Creating a Culture of Inquiry

“You have a question about our math program? We have a curriculum coordinator for that! Diversity in our curriculum? We have a curriculum coordinator for that! What’s an Episcopal school? Talk to the curriculum coordinator!” Four years ago, when I took the position of the first Curriculum Coordinator at St. Matthew’s Parish School, the job felt a bit like remodeling a house. There was a strong foundation as an Episcopal school and, like an old New England farmhouse, additions that had been incorporated over the years. But the rooms and additions were actually different parts of the curriculum, and my job was to examine the structure as a whole and build hallways to make connections and identify priorities for construction. Shortly after I started, St. Matthew’s began a strategic planning process that involved various constituent groups. What emerged from all of the observation, reading, and discussion was unanimity that we were a school fiercely committed to doing intentional work to develop good young people, but were less clear about our academic identity: Who were we academically, and how did certain themes connect our programs?

Like many peer schools, we had pushed forward in a variety of areas over the years, including expanding efforts in innovation, social-emotional learning, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). To connect all of these efforts in my mind, I kept returning to two things. First, I anchored my thoughts in the last line of our school’s mission statement—“to affirm that we are all children of God and to nurture intellectual, creative, spiritual, and ethical individuals who serve, lead and flourish in an ever-changing world.” Second, I returned to an article written by Julian Bull, the Head of School at Campbell Hall for their DEI Institute in 2015. In it, he identified several characteristics of Episcopal schools, one of which was cultivating a “culture of inquiry.” Taken together, I concluded that the essential questions of our academic program were “What does it mean to fulfill our mission and how do we do it?” Once I articulated this for myself, I had an immediate, logical rationale for our work going forward.

To begin this process with the faculty, I turned to the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Their concept of starting with the outcome and then planning backward proved valuable in working with essential questions. Some of our departments had already gone this route before my work began. Moving forward, the goal was for every department and division to follow this framework as an overall model for planning and articulating the curriculum. What big questions were being asked and how did students arrive at answering those questions? Along with our Episcopal identity and creating a culture of inquiry, we also added four lenses to consider in the unit design planning: mission alignment, innovation, social-emotional learning, and DEI. When the pandemic hit, this preliminary work served us extremely well as we started to prepare for remote instruction. Using inspiration from the work of Heidi Hayes Jacobs, we challenged our teachers to look at what they could cut out of their curriculum, what they needed to keep (i.e., what was essential), and what to create, given the circumstances and constraints. The pandemic, while extraordinarily challenging and difficult, helped to accelerate this shift in mindset out of necessity, and it primed our faculty to be strong and courageous as they continued this work once we were through the hardest parts of pandemic learning.

Over this past year, our teachers have continued to look at their curriculum through essential questions and to create or refine learning experiences that allow students to ask more questions that lead them to the overall goal of answering the big questions. We are creating a culture of inquiry within an institution rooted in the Episcopal faith. Our work at St. Matthew’s reminds me of the evening prayer service from NAES Biennial Conference 2020 in Atlanta. In the sermon by the Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, he referenced Willibrord of Fresia, an Archbishop from the 8th Century. He discussed Willibrord’s clear sense of purpose that, as Episcopal schools, “we want to be regularly producing young people who have what they need at life’s toughest intersections, and make purposeful, positive decisions equipped with learning paradigms that will serve them for a lifetime.” 

The last few years have been filled with tough intersections of issues as varied as health and safety, climate change, political divisiveness, and economic instability. Our students will be faced with more of these as they grow up, and in order for us to prepare them for the decisions they will need to make, we need to create space for them to learn to think critically and understand a variety of perspectives. I see inquiry as the best way for us to develop this in young people as it allows for wonder, doubt, foundational skills, exploration, and consensus and disagreement, all for the sake of helping students think for themselves. Fortunately for all of us in Episcopal schools, our identity not only provides the foundation but also the support beams to nurture the development of inquiry-based education.

Dr. Maya Kelly is Interim Lower School Principal at St. Matthew’s Parish School, Pacific Palisades, CA.