I was recently rummaging through some old papers and came across a program I had helped a school create many (MANY) years ago. It was an impressive document in its day. A carefully organised sequence of units under ‘topic’ headings. Each topic was linked to detailed curriculum outcomes and positioned in sequence over a two-year cycle. Inevitably, these units would be tackled term by term – beginning as the term started and ending before the term break. It was a neat, organised, detailed, safe, dependable two-year cycle of…. topics. Developed by teachers. For teachers.
This blast from the past prompted me to reflect on how much my thinking has changed about the way we can design for inquiry with and for learners. The end of the school year is only a couple of weeks away here in Australia so the process of ‘big picture’ designing for inquiry is in full swing. But, in some schools, it is looking very different from the old, fixed scope and sequence of standard topics. The predictability of a scope and sequence means inquiries became less driven by the learners’ questions, needs and interests and current resources or authentic connections are often overlooked. Children come to expect they will ‘do’ certain topics at certain year levels, and teachers new to teams feel little ownership over plans that have been made by previous teams.
In Australia at least, the curriculum already provides us with a scope and sequence. The achievement standards lay out expectations for both content and processes students should be engaging with as they move through school. The CONTEXTS in which these achievement standards can be met can, by contrast, be dynamic and varied. Opening up the way we design our maps for inquiry means we can be much more responsive and attuned to the community of learners with which we work. The key, ironically, is knowing your curriculum really well.
There are four significant changes I often make to the process of ‘curriculum mapping for inquiry’ (although this depends on the readiness of the school)
1. Inquiries are designed on a year by year basis. The program is flexible – not fixed. There is plenty of room for new inquiries to emerge through the year as well.
2. Where we can, we find authentic contexts for inquiry using issues relevant to the school, the local and global community.
3. We consider the big questions to potentially arc across a year rather than allocating a rigid time frame. We can then dip in and out of them over the year and make connections between them.
4. While the curriculum informs our thinking, it is not the only source of information assisting us in the design of the map – the students themselves contribute to the decisions we make about these contexts for inquiry. It is their learning, after all.
Ditching the reliance on a two-year cycle of units and treating each year as a fresh start, means we can use the children’s interests and needs as well as global, local and school-based issues and events to offer more authenticity and purpose for inquiry. One of the best things we can do is to take a look around our immediate environment – the school, its surrounds and our community. ‘Problem finding’ is a key element of design thinking and can offer up amazing opportunities for authentic inquiry. Are you renovating or building new classrooms? Does the canteen need an overhaul? How safe is the car park at drop off and pick up time? How sustainable is the garden? Does the playground need a re-think? Are you planning a performance/production? Is there a camp that might lend itself as a centrepiece for inquiry? Some of the best contexts for inquiry are right under our noses – and they will vary from year to year. Liberating ourselves from a fixed scope and sequence allows the both teachers and learners to really own the inquiry as it is designed. Similarly, taking time to ask kids what they would love to explore – what things excite and challenge them can provide us with wonderful ideas for contextualising inquiry in engaging contexts. Contexts such as the ones I have described are often used as ‘case studies’ to helped children explore broader, compelling inquiry questions. It is these compelling questions we generate as we start to map the year ahead.
The big questions we intend to inquire into can be shared with (and indeed developed with) students from the beginning of the year. The best questions deserve to be revisited throughout the year as events, texts, interests emerge that connect to them. The world is not neatly organised into discrete boxes, so treating the questions in a more fluid, flexible way also helps students make important conceptual connections between them. Each question, of course, will have its ‘moment in the sun’ but rather than packing that inquiry away (we’ve done ‘adaptation’ what are we doing next?) it remains visible and available to return to.
A few of the questions teams have generated so far in our mapping work over the last couple of weeks include:
What can art teach us about history? (history, the arts, design technologies, ethics, intercultural understanding)
What makes a connected community? (Civics and citizenship, geography, history)
How does design influence wellbeing? (design technologies, health, science)
How do stereo types influence our relationships with others? (health, intercultural understanding)
How can I be an ethical consumer? (economics, ethics, geography)
How do living things (including humans) adapt to changing environments? (science, health, geography)
What influences the choices we make? (health, civics and citizenship)
(These are all examples linked to the Victorian curriculum)
Working this way - in and out of compelling inquiry questions - requires big picture, synergistic thinking and is not for the faint-hearted (or inexperienced). It requires strong curriculum knowledge and the capacity to spot an opportunity for connection between events and interests that emerge over the year and the questions themselves. Returning to questions over the course of the year allows learners to deepen their understandings and gain new perspectives over time. Inquiry teachers are highly attuned to the opportunities to help learners make connections to the big questions. Take, for example, the rather unwelcome appearance of a large cockroach in a kindergarten classroom early this year. The children were both terrified and fascinated in equal measure – with many, many questions. The resulting investigation connected beautifully with the big question ‘What living things do we share our world with?’ and ‘How do living things survive in changing environments?’- building conceptual understandings around structure and function, classification and connection. In a year 2 class, the opportunity to investigate the design of a new playground was too good to resist! This inquiry connected strongly with the big question ‘What is it made of and why?’ - the perfect vehicle for looking at design, materials and their properties. Lost teeth, new babies, holidays overseas, big weather events, a political issue everyone is talking about, community celebrations, a novel that has everyone in its spell….these moments can trigger small inquiries amongst the ‘bigger’ investigations we design more intentionally. All connect back to those compelling big questions – weaving a connected tapestry of inquiry across the year.
Have you escaped the tyranny of a repetitive, predictable program?