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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Inquiry Based Learning at Wantirna College

Joanna Karanikolopoulos
Joanna Karanikolopoulos teaches Year 8 English and Humanities and VCE History Revolutions at Wantirna College, Victoria.

Inquiry based learning (IBL) is a pedagogical practice that reflects a broad shift in emphasis from teaching to learning, and also a concern to find new ways to engage a generation of students who can access entertainment at the push of a button and are therefore likely to be put off by traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teaching. It has received a further impetus with the rise of Information and Communications Technology and its capacity to enable group work and efficient revision of material.

Despite its attractions, however, IBL is challenging to implement. This article describes how a group of Year 8 teachers at Wantirna College in Victoria are exploring ways to apply IBL.

Wantirna College is a 7–12 coeducational public school, with just under 1,500 students drawn from the greater Knox area in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The student population is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, with some students from Asian, European, African and Islander backgrounds. While the area is generally considered middle class, many of the school’s graduates are the first in their family line to attend a university. Like most teenagers, they are difficult to engage and unwilling in many cases to take ownership of their own learning. 

The project discussed in this article called on Year 8 students to design and produce a reality television show through their studies in Maths, English, Science and Humanities (MESH) classes.

The Prisoners unit

To capture students’ attention the IBL unit was launched to the whole year level in the school’s Lecture Theatre, in the format of a PowerPoint presentation by the head of a fictional network television station. Students were told the network’s ratings were declining and it was up to them to fill the gap in programming with a reality television show, Prisoners. A prison was chosen as the setting because students were already studying the prison-related novel Holes by Louis Sachar.

Working in groups of four or five, students were asked to use their knowledge of content previously taught in their MESH subjects to develop a show through research and collaboration. They had to consider their contestants, the rules of the show, the prize, the location within Australia, and the design and layout of the prison. As creators of this show, they would also be answerable to particular sustainability concerns. They then needed to ‘sell’ their proposed program to their teachers and fellow students, utilising persuasive writing and oral techniques. Student groups were asked to deliver 20–30 minute PowerPoint presentations, create displays and posters, and lead discussions based on their ideas.

Four out of ten Year 8 classes at the school were involved in the project and three more implemented the Inquiry to varying degrees. The project took five weeks of class time in total and also spanned a two-week term break.

Some groups of students successfully engaged with the project and showed the potential of IBL to improve student learning. Their presentations were of a very high quality and showed a remarkable depth of thought and originality. Other groups struggled with the unit. The rest of this article reviews some of the issues faced in running the unit and suggests some ways forward for future IBL projects.

Issues raised during the unit

Involvement of each subject area

The participating teachers needed to determine the contributions of the different subject areas, including the roles of different teachers and the content taught in each classroom. Some help was available from external professional learning workshops and seminars on IBL, which some staff members attended while the unit was being developed. These sessions highlighted the fact that the content of cross-curricular work tends to fall more naturally within Humanities and Science than English or Mathematics. Links between Humanities and Science can also be made fairly readily. Maths and English, by contrast, tend be of most value in displaying the work produced by cross-curricular units in forms such as graphs or documents. The Prisoners project broadly adopted these roles for the four subject areas.

The Inquiry was assessed using a mixed approach. Cross-curricular skills in communication, thinking, metacognition and research were assessed collaboratively by the teachers based on each student’s performance across all MESH classes. Specific subject-based criteria were assessed by individual teachers.

Scaffolding

A previous IBL unit covering only English and Humanities had highlighted the fact that cross-curricular work was very unfamiliar to our students. A high level of scaffolding was therefore used with the Prisoners unit.

A major part of the scaffolding was the ‘Director’s Booklet’, given to each student during their introductory lesson. The booklet gave students a set of understandable, manageable goals. It helped to settle some of the initial concerns students raised during their first lesson on the Inquiry. Some students were very excited and engaged immediately. Others were reluctant as they were either unwilling to stretch out of their comfort zone, or because they preferred traditional work. Others felt that the Inquiry would add to their overall workload. However, most students became progressively more involved, and some of the project’s most vocal opponents were working the hardest by the end of the lesson.

Most teachers felt that the scaffolding for the Inquiry was largely successful, but that changes did need to be made. With the experience of the Prisoners unit behind them, teachers felt that the next IBL unit could afford to be more student-centred, with teachers taking on more of a facilitating role.

Group work

Group work introduced several problems. Some students were unhappy with the group structure (preferring to work alone) or the group members (not being in friendship groups). Other groups did not understand the concept of a unified, cohesive group presentation.

In assessing the project, it was decided that we would try to make every student individually accountable. Group assessment had been one of the strongest student complaints from the smaller IBL unit completed the previous year. Because of the individual assessment, students had to divide up most aspects of the project. For example, they each needed to come up with three of their group’s 12 contestants and one set of rules. Each student had to research a separate sustainability concern, and the design of the prison itself was also divided. This also helped staff ascertain who was and was not completing the appropriate work.

Conclusions

Relevant professional learning is essential for teachers to gain a level of confidence and comfort with using IBL. Minimal professional learning had been undertaken by staff prior to developing the Prisoners Inquiry. While a number of Year 8 staff had undergone some type of professional learning the previous year, some were still unsure about how to decide on an overarching theme, and how to develop subject content that has natural links to the project. In particular, teachers must be taken through an actual example of a successfully implemented project, rather than just hearing talk about the nature of IBL.

Relatively little time was dedicated to creating the unit. Staff originally planned to run one MESH project per term, but this proved unworkable. It was eventually decided that one MESH project would run per semester, with the remaining time spent planning for the forthcoming project.

Timetabling was also a challenge, particularly when class teams were made up of three or four staff members. Teachers who aim to introduce IBL units need support from school leaders to ensure that time is available for staff collaboration. Time in lieu could be offered as an alternative to staff utilising their lunchtimes to collaborate. Developing an Inquiry is hard work, and if staff resent the time involved, the project and student learning will suffer.

Accessing computer-based resources was another challenge, especially given that IT classes took priority in accessing computer rooms. Again, support from the school leadership and the whole school is needed to facilitate access to ICT resources needed for project work.

Once developed, a unit is a useful resource that can always be changed, altered in numerous ways or used as an example to create further Inquiries. There is also no reason why individual MESH teams cannot tweak a project to suit the interests, abilities and needs of their own class.

IBL is a highly useful tool. It allows students to extend themselves, develop deeper thinking and communication skills, learn to collaborate with others and reflect on and evaluate their own thinking and actions. It requires them to be responsible and take ownership of their own work. Ultimately, we hope that IBL will lead to increased engagement and challenge for our students.

Key Learning Areas

Studies of Society and Environment
Science
English
Mathematics

Subject Headings

Project based learning
Secondary education