In the final weeks of 2017, I found myself (as I always do in early December) working with my local partner schools to consider possible journeys of inquiry for their students in 2018. Over the years, we have established quite a thorough process to do this ‘projection’ work – drawing not only on curriculum requirements but considering local and global issues/challenges, teacher perspectives on the needs of their community of learners and of course, the students’ own reflections on the year as well as their ‘hopes and dreams’ for the year ahead. It is always an exciting time – a time full of promise and possibility. In these schools, we don't have a fixed scope and sequence. The curriculum itself provides us with a sequence of achievement standards. With these standards in mind, we then develop contexts for inquiry on a year by year basis.
The process of projecting for a year of inquiry depends a great deal on our reflections on the year that has passed. We have to ask ourselves: What has worked best? How do we know? What contexts have offered the most productive and engaging opportunities for inquiry? Identifying the features of the inquiries that have been the most successful helps us make better decisions about contexts in the year to come.
The end of the year is full of ‘best of’ lists. So I thought I would add mine….here are my ‘best inquiry journeys for 2017” …albeit, given it is 2018 now, a little late!
Oh…and by the way, this is not in any kind of order!!
1. How can we design for our wellbeing?
Year 5/6 inquiry students at Newport Lakes Primary School began the year by inquiring into the impact that design can have on people’s wellbeing. This meant that the two big concepts of ‘design’ and ‘wellbeing’ each required investigation. The inquiry worked towards the creation and pitching of design ideas for classroom spaces that would promote wellbeing and, therefore, be beneficial for learning.
2. What makes a healthy habitat?
The year ¾ students at Ringwood Heights Primary school began their year with a focus on the concept of habitat. The school is surrounded by bushland and has access to a nearby nature sanctuary. Linking with local naturalists, they inquired into the plants and animals of the local area and considered how ‘healthy’ the school ground habitat was. The concept was then transferred to the classroom – as a habitat for learning, what does it need to nurture growth?
3. How can we teach others about this special place?
Mother Teresa Primary School in Craigeburn, Melbourne has a unique resource in its grounds - an old homestead ‘Olrig’ build in late 1800’s. Jess, a teacher at the school, worked with a group throughout the year on an inquiry into the history of Olrig and how to communicate what they had learned to others that might visit the homestead. The children collaborated with sign-writers, designers and historians. The building now has a beautiful display of information for visitors that has been designed by the children themselves – an amazing achievement.
4. Why do people play?
While Jess worked with her group on designing displays for the Olrig homestead, the younger learners (P-2) at Mother Teresa School were busy inquiring into play – into their own play and into the way people in other cultures played. The creative thinking required for the task of designing play spaces was marvellous.
5. Can we create our own restaurant?
Year 5/6 students at Ringwood Heights Primary School have had a long standing tradition of bringing food to share each day in the weeks leading up to the year 6’s graduation. Whilst this daily ‘feast’ was fun – it was largely something done by parents and staff felt it lacked real meaning for the students. Inspired by the success of Kate Haywood and her team at St Clare's Primary School, the team brought the concept of creating a restaurant to the children and it was met with huge enthusiasm. This inquiry connected with a multitude of key curriculum outcomes. Students investigated restaurants in their local community and talked with owners and staff to learn more about the systems that are needed to make a restaurant function. Working with a limited budget, they examined menus and had to consider the economics behind food they wanted to make. Each class decided to focus on a cuisine connected with a particular culture which meant investigating the culture itself and designing their restaurant in a way that reflected and celebrated that culture. Preparing food also requires a knowledge of hygiene and health regulations. Committees were formed to oversee bookings, décor, advertising, wait-staff, menu design and food preparation. Online booking systems were set up to manage timing and numbers. I interviewed students about their experience of this inquiry and they were effusive in their belief that they were learning skills that were critical for their learning both now and in the future. The restaurant experience was a fitting way to farewell the year 6’s and completely student driven.
6. Bin Chickens: what’s the problem?
If I had to pick a favourite…..I have such a soft spot for this inquiry! Christie Goeldner at Graceville School in Queensland did a beautiful job of noticing an opportunity for inquiry that was both unexpected and highly relevant to the lives of her year 4 students. When the children started complaining about the way the Ibis were trying to steal their lunches in the school yard, she saw a way to help them understand something about the relationship between humans and animals, about adaptation, animal behavior and habitat loss. The inquiry into the problem of the ‘Bin Chickens’ was simply wonderful to witness – especially the very natural context it provided for the development of true research skills such as close observation, note taking and data collection.
