Mapping journeys of inquiry through the year: emergent, flexible and connected.

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?

Just wondering…

13 years of schooling: a reflection

I wrote this post several weeks ago as I watched my daughter and her friends navigate their way through the strange demands of the year 12 exam period. It was a moment of acute reflection for me on a system I have spent my lifetime working for, studying, researching and contributing to.  It was a reflection born of some frustration about the chasm that remains between what we know about learning and so much of what still happens in schools- and I stand by that sentiment.  What is was not, in any way, meant to be was a criticism of any particular teachers themselves although it may have read that way ... and that was clumsy of me. Teachers, too, are frustrated with systemic expectations that go against what their heart tells them is right. My intention with it was never to misrepresent the great work that most teachers do tirelessly, every day and to the absolute best of their abilities.  As I said in the post- my children have actually been lucky to have encountered many great teachers - as was I.   This is a post about the bigger picture- and a personal perspective on that picture.  Thank you again to those of you who have contributed to the discussion both publicly and privately. Feedback is the very best thing for learning and I hope I will always be able to receive it openly and thoughtfully.  


This post is somewhat different to my usual focus on inquiry and more personal than most. Forgive my indulgence ...

I vividly remember my eldest daughter’s first day of school.  As I watched her make her way into the group gathered on the carpet, I remember holding back the sudden urge to rush in, pick my daughter up and run! I know I wasn’t the first parent to experience those emotions and no doubt many parents felt the same when they dropped their 5 year olds into my care as a prep teacher many years ago.  I wept in the car on my way to work and felt terribly conflicted.  My life’s work was and continues to be all about schools and here I was wanting my child to be anywhere but in one!

That was 13 years ago.  I have just returned from dropping that same child at school for her final English exam. While I write this post (which I will draft, leave, reflect on, re-draft…) she is currently sitting for three solid hours to write (handwrite) three essays in a row with prompts she will read for the first time today about texts she did not choose.  In complete silence. No drafting, no conversation, no notes, no breaks, no music, no food, …who writes under those conditions in the real world??  Exams remain a ludicrous, archaic way to ‘measure’ young people’s learning.

 And as I watched her walk into school today -   I had the same feelings I had all those years ago – a strange desire to spring out of the car, grab her and run!

As any parent out there knows,  the end of schooling for one’s child is inevitably a time of reflection.  For me as an educator, this reflection is loaded and complex.  I have been thinking about the lessons I have learned from the experience of this daughter’s schooling.  Watching my own children ‘do school’ has taught me a lot as a teacher and as a parent.   So today – while my daughter writes her English exam, I ponder on my own lessons. What have I learned….?  

1.     Not much has changed.   I know this is rather negative but I have to say that, overall, and despite the amazing efforts of so many fine educators – schools really have not changed all that much since was a student. And that was a long time ago!  I have spent the last 6 years in particular quietly despairing at so many futile tasks given in the name of ‘learning’  that show little real understanding of contemporary practice.  Assignments heavy on fact-finding and light on thinking,  Minimal or no choice in how to present ideas,  Few opportunities to co construct or engage in deep self-assessment and few truly collaborative, real-world contexts for learning. Of course there have been some exceptions … but why ARE we so slow to truly revolutionize schools given all we now know about learning?

2.     It’s all about the teacher.   We know the research bears this out but there is nothing like experiencing the phenomenon first hand!   13 years of hearing young people sitting around our kitchen table, talking about their teachers has continually reminded me just how much the quality of the teacher – and the relationship they choose to develop with their students - matters. It can literally make or break the child’s love of and commitment to a subject and indeed their view of learning itself.  I have seen the damage one - and yep, I'm going to say it, BAD teacher can do to a child's interest in a subject.  I have been intrigued at best - and horrified at worst - as to why such teachers continue to do the job when they obviously despise what they do, spend most of their time berating students and would rather be somewhere else. 

