The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2017

Primary School Update: Inquiring Minds

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
The Primary School science curriculum has students exploring, observing, and asking questions as their engagement propels the learning process. 
Above the lunchtime chatter of Primary Commons, you may have heard some
unusual topics of conversation amongst the five, six, and seven year-old diners this fall. Words like “force,” “acceleration,” and “mass” peppered the conversations as students shared tales of elaborate ramp building projects, classroom bowling matches, and cars set to crack up on a collision course.
Across the Primary School, the science curriculum has been redesigned and aligned this year so that no matter what classroom you walk into, all students are exploring the same scientific topic, at the same time, at their own level of understanding. This fall, for example, classes focused on forces, simple machines, and properties of matter. “As Kindergarteners transition to first and second grade, they will return to the same topics but dive deeper each time,” explains Science Department Chair Tim McCauley.
Science in Primary School has also moved to an inquiry-based learning model, where teachers and students start with a question like, “What happens when two objects collide?” and explore it through hands-on learning experiences. “Instead of filling kids with knowledge, we’ve created a science curriculum based on inquiry and curiosity that truly engages children,” says Head of Primary School Teri Lawrence.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
—Benjamin Franklin
Kindergarteners began their study of forces by taking a walk outside this fall to explore the concepts of push and pull. The children’s observations led to a host of questions: Why can you push a chair but not a building? Why does throwing a ball a long distance require a greater push than throwing it a short distance?
Sparking their imagination with a reading of Nancy Shaw’s Sheep in a Jeep, Kindergarten teachers Anne Canada and Lee Bogaert challenged the children to use ramps and tracks to get a jeep from one place to another without crashing. The children quickly realized that the height of the ramp affected how far their car would go. The children applied this information in a second round of ramp design and used linking cubes to measure the distance each car traveled.
Questions abounded as students worked through their successes and failures. “As teachers, we facilitated the conversations, but the children were teaching each other rather than just listening to us tell them why,” says Lee. “The whole process was about discovery.”
Meanwhile, in first grade, children explored the more complex question of how to increase or decrease the push or pull on an object. They created a classroom bowling alley composed of different sized pins and balls and considered why some were harder to knock down than others.
Second graders investigated object collisions by setting up a track with different weighted cars set to crash into one another. Based on their knowledge of force and the influence of mass, students made predictions for each set of cars and then tested their hypotheses.
“I love that we have the freedom to explore what the kids want to explore,” says second grade teacher Kelly Porter. “They don’t want to sit and talk about what a force is. They want to learn and explore together.”
“Wisdom begins in wonder.” —Socrates
While teachers have an outline of topics to address each term, there is no set lesson plan to follow. “We know the content we want to get through,” says Tim McCauley, “but the path we take differs based on the students’ questions and interests.”
In first grade, a discussion about fall weather and migratory animals turned into a full-blown fascination with monarch butterflies. Students dug deeper, discovering that the monarch butterfly population is dying off because winter storms have decimated the Mexican forests where they usually spend their winters. Building on that enthusiasm, the class will be raising their own monarch butterflies in the classroom this year so they can see the life cycle first hand. One benefit of the inquiry-based learning model is that “science can happen at any moment in the classroom,” says Tim, making the connections to other curricular subjects more visible. In a recent art class, for example, students were painting monarch butterflies while discussing the symmetry of the wings and the scientific reasons behind the butterfly’s distinctive orange coloring. In that moment the children were tying art, science, and math into an organic, cross-curricular experience.
The scientific exploration and inquiry taking place in Primary School are providing Fay’s youngest students with a scientific base of knowledge, experience in the scientific method, and opportunities to document and display their learning. Most importantly, teachers are nurturing in children a sense of curiosity about the world that will serve them well in years to come. “The emphasis on inquiry-based learning here in Primary School prepares students for Lower and Upper School science, where they have to use the content they have learned to answer open-ended questions,” says Tim. “This process helps students become better scientists because, at the end of the day, they are asking the questions that matter.”

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