Child-led inquiry is one of the most important aspects of Walden's culture. This can be seen all over campus in any classroom but is perhaps most evident in the long-term research projects undertaken at all grade levels. In the Lower Core, students choose research topics for their All About Books. In the Middle Core, students go on a Learning Adventures. Fourth and fifth graders embark on a Learning Quest. Projects at all grade levels are age appropriate and meaningful and allow students to improve their research, collaboration, and presentation skills. Years of study and exploration lead Walden students to the juggernaut that awaits them in sixth grade, the mother of all investigative writing endeavors: the Inquiry Project.
On the surface, assignments like the Inquiry Project might seem like the research papers most of us wrote in school, but closer examination reveals some crucial differences.
First, Walden's commitment to embracing child-led inquiry and honoring each child's voice makes this project unique. The word "inquiry" is derived from the Latin inquirere, which means "to examine or scrutinize." This requires an intense level of engagement – and interest – in the given topic. It's hard to exercise scrutiny over something you don't care about. Students are encouraged to choose topics that they are passionate about or that cause them to question and wonder. Or, as sixth grade teacher Danica Dermott explains, "The Inquiry Project is unique because students dig deep into their own curiosity to have their own questions determine their topic of study. Some questions arise in class [that are] so big they require more in-depth research, and those questions are reserved for the Inquiry Project."
Secondly, unlike more traditional research projects, students are encouraged to look for topics with strong ethical implications and moral complexities. Or, as sixth grader Savannah Davis told me, "We had to choose a question or topic that was controversial and look at both sides of it, getting other people's opinions on this topic and seeing what you might be able to do to fix a problem."
Earlier this month, we celebrated their efforts at the Inquiry Fair. The community room was full of passionate presentations and carefully curated visual displays as each of the graduating sixth graders shared findings on their chosen topics.
After the fair, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Savannah and some other students in Danica's class. I heard about their research firsthand and was beyond impressed by their passion, scholarship, and level of engagement. Here, in their own words, are a few of Walden's graduating sixth graders discussing the ethical issues and questions that interest them.
What topic did you choose for your inquiry project? How or why did you choose it?
I chose to do my inquiry on homelessness, but not just homelessness, specifically its causes. I interviewed people on the streets and asked them about their lives. I feel like it's really nice to get to know your community, and for me homelessness is a big problem in my neighborhood.
Mine is factory farming. I like animals a lot, and I heard about factory farming, and I wanted to learn more. Animals are getting abused just for our food. And humans are getting sick from eating them. All the waste from animals is getting dumped into rivers and lakes, which is not good for small communities. My goal is to try to tell as many people as possible about factory farming because it's a secret big problem.
My topic is virtual reality limits on children because of the effects it has on people's eyes and emotions.
I chose it because I recently got a virtual reality headset, and I saw that it did stuff to me. For example, if I'm playing a game where someone gets hurt and dies, it's emotional. I see it like it's real.
My topic is industrial pollution and how factories affect our environment. The controversy behind it, for me, is that it really has to have more regulations. But in particular, there has to be more regulations on the materials [factories] put into the air and the water. I started getting interested in it when Trump said climate change doesn't exist. It got me really angry. One of the main sources of climate change is manufacturing, and I wanted to learn more about that.
My topic is self-driving cars. I've always been terrified of the thought of having to drive myself. I don't want to drive, and so self-driving cars popped into my head. I started doing research on it, and I liked the topic. Some people think it's a terrible idea, that they're all going to crash and kill people. Other people think it's innovative and that it will change the future. And it definitely will. Whether that's going to be a positive change or not is still unknown.
I chose the ethics of torture and torture policy. The real reason I chose this topic was a John Oliver bit on Last Week Tonight. He laid out a lot of the things, and it got me thinking about torture as an issue. The U.S. does torture people, and so we need accurate, comprehensive torture policy. The debate if we should use it at all is extremely important.
As you researched, what surprising discoveries did you make?
I learned that there are upwards of 40,000 homeless veterans, and in my opinion, I feel like when you come back from a war, you should be treated like a hero. I could rant about this for hours talking about how unjust it is. I honestly feel it is morally wrong that there are veterans on the streets. They put their lives out there. It was so surprisingly when I read that. I felt angry that our nation didn't do more.
I think the most surprising part for me is how little people care about the animals. They think they're just mindless creatures who can't feel pain. Unfortunately, that's not at all true.
I was surprised when I noticed some of the things I read about virtual reality were actually happening to me. Such as when I looked at the screen too long, my eyes were blurring. Just like when you're looking at a TV screen too closely. I mean, there are filters, but it doesn't take away all of it.
I was surprised to find out that the U.S. wasn't the main source of [industrial pollution.] It was mostly China. If you look at a graph of it, it looks like the problems are centralized in China, in Asia. Not that we're doing great either, but that was interesting.
I was surprised to learn that most of the people our government tortures are innocent. I found a lot of [the research] interesting. I did have a position when I started research and it's changed slightly, but mostly stayed the same. I think [the U.S.] can't completely get rid of torture because it can be very useful. Although we do need to limit its use and decide when it should be allowed. It should only be allowed in specific cases.
Talk a little bit about your research process.
I used a lot of government sourced websites. I can generally trust those as accurate sources for facts like census data. For my topic [homelessness], those things were important. Like I said before, I also interviewed community members about their experiences.
My research has been challenging, but also fun. The challenging thing is making [my presentation] appropriate for all ages. I want to have pictures that show animal cruelty, but I don't want to have to hide my board. I want to show it to everyone. I carefully chose which pieces of research to include.
For me, research was kind of hard because virtual reality is very new. I couldn't use any books because there aren't any yet. All of my sources were only a few months old. I used websites and news articles. We were originally required to use books as sources, but Danica and I talked about it, and there were really no books.
I had the same issue. There weren't a lot of book sources, but there were quite a lot of internet sources. The books were mainly about pollution in general, but not industrial pollution specifically.
In the actual research process, we were encouraged to have "credible" internet sources. You have to pay attention to whether it's a government site, an educational site, or a respected news source.
Savannah experienced similar obstacles trying to research self driving cars.
At first, we went to the library as a class, but I didn't get much work done. There was literally only one book that talked about self-driving cars, although that book was very good and useful. But I did find a bunch of articles and internet sources.
Another experience I heard echoed in all these interviews was an understanding of how their time at Walden prepared them for this project.
When I was doing Learning Adventures in 2nd and 3rd grade, all the 6th graders told me a bigger project was coming, and I was like "Oh my god!"
It sort of mentally prepared me to understand that there was a project that was much bigger, with more research and a bibliography, etc.
I think mostly 4th and 5th grade prepared me for this. The Learning Adventure wasn't as hard for me. This is definitely a bigger challenge. But when we we're doing [the Inquiry Project] now, we are focused primarily on the inquiry project. For example, we don't have social studies while we're working on these projects. So, all of our focus is on our research. That helps. And brings all the Learning Adventures full circle.
These interviews reflect just a portion of the research, insight, thoughtfulness, and vigor of the sixth-grade class. I learned so much from these six and would have liked to interview all of them.
But even this small sampling reinforced my belief that what we do here is important.
Or, as Danica puts it,
"At Walden, learning isn't about acquiring specific information at a specific age for a specific test on a specific day. The children of the future don't need to fill their brains with facts, but rather to learn how to be resourceful and to elevate the relevancy of those sources so that they can find new information and not just regurgitate memorized facts that don't connect to their life experience. As students graduate from Walden, they leave us with a love of learning and an appreciation for both their own and others' diverse interests and learning styles, giving them the foundation for being life-long learners and stewards of the world. "