Mulberry Blog

Inquiry based learning in Middle School

Interest = Learning

That’s inquiry based learning

Do you know what captures our interest?  Things that matter to us personally. Things that touch our heart, or soul.  That we feel connected to.

Despite the fact that this is common knowledge – and that fundamental research in the field of Learning Sciences bears this out – most schools are organized in ways that make no sense.

Children learn when they are actively engaged. When they are moving their hands and bodies, and making sense of what they are doing.  When they connect what they are doing to what they already know and understand.

Children learn best when they are guided by expert teachers into situations that create real questions and the opportunities to answer them. That’s inquiry based learning.

This is true at every age.  From the preschooler dumping sand into different sized buckets, to the young primary student working with spaghetti as intestines, to the elementary student discovering myriad patterns within the multiplication table.  And it’s not just a nice idea for little children. It is equally true of middle school students.  And that’s why most schools fail middle schoolers so badly.

As they reach middle school, children are newly able to sort and organize their world.  They bring new cognitive skills of systematic problem solving and abstract thinking.  They bring new social emotional skills of negotiating with and understanding others. Newly awakened to their place in the world, they are deeply interested in understanding it in a global way. There is no better way to tap into middle school students’ new skills than through inquiry based learning.

Mulberry Middle School creates learning that is direct and powerful.  A recent example is the student-driven design of an outdoor social space.  The middle schoolers are deciding what they need and how to construct it, blending math, art, persuasive writing, and presentation.

Kids who experience their world understand and retain more. Field trips are the classic example of this. Students get to leave the confines of their school, go out into the world to take part in something. In most schools, field trips are a lark, but don’t really further learning.  When these experiences are folded into the curriculum, children can deepen their understanding both of the events and other ideas.

At Mulberry, learning is always like a field trip. Mulberry students JK – 8th grade are continually asked to be open to the ideas around them, to explore and build their understanding.  They are asked to connect what they are doing to their own lives, and to bring more questions to the table. They are active, and involved. They work on real problems and ask how that connects to the greater world around them.  

Engagement over memorization also leads to greater success, which recent research in math education bears out.  High school mathematics students globally vary in how much they use memorization – students in higher performing countries employ it less.

Being forced to learn disconnected, disembodied facts is no recipe for deep knowledge or a love of learning.  At Mulberry students can direct and shape their learning, while deepening their commitment to it.  Our Middle School students are curious and eager for more!

saw firsthand how at Mulberry students are respected and challenged. Kids are given time to explore and grow.  Art is infused in everything that is done. Kids learn who they are and how to work with others. They learn to ask questions and how to answer them. They come to know their passions.  And better – they learn how to pursue them.

My kids are now teens. They loved it here and come back to visit whenever they can.  I’ve watched them successfully move to new schools and onto new challenges, both personal and academic. I love that Mulberry helped lay the foundation of their ability to joyfully navigate their way in the world.

Mulberry is magic. If you live close enough to send your children here, you owe it to them and yourself to come take a look.

Muffie Wiebe Waterman, Ph.D.

Dr. Waterman holds a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. For over 25 years she has worked to advance innovative education.  At San Jose State University, Muffie taught courses in child development, cognitive development, and play and creativity for 8 years.  Most recently she was Executive Director of 10 Books A Home, a nonprofit child-parent home tutoring program serving high poverty preschoolers and their families in East Palo Alto.  Her career has included curriculum development in math and science, teacher professional development for preservice and inservice teachers, and classroom experience ranging from infant through 8th grade.

Muffie was the participating parent when her two children attended Mulberry.  She served on the Mulberry Board of Trustees for 4 years.