Inquiry Starts early

By Greg Whitby, 17 October 2018

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

When you think about the skills you need to be effective in your workplace, it often comes down to teamwork, problem-solving and communication. These are the same skills we want to develop in all learners from kindergarten through to Year 12. In many of our primary schools for example, students are encouraged to work in teams on real-life problems. This is what we call an inquiry-approach to learning.

Often, a project will arise out of a question that students have been thinking about. When the problem or inquiry is meaningful, students will be more interested and more committed to finishing the task. In upper primary, teachers often coordinate the groups so that students are able to work across different grades. The focus is not on who a child is working with but on what the problem is and how to address is. Teachers have told me that ‘I’ is quickly replaced by ‘we’ when students talk about their projects.

A common misconception about inquiry or project-based learning is that students go off and do their own thing. That’s not the case. Students are provided with a level knowledge about the topic and a vocabulary to talk about it. Teachers are also continually observing what students are doing and providing feedback. If they see a skill is not being developed, they may take a student or group of students out of the group and give them a masterclass. This means they can then go back and teach their fellow team members. This peer-to-peer learning, along with the feedback that students give one another, is powerful because it provides students with a greater voice in their learning.

Feedback is critical in the inquiry model. Parents are invited in to provide feedback on students’ final work. Students are asked to give feedback to teachers on aspects of the project they most enjoyed, least enjoyed and what they would like to see included next time around. This allows teachers to better understand their students so they can engage them better in their learning.

One of the most impressive projects I’ve come across in primary was one in which students had to redesign their school playground. The project was aimed at extending students’ understanding of geometric reasoning. Not only did they have to design with the user in mind, and be conscious of safety issues, but the project had to be within a set budget. This involved going down to the local Bunnings store to source and cost materials, including calculating GST!

In today’s world, schools needs to be able to help students move from superficial knowledge (learning facts and figures) to deep knowledge (applying it in real-world contexts). The value of inquiry or problem-based learning is that becomes a bridge between the two.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
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