7. Let’s get down to business…would you buy that? Why?
At St Fidelis Primary School, the bi-annual fete provided a great opportunity for active student involvement. The year 5/6 students were challenged (shark tank style) to develop a product or a service that could be sold at the fete. Teams worked together towards an opportunity to pitch their idea to a panel including parents, teachers and others. As part of this process students had to investigate all they could about how people successfully build businesses around products and services – the processes they go through and the various factors that need to be considered. Working within a budget – each team needed to be able to explain how they would create the product, design the stall, market their wares and make a profit. The inquiry – and the fete – were wildly successful.
8. Why are museums important – and can we curate our own?
The year ¾ students at Roberts McCubbin Primary School spent a day at Melbourne museum…not so much to learn about the objects displayed but about the way the museum itself was curated. They examined the exhibits through the lens of designers and eductors. Why? They knew they had the challenge of creating their own museum at the end of the term to which their parents and other children would be visiting in order to learn more about an aspect of science. One of my favourite moments of the year was visiting these young curators as they set their exhibits up - using the criteria they had constructed during their inquiry. Their exhibits were eye-catching, instructive and interactive and they had an absolute ball welcoming visitors to their museum.
9. What’s my story – what’s your story?
Year P-2 students again at Mother Teresa Primary School began their year by inquiring into the life stories of families they formed their community. Increasingly, this school includes families who are refugees or recent arrivals to Australia. This cultural diversity was a great opportunity for story telling and sharing. The stories the children had gathered were shared back with parents and friends in various forms on an open night.
10. What’s really on your plate?
At Elsternwick primary School, year ¾ children used food as the basis for investigating the way substances can be changed. Although chemical science was the focus, this inquiry also required learning how to critically read packaging and advertising of food. A simple packet of dried noodles with flavouring stimulated great curiosity about what we are actually eating when we consume processed food. Visits to markets and opportunities to analyse food as it is cooked and prepared not only developed scientific inquiry skills but stimulated thinking about nutrition, advertising, packaging design and culture.
11. What does it mean to adapt?
Also at Elsternwick primary school, the year 5/6 teachers helped students gain a deeper understanding of the concept of adaptation by exploring it through both an historical and scientific lens. As students investigated the challenges of life in colonial Australia they were asked to consider ways in which people adapted (or tried to adapt ) to a very different land. The inquiry then worked its way to the natural adaptation of plants and animals to changing environments. What was impressive about this inquiry was the way in which the teachers used a conceptual umbrella to link quite specific content from the curriculum - allowing learners to go wide and deep at the same time.
12. Why is music important?
At St Clare’s Primary School, the year ¾ students spent several weeks explrong the role music plays in our lives. This was a joyous and rich inquiry that allowed for the easy natural integration of the arts, design, intercultural understandings, history and more. A culturally diverse school, the inquiry easily involved parents as children interviewed them about their favourite music now and in their childhood and about music that had significance in their culture. The role of songs in shaping ideas and the ways people compose music were just some of the avenues of investigation. This inquiry lent itself very easily to students creating their own music for a range of purposes.
There are so many other journeys I could share with you! These are simply those that have stuck with me as I sit here, reflecting on the year that was. In amongst these big inquiries were, of course, lots of small, spontaneous inquiries that may have lasted a day, a morning, a lesson. One of these that springs to mind is when 5 year olds at St Peter Chanel Primary School in Deer Park became unexpectedly fascinated by old cameras and were then given opportunity to explore how cameras had changed over time.
Looking back over these wonderful learning journeys, several common features stand out. And there are no surprises here! For the most part, the inquiries:
- were authentic! Kids investigating something for a real purpose – with a genuine high-stakes outcome (often known from the outset)
- were integrative. The journeys described allowed a range of learning areas to be meaningfully connected
- involved experts from outside the school – this meant kids having to communicate with people in various fields
- were shared – the learning gained from the inquiries went beyond the classroom and was shared with the wider community in some way
- were emergent – these inquiries could not be planned in detail. The authentic nature of the journey meant that teachers and learners had to think on their feet and plan as the inquiry unfolded.
- got kids out of the classroom visiting restaurants, going to the museum, the local nature reserve…many of these inquiries depended on experience beyond the classroom walls.
- were often ‘design’ focussed.
Using an inquiry based approach to teaching and learning is multi-faceted. At its heart, inquiry is a stance – it’s about how we talk to kids and how we think about learning. It is also about how we plan and the contexts we both recognise and create in which powerful inquiry can thrive. These contexts can be highly personal (one child’s investigation into their passion) and they can also be shared contexts that bring learners together under a common question. These shared inquiries form a powerful ‘backbone’ of the primary classroom.
As you think ahead to 2018 and the journeys in which you may help guide your young learners…what is worth inquiring into? What lessons can you learn from journeys of the past year?