Inquiry Based Learning & Student Driven Inquiry

Inquiry based learning helps prep students for lifelong learning. Find out more about inquiry based teaching at WMS in this podcast with the Director of Student Inquiry and Research.

John Maher: Hi, I'm John Maher. I'm here today with Sara Kelley-Mudie, Director of Student Inquiry and Research at the White Mountain School, a private college prep day and boarding school in New Hampshire. Today, we are talking about inquiry-based learning and student-driven inquiry. Welcome Sara.

Sara Kelley-Mudie: Thanks for having me John.

Inquiry Based Learning, Defined

John Maher: Sure. Sara, what is inquiry-based learning and in particular, student-driven inquiry?

Sara Kelley-Mudie: Inquiry-based learning really starts by posing questions, by using problems and scenarios rather than presenting established facts. It's exposing a gap in understanding and helping students fill in that gap. Student-driven inquiry is rooted in questions that students genuinely have. It puts students’ curiosity about a topic, about the world at the center of what they are learning. It really helps connect students to their world, to their curiosities, and to their passions.

Inquiry Learning & Trends in Education

John Maher: How does inquiry learning fit in with some of the recent trends in education?

Sara Kelley-Mudie: It ties very closely to what we are talking about in education today, but it also really ties into what we have known from the beginning about how students learn best, about how we all learn best. How we learn throughout our lives is by asking questions and pursuing an answer to those questions. This idea of lifelong learning does not start when we graduate high school. It starts from the beginning of our lives and it is a natural fit throughout our formal education as well. It fits with what we know about motivation. It motivates students, and how students connect with their world, what they are learning about, and what they are genuinely curious about.

John: What we find is that students who are interested in a topic and who take the time to go outside of the classroom and try to pursue answers to the questions that they have, that they internalize and learn better because they are approaching it, not just from an academic way, but that they are genuinely interested in what the topic is. By pursuing it on their own and asking questions and finding out the answers to those questions, those answers and the learning become more internalized and more a part of who they are as a student. Is that proof, an accurate way to describe that?

Sara: Exactly. They deeply learn not just the content of what they are learning about, but they also really internalize the skills of what it means to be a learner. Of how to go from a problem to grappling with the question and to pursuing answers. It is really what many schools are talking about in thinking about moving away from memorization and recall, to really deep engagement with topics, with subjects, with questions.

Inquiry Based Learning at White Mountain School

John: All right. Does White Mountain School have a particular version or philosophy of inquiry based learning and teaching? How does that work at the school?

Sara: It's really student-driven inquiry that is at the heart of our belief and the power of inquiry-based learning is embracing the questions that students genuinely have. Students learn better, we all learn better when we are genuinely interested in what we are learning about. When students are inspired to ask questions about what they are generally interested in, they more deeply engage with the content, with learning the skills. By putting student questions at the center of inquiry, teachers then also build and scaffold skills around inquiry-based learning, and students are able to pursue increasingly, sophisticated questions throughout their time at WMS.

John: Can you talk a little bit about what your role is at the White Mountain School and how you are helping students to engage in student-driven inquiry?

Sara: Absolutely. One of my roles is teaching the research seminar class, which is an option for students as they pursue their LASR project, and really choosing a question that they are deeply interested in and sometimes it is a question from their experiences outside WMS. Oftentimes, what I found, is it is a question that has been raised in another class for them and this is an opportunity for them to really go deeper and really structure their own research and dive into their own question. I also talked with students as they develop their own independent studies and think about what questions they want to be asking. And also, working with teachers as they incorporate more student-driven inquiry into their classes and how we build questioning skills throughout the curriculum.

Inquiry Based Learning and College Placement

John: What does having an inquiry-based learning curriculum do for college placement do you think?

Sara: It prepares students for the types of work that they will be doing in college. As we made this move, we spoke with college admissions officers about how this fits with what they do. Colleges were really excited to hear that this is what WMS students are doing and what they bring to colleges. Colleges are looking for more than just good students. They want students who can show evidence of engagement with material and with their own learning process, and that students need to be inquisitive to be successful in college and beyond. We really build those skills throughout their time at WMS by doing student-driven inquiry and engaging with those questions. It's also a way for students to distinguish on themselves in the application process that they have done serious academic research about a topic that interests them and demonstrates that they can pursue a question with creativity and with rigor.

John: That's really a good point and I think a lot of students at your average public school going off to college are maybe shocked by the difference in academic approach and how much they need to do on their own, and how much they need to pursue the subject that they are studying on their own, and through their own questions and research. If they are not prepared for that because their high school just engaged in the old standard type of learning where you know, "Okay class, read this chapter of the book and then tomorrow we are going to learn about that." And then, "Okay, read the next chapter." The students are not really engaged in that kind of research. That deep type of research and questions and trying to find the answers to their own questions. I think that when they get to college, they are not prepared for a very different type of learning that they might find there. It seems like this type of program at the White Mountain School really helps to prepare students in a large way for like you said, not just college but even the work life beyond that.

Sara: Yes. What I found is that students asked very challenging questions of themselves. They set the bar very high for themselves, which prepares them for where the bar is going to be set in college and for the type of work that they will be expected to do and will be excited to do, because they know that they have the skills in order to do that type of inquiry work.

John: Well, that is really great. Excellent to talk to you, Sara. Thank you very much.

Sara: Thank you.

John: For more information, you can visit the school's website at or call 603 444 2928.


371 West Farm Road  •  Bethlehem, New Hampshire 03574  •  603.444.2928
Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a coeducational college-preparatory boarding and day school for students grades 9-12/PG.

Notice of Nondiscriminatory Policy as to Students
The White Mountain School admits students of any race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.

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