Partnership Explores Inquiry-Based Teaching and Learning in Diverse Communities

UCLA Lab School and 15th Street Elementary School in LAUSD Local District South have launched the Inquiry Institute, an innovative research and development partnership designed to bring together diverse perspectives on how to implement inquiry-based teaching and learning to maximize every child’s learning potential. The work began with the 2018-2019 school year and is slated to run for two years.

“We’re grateful for this opportunity to partner with our colleagues at 15th Street Elementary School,” said UCLA Lab School Principal Georgia Ann Lazo. “Collaborating with them around theory and practice in inquiry-based learning holds great promise for developing a program to share broadly as part of our mission as a laboratory school. It has the potential to benefit many teachers and students, and we are pleased to be working with LAUSD in the spirit of reciprocal learning and public scholarship.”

The Institute is based on the inquiry approach developed at the Lab School and that teachers have documented in Creating a Culture and Pedagogy of Inquiry. It is designed around the components of the approach — Launching, Documentation/Assessment, Investigation, and Application of Knowledge — with an eye toward how to implement the practices in different school environments and for students of diverse backgrounds, needs, and interests.

“We’ve spent the past few years working to articulate and illustrate both what happens when students drive questions and how we create an environment where meaningful investigations come about,” said Sylvia Gentile, UCLA Lab School Demonstration Teacher and Inquiry Initiatives Facilitator. “Collaborating with thoughtful partners, like the 15th Street teachers, and learning together as we test the ideas and adapt them for their students has enormous power to push all of us further in our thinking and in our practice.”

Part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, 15th Street School rose from being a Program Improvement School in 2009 to a California Gold Ribbon School and Title I Academic Achievement School in 2016. Through the partnership, 15th Street School Principal Jennifer Mak and her team aim to continue building on that success.

“We’re interested as a school community in creative and innovative strategies to help our students grow up with a growth mindset,” Mak said. “I look forward to the partnership taking us to the next level in terms of thinking, planning, and delivery so we can provide a truly well-rounded education.”

In the project’s first year, the group is meeting twice each month, once at each school, to observe in classrooms and meet for discussion.

Initial questions the group is exploring center on teacher collaboration (What does it require? What does it look like?) and on building classroom community and inspiring learning environments as foundations for collaboration among students.

“It’s been really great to see the dynamic of what teachers are doing so far,” Gentile said. “There are many experienced teachers in the group, and they know how important community building is. Yet at the same time, there are expectations from parents who may or may not be familiar with these methods. Part of the process is making the case that taking time to build community is going to pay off with greater academic success for all learners.”

Creating an environment for learning for the teachers is just as essential, Mak noted. “I want them to feel very safe in thinking about this work and trying it without pressure,” she said.

painting of butterfly by student at 15th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles

Above: Teachers at 15th Street Elementary School are designing classroom environments and experiences to engage, support and inspire inquiry-based learning 

For the UCLA Lab School teachers, the collaboration holds promise for helping them delve deeper into what inquiry looks like across the curriculum and with English Language Learners.

“The 15th Street teachers bring a tremendous amount of expertise and energy around working with ELLs, with reading and writing workshop, and with CGI mathematics,” Gentile said. “It’s an area of growth for us to look closely at how we weave together all those threads.”

The ultimate goal, she added, is to show that by engaging in the inquiry approach, children are better prepared for school and in life. “With inquiry-based learning, students make deep connections to ideas and experiences in and across content areas,” Gentile noted. “Learning becomes much more a part of who students are rather than simply what they do in school.”