Ross Valley Charter School > Inquiry Based Learning


Our goal at RVC is to foster intellectual curiosity and confidence.


We work hard to make sure that our program fosters both independence and collaboration. Our multi-age, inquiry-based approach focuses with intention to nurture social and emotional development while pursuing academic achievement. From Transitional Kindergarten through 5th grade, students build their skills, confidence, and ability to collaborate.

Children are naturally curious. Inquiry-based education works with a child’s natural curiosity and desire to follow their interests, to experiment and to be involved. Critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-direction are critical skills in today's world. Our inquiry-based program develops those skills through progressively more challenging inquiry units as students progress through grades. 

Compelled by curiosity, RVC students delve deep into questions that are important to them. Students are engaged in their learning and motivated to increase their own knowledge through discovery. With the focus of a guiding question, students are provided with resources, support, and direction while they work to experiment, research, and learn. 


Inquiry Arcs: Three Phases

Throughout the school year, RVC students experience several distinct 6-10 week ‘Inquiry Arcs.’ Each arc follows an intentional process that provides students with background knowledge, while igniting each child’s curiosity to develop their own knowledge, culminating in them sharing what they’ve learned.

Ross Valley elementary children investigate coyote life with bones and research materials.
A 2/3 class inquiry into coyotes and their interaction with humans.

Phase 1: Exploration

The “exploration” phase includes teacher-led lessons, observations, field trips, talking with experts, and reading informational books, articles and websites. Students wonder, notice, ask questions, make predictions, test hypotheses and become immersed in a topic.

Phase 2: Investigation

In the next phase, called “investigation,”  students discuss as a class what further questions they have about the topic. Sometimes, they reach consensus on a guiding question to answer about a subject. Other times, individual students, partners, or small groups work on a question together.  As the inquiry progresses, students use a variety of resources to collect and record data, represent and explain results, and develop a meaningful body of work around the inquiry topic.

Students in Marin pictured with plants for their study into plant growth
Hands-on exploration of plant structures and growth habits
Transitional Kindergarteners, Kindergarteners, and first-graders teach about rainforest animals
A TK/K/1 class transforms their classroom into a rainforest to teach visitors about rainforest animals and habitat.

Phase 3: Exposition

In the final phase, “exposition,” students determine how to share their knowledge with others.  This may include performances, written papers, and living museums all guided and produced by students.  Students develop skills and strategies to share their understanding with a wider audience, gaining confidence and pride as they demonstrate their accomplishments by teaching others. Following each arc, students follow a guided reflection both on their learning and on the inquiry process.  

Core Academics Through Inquiry

RVC teachers design inquiry arcs starting with the Common Core State Standards (English-Language Arts and Mathematics), the Next Generation Science Standards, and the California History/Social Science Standards. In any given arc, students work toward mastery of skills in multiple subject areas. Academic goals are met within the arcs because research, reading, writing, math, and experimentation are naturally incorporated into the exploration of subjects. Teachers explicitly teach academic subjects within the context of the arc.  

For example, during a 4th/5th grade unit on Immigration, after learning about various groups who immigrated during different eras in California history, students focused on reading and interpreting informational texts from many sources, took notes, then wrote informational pieces about an immigration-related question they designed.

In one 2nd/3rd grade unit on oceans, individual students conducted thorough research on a particular ocean animal (informational reading, gathering source material, and writing), then wrote narratives from the perspective of that animal.

Writing, reading, math, and science are interwoven

The Evolution from Progressive Education to Inquiry-Based Learning

Progressive education emerged as a response to traditional, rigid teaching methods. The theory that a more student-centered learning environment would lead to better outcomes, more student engagement, and a more positive attitude towards learning. Initially, progressive education focused on child development, emphasizing hands-on learning, critical thinking, and experiential education. Over time, this approach evolved into inquiry-based education as educators recognized the importance of fostering curiosity and independent thinking in students.

Inquiry-based education builds on the foundation of progressive education but takes it a step further by putting a strong emphasis on inquiry, investigation, and questioning. Our teachers encourage students to explore topics deeply, guiding them to ask meaningful questions and seek answers through research, experimentation, and analysis. In age-appropriate ways, this approach shifts the role of the the teacher from being a provider of information to a facilitator who supports and guides students' investigations, encouraging them to take ownership of their learning.

As our teachers realized the value of fostering curiosity and critical thinking skills, they decided to adopt the inquiry model. It acknowledges that learning is not solely about absorbing facts but rather about asking questions, seeking understanding, and engaging in meaningful exploration. This evolution from progressive education to inquiry-based education reflects a shift towards empowering students as active participants in their own learning journeys, preparing them to be lifelong learners equipped with the skills needed to thrive in a complex, ever-changing world.