Developing Foundational Literacies, Competences, and Character Qualities through Inquiry into the Environment.
In its New Vision for Education (2015), the World Economic Forum describes how children – in order to thrive in an innovation driven, rapidly evolving, technology saturated 21st Century – need to develop sixteen skills. During five weeks of a child-led inquiry-based project, focusing on the environment, the children we’ve gathered have learnt, in relation to one another, developed foundational literacies in English, numeracy and science, alongside competencies such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration, and character qualities of curiosity, initiative, persistence, and social / cultural awareness.
Through the child-led inquiry on the environment – which relates to ‘Life Skills’ for Grades R to 3 within South Africa’s Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement – the children have:
- created a collaborative environment collage
- shared what they knew about the environment
- thought about the impacts of pollution on our planet
- developed an understanding of the words ‘reduce’ and ‘recycle’
- discussed and considered a question provoked by the children themselves: “How can we help the environment?”
- designed machines to collect litter (in response to the discussion the children had about what they could do to help the environment)
- attempted to collaboratively make prototypes of their machines, out of material collected from the home
- developed deeper thinking, as they started to question whether the machines they were designing / making would actually help the situation, hypothesizing, for example, how they might, “just make people lazy”
- questioned who and why plastic was ever invented (due to its impact on our environment)
- collated and began to analyse data on plastic items that they found in their homes
- were surprised by the amount of plastic in three homes represented by the group
- began to consider how to ‘reduce’ their own plastic consumption, rather than just ‘reuse’ or ‘recycle’
- reflected on the choices they have, and the consequences of these choices
- made a commitment to make a positive difference to our planet
The whole inquiry was closely linked to the development of literacy skills through the sharing and reading of a big book: The Great Kapok Tree. The story, set in the Amazon Rain forest, describes a man, who – exhausted from his attempts to chop down a Great Kapok Tree – puts down his ax to rest for a while. As he falls asleep, the animals who live in and around the tree draw near and begin to plead with him to reconsider destroying their world. Initially, our children, were invited to look through the book using only the pictures (having covered up the words), describing what they could see, and what they thought was happening.
At this stage many of the children were eager to read the book showing great curiosity.
“Okay, can we begin now?”
Each child predicted how they thought the story would end, making their thinking visible through a choice of creative mediums, e.g. paint, pastels, papier Mache, construction, and so on. Before reading the story together on Week 3, the facilitator introduced what they imagined would be some of the trickier words; the children labelled the animals as a group. As the book was read together – a process called ‘shared reading’ – the children shared their understanding of the reasons the animals were giving for not chopping down the tree. Through working together, each child developed strategies in scanning the text to identify key information. One child, who had resigned himself to the fact he couldn’t read “I’m still learning” on Week 2, delighted the group on Week 4, when they released: “He can read!”
The child-led inquiry, and the reading of the story -which formed a major part of this – enabled the children to develop their understanding of question words, how to form questions, and the use of question marks. As they worked together in a process known as ‘shared writing’ (on Week 4), the group creatively decided what the Iguana – which although it features on the book cover, doesn’t speak inside the book – might have said to the man to try and stop him chopping down the Kapok tree. This included the use of questions alongside explanations. The children, then went on to work independently to create their own piece of writing.
Throughout the inquiry, the children had many creative opportunities to express their thinking. Children chose to work individually or collaboratively as they felt appropriate. Through this, facilitators were able to observe children being curious, showing initiative, being persistent, communicating their ideas, developing skills in problem solving, etc.As a result of the extensive research that we have carried out, as we have visited schools in different parts of the world, and, as we have practiced our philosophy in South Africa since, we are confident that the development of foundational skills in English, mathematics (above), and science can be naturally woven in to child-led, inquiry-based projects as and when opportunities present themselves, in relation to the growing interests of the children.
As facilitators continue to practice the art of documentation, that is the intentional recording of comments, experiences, and moments that go on within the learning environment, and, with the dialogue, reflection, and insight that this provides during and afterwards, the adult facilitator-teachers can be listening for the unknown, expecting surprises, and be led by the children, whilst still ensuring that the requirements of the curriculum are also fulfilled.