3.     Every kid needs a champion.  Rita Piersan’s words are ringing in my ears.  As I reflect over the last 13 years, I feel such overwhelming gratitude to those who have championed my child. Two teachers stand out. The English teacher in year 7 who nurtured my daughter as a writer and showed such passion and commitment to her craft and to her students.  And her music/singing teacher who believed so profoundly in the role of the arts in education and provided every opportunity for a girl with a musical interest to be supported.  My daughter’s learning life at school has been made richer as a direct result of these champions.  These were teachers who took time to see their students as people as well as learners.  This is the best gift any teacher can give a student. When you champion a student - when you see their light - you can literally change their life.

4.     The ‘playground’ can be the greatest teacher.  While we teachers immerse ourselves in the demands of curriculum planning and classroom instruction we can forget that our kids’ heads and hearts are so often somewhere else.  The time my daughter has spent with friends – in the school yard and beyond has taught her as much if not more than any ‘formal’ lessons in the classroom.   In the last few weeks of concerts, graduations and other year 12 rituals, I have watched and listened to these young people interacting with each other and have been so moved by the maturity of their relationships, their support of each other, the absence of competition and the spirit of collaboration.  Some of the bestschool-related learning moments over the last 13 years have had nothing to do with the curriculum or the painstaking work we do as teachers to cover outcomes and tick boxes.  They have everything to do with the relationships grown, challenged, lost and found in the playground.  This is the learning that will endure.

5.     Learners need time to be in their element.  ‘We need to create environments (in schools) where every person is inspired to grow creatively. We need to make sure that all people have the chance to do what they should be doing. To discover the Element in themselves and in their own way’ (Ken Robinson:2009).  Our daughter has been writing and performing music since she was 7.  We chose a local state school that is known for valuing the arts and this proved to be the best decision. Gretta once said that ‘singing was like breathing’ for her – she needed to do it every day.   Being given ample opportunity to be in her element at school has kept her happy, focused and generally motivated. It has sustained her through the tedium of some other classes that were not her thing.  She has been lucky. I know many of her friends have had to wait until the school day is over to do what helps them feel they are ‘in their element’ .  Surely we know enough about the role of personal interest and passion in learning to allow more opportunities for these to flourish as part of school life. 

6.     We give kids mixed messages.  ‘Your final score does not define you’  ‘Success in high school does not necessarily determine success in life’.  ‘It’s who you are as a person – your character – that matters most.'   In the final years of schooling, these slogans are regularly trumpeted at assemblies and information nights.  At the same time the reality is that schools (and the system they are part of) do ultimately define success in terms of academic achievement.  This is what gets you the ‘grades’  - and if you happen to do well in maths and science - even better!

Since that first day, 13 years ago, I have often had to ‘harden my heart’ as an educator and as a parent.  As someone with a profile in the education sphere, I have opted to keep more of a distance than many parents do and have tried to remainpositive and supportive of our schools throughout.  And there has been much to be positive about. My child is one of the lucky ones. She is happy, well adjusted and ready to fly into the world with a passion that has been nurtured by a few extraordinary teachers.  But the journey has not been without disappointment and frustration.  We now know so much about what constitutes great learning environments. We know what really matters in the learning lives of our young people. We know what should change.  We know the importance of student voice, choice, integrative and inquiry based approaches andthe importance of 21C skills and dispositions…..And yet so much remains, it seems, stuck in a time warp. 

Perhaps this reflection has been a kind of reminder to me about why I do what I do. I want to continue working with kids and their teachers to rethink classrooms as habitats for creativity and wonder. I want every 5 year old to walk into school - and explore!  I want schools to be places in which all kids have opportunity to find and be in their element.  I want teachers to have the time and permission to know their kids as well as they know their curriculum.

I am so proud of my daughter as a learner and as a person. I am proud of what she has learned because of – and despite -  her schooling.  

And if she has children, will they be sitting for three long hours in an exam hall at the end of their journey in order to determine their success?

Just wondering…..