How We Learn

Emergent curriculum describes the kind of curriculum that develops when exploring what is "socially relevant, intellectually engaging, and personally meaningful to children" the basic idea is that organic, whole learning evolves from the interaction of the classroom participants, both children and adults. "As caring adults, we make choices for children that reflect our values; at the same time we need to keep our plans open-ended and responsive to children" (Jones and Nimmo, 1994, p3).

In emergent curriculum, both adults and children have initiative and make decisions. This power to impact curriculum decisions and directions means that sometimes curriculum is also negotiated, between what interests children and what adults know is necessary for children's education and development. Ideas for curriculum emerge from responding to the interests, questions, and concerns generated within a particular environment, by a particular group of people, at a particular time (Cassady, 1993).

Emergent curriculum is never built on children's interests alone, teachers and parents also have interests worth bringing into the curriculum. The values and concerns of all the adults involved help the classroom culture evolve. The curriculum is called emergent because it evolves, diverging along new paths as choices and connections are made, and it is always open to new possibilities that were not thought of during the initial planning process (Jonmes and Reynolds, 1992).

Emergent curriculum arises naturally from adult-child interactions and situations that allow for "teachable moments." It connects learning with experience and prior learning. It includes all interests of children and responds to their interests rather than focusing on a narrow, individual, or calendar driven topic. It is process rather than product driven. The curriculum is typically implemented after an idea emerges from the group of children.

How is inquiry-based learning different from traditional approaches?

In the traditional framework, teachers come to class with highly structured curricula and activity plans, sometimes referred to as "scope and sequence." They act as the source of knowledge and as the person who determines which information is important. There is certainly creativity and flexibility in how each teacher runs his or her class, but the topics and projects are driven and evaluated based on what a teacher, administrator, school board, or bureaucracy have decided what children should know and master.

Inquiry-based learning projects are driven by students. Instructors act more as coaches, guides, and facilitators who help learners arrive at their "true"questions -the things they really care about. When students choose the questions, they are motivated to learn and they develop a sense of ownership about the project.

Don't get the wrong idea, however: Inquiry-based learning projects are not unstructured; they are differently structured. If anything, they require even more planning, preparation, and responsiveness from the educator-it's just that the educator's role is different.

Advantages of Inquiry-Based Learning

Instructors who adopt an inquiry-based learning approach help students identify and refine their "real" questions into learning projects or opportunities. They then guide the subsequent research, inquiry, and reporting processes.

Inquiry-based learning has other advantages as well:

An inquiry-based learning approach is flexible and works well for projects that range from the extensive to the bounded, from the research-oriented to the creative, from the laboratory to the Internet. It is essential, however, that you plan ahead so you can guide kids to suitable learning opportunities.  You'll find that many kids who have trouble in school because they do not respond well to lectures and memorization will blossom in an inquiry-based learning setting, awakening their confidence, interest, and self-esteem.

The traditional approach tends to be very vertical: the class studies science for awhile, for example, then language arts, then math, then geography. In contrast, the inquiry-based approach is at its best when working on interdisciplinary projects that reinforce multiple skills or knowledge areas in different facets of the same project. You'll also find that although the traditional approach is sharply weighted toward the cognitive domain of growth, inquiry-based learning projects positively reinforce skills in all three domains-physical, emotional, and cognitive.

Inquiry-based learning is particularly well suited to collaborative learning environments and team projects. You can create activities in which the entire class works on a single question as a group (just be sure that the whole group truly cares about the question) or in teams working on the same or different questions.

Of course, inquiry-based learning also works well when you've decided to let each student develop an individual project; when doing so, however, be sure to incorporate some elements of collaboration or sharing.

An inquiry-based approach can work with any age group. Even though older students will be able to pursue much more sophisticated questioning and research projects, build a spirit of inquiry into activities wherever you can, even with the youngest, in an age-appropriate manner.


Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.

There are several guiding principles of constructivism

  1. Learning is a search for meaning. Therefore, learning must start with the issues around which students are actively trying to construct meaning.
  2. Meaning requires understanding wholes as well as parts. And parts must be understood in the context of wholes. Therefore, the learning process focuses on primary concepts, not isolated facts.
  3. In order to teach well, we must understand the mental models that students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models.
  4. The purpose of learning is for an individual to construct his or her own meaning, not just memorize the "right" answers and regurgitate someone else's meaning. Since education is inherently interdisciplinary, the only valuable way to measure learning is to make the assessment part of the learning process, ensuring it provides students with information on the quality of their learning.

How Constructivism Impacts Learning


Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customized to the students' prior knowledge. Also, it emphasizes hands-on problem solving.


Under the theory of constructivism, educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.


Constructivism calls for the elimination of grades and standardized testing. Instead, assessment becomes part of the learning process so that students play a larger role in judging their own progress.

Jacqueline and Martin Brooks,
The Case for Constructivist Classrooms