Students explore their passions during Inquiry Week at Penfield Elementary

Would the game of hockey change with unbreakable sticks?

Could you charge a cell phone with a lemon?

What is a dream?

These and many others are questions that were being explored this year by Grades 4 and 5 students during Inquiry Week at Penfield Elementary.

This is the second year that Penfield has done Inquiry Week – which is actually two weeks of exploration on the subjects chosen by the students – and Penfield teacher Leah Samson says it’s an exceptionally effective way to engage the students in their own learning.

The new province-wide public education curriculum is rolling out, and the language surrounding that curriculum is full of buzzwords and phrases like, “individualized learning” and “allowing students to explore their passions,” and events like Showcase Day on Wednesday this week show that’s exactly the kind of learning that’s already happening here, Samson says.

“The research shows, unequivocally, that if you don’t have a connection with the thing you’re learning, it’s very, very difficult to learn it,” Samson says.

And that’s what Inquiry Week is all about. It’s about giving the kids the time to learn as much as you can about something they are passionate about.

“So what the kids have done, essentially, is brainstorm their own big, deep, critical questions that they wanted to explore,” Samson says as we walk around the gymnasium full of cardboard displays, models, computers and tablets with videos and slideshows playing on Wednesday, “and they’re showing off the results of that research today.”

Taya Jordan wanted to examine how knitting and crochet effects humans emotionally.

“I found out that just by repeating the motion, it helps release stress and is actually more relaxing than painting or playing a card game or things like that,” Jordan explains.

And she didn’t find that out just by typing “knitting benefits” into a computer and writing down what she found. She started with something like that, “but then I figured out that I needed to talk to some actual people, and got their say on it too, and incorporated what they said into my project, as well,” she says, pointing to the quotes she’s printed out and put on her display.

Kate Steele wanted to examine whether anxiety is becoming an epidemic in our society. She says she gets anxious often, and wanted to know why – and how to better manage it – so she looked into it.

“I think anxiety is increasing really rapidly,” Steele explains, “but I wouldn’t call it an epidemic, because everyone has some level of anxiety in some way,” she says. She found through her research that increasing pressures being placed on people in modern society might be making people more anxious more often, but because it’s not “transferrable” like a contagious disease, she doesn’t think you can really call it an “epidemic.”

And then there’s Kai Hiebert, who saw his friends playing video games he thought weren’t that good for them, so he researched the developmental value of these games, what aspects of them are actually beneficial, and then developed one himself – right down to the code – where players create a character and then go exploring dungeon mazes.

So while some of us remember the most interesting thing in elementary school being the papier mâché volcano that erupted baking soda foam, these kids are preparing to change the world, it seems.

Or rather, they’re trying to keep up to a world that is changing around them whether they change with it or not, Samson says.

“These kids don’t need to remember things – like how we were taught, where the teacher just tells you things that you need to be able to remember later when you take a test,” Samson says. “They need to learn how to navigate this complex world they live in where they are just surrounded and bombarded by content, and this is the kind of thing that helps them learn how to do that.”