning. I wish that more people would embrace inquiry in all parts of life. People accept that young kids ask lots of questions, but not so much for adults. I think everyone would benefit from asking more questions. 

In BCL, it feels like we are able to truly learn the way we naturally should.

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