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Theme six

The move to an integrated curriculum and inquiry learning

The scope and focus of planned inquiries

Inquiry as a 'student-centred' pedagogy

The place of disciplinary knowledge

Teaching as inquiry

Inquiry/integrated approaches are being used by most of the primary and intermediate schools in this study. These approaches are also being trialled with Years 9 and 10 students in three of the four secondary schools in the study.

This shift in practice appears to be driven by both philosophical and pragmatic concerns (Boyd & Watson, 2006). The philosophical drivers are a desire to increase the use of student-centred pedagogies and provide rich and meaningful learning contexts for students. The pragmatic drivers are related to a desire to increase the use of ICT in schools and 'de-clutter' the curriculum, with inquiry learning typically being used for putting perceptions of a freedom to reduce curriculum overcrowding into practice. The philosophical and the pragmatic drivers come together in the widely shared perception that the revised curriculum encourages schools to have a clear rationale and 'big picture' underpinning for teaching and learning programmes. For example, the NZC principles of 'coherence' and 'future focus' support the exploration of links between learning areas, structuring programmes around the nominated future-focused themes of sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, or globalisation.

The scope and focus of planned inquiries

Schools have different approaches to deciding on school-wide topics. Some had developed themes based on international curriculum trends and from resources such as the 'rich tasks' from the New Basics curriculum in Queensland, Australia. Others chose to reflect local concerns or perceived student interests, or consulted their community. Most of the themes being explored in 2008 have connections to the future-focused themes in the curriculum. They relate to: sustainability questions such as 'What can I do to make the world a better place?'; citizenship questions such as 'Where do I belong?' or 'What makes a good team?'; and enterprise themes such as 'The winning formulae: keys to success'. At most schools, these topics include a wellbeing or self-management focus that aligns the inquiry process with the schools’ exploration of the key competencies, values, and formative assessment pedagogies outlined in the curriculum revision.

Some primary schools planned a year-long theme, with sub themes for each term. These tend to start with an exploration of the situation of individual students (that is, known experiences and knowledge) in Term 1, moving outwards to explore the wider community (i.e., less well-known experiences and knowledge). Some schools focus on a different learning area each term, again under the umbrella of a year-long theme. Some of the intermediate schools have made changes to the structure of their school timetable to create space for in-depth explorations. On the whole, teachers have welcomed “big picture” approaches to planning. Most schools have developed planning templates that juxtapose selected learning areas, one or two key competencies, and other school focuses such as thinking skills or Habits of Mind. A school-wide planning template is seen as giving considerable flexibility at the classroom level to exercise professional judgement, and adapt themes to suit student and class needs and interests. Thus, rather than restricting their creativity, most teachers think this approach has opened up space for them to follow their or students’ interests and passions.

Inquiry as a 'student-centred' pedagogy

Most schools are still in the early stages of using inquiry/integrated approaches, experimenting with ways of planning around 'big ideas' or different models. Creating then refining the school’s own model for integrated inquiry has been a focus of implementation activity. Internationally, integrated models have their origins in Dewey’s work, and are underpinned by sociocultural learning theory and philosophical beliefs about the value of democratic education. A central principle driving democratic education is that students are active citizens, therefore democratic education involves students and teachers working together to co-construct a learning programme that enables them to address significant issues (Beane, 1997). While this theoretical framing is congruent with NZC’s principles, values, and key competencies, the arrival of the curriculum was not necessarily the originating impetus for this focus on inquiry.The most recent NZCER national surveys of primary and secondary schools show this impetus building between 2003 and 2006/7 when the most recent surveys were undertaken (Schagen & Hipkins, 2008). However, it has certainly enhanced the sense that schools now have “permission” to streamline the curriculum in this way.

The original interest in inquiry structured around big overarching themes appears to have been generated by the ICT professional development that many schools had attended prior to or during the time the draft and revised curriculum documents were being released. A range of external providers have helped develop the models in use in schools.

Most teachers do see a close alignment between the intent of the curriculum and the inquiry learning approach their school has adopted. The significant themes they select are seen as engaging and meaningful for students, and give individual teachers freedom within an overall common structure to pursue questions and directions that interest their class. However, as some teachers started experimenting with inquiry approaches, they first perceived that a 'student-led' approach required them to hand much of the direction the inquiry took to the learners, with little teacher input or support. Not surprisingly, this subsequently leads to a sense of unease that this approach was “not working” as students did not appear to be challenged beyond their immediate frames of reference and current interests. Some of these teachers then moved to a co-constructed approach. Another study of the early stages of adoption of NZC has noted the same dilemma (Boyd et al., 2005). This is a misrepresentation of the intent of both integrated and inquiry approaches as seen by their originators. James Beane, for example, when talking about an integrated democratic curriculum emphasises the need for decisions to be co-constructed rather than dictated solely by students (Beane, 1997). Kath Murdoch (1998) similarly emphasises an active role for the teacher, and provides a wide range of strategies to support this. Good models of practice that could be used to stimulate staff discussion may be helpful here.

Across schools, there is variation in the 'transformational' potential of the models being used. Although co-construction is a central tenet of democratic education, teachers have different views about the importance of involving students in determining the overarching content of the inquiry, the processes to be used, and whether or not the new knowledge that students gain will then be used in some meaningful way, or will simply be reported back. Teachers have different views about the meaning and importance of 'taking action' as a learning step, with some saying this is the aspect of their school’s inquiry learning model they are most unsure about. This idea of students 'taking action' to address local or global concerns is one of the underpinnings of NZC. That is, the curriculum suggests that students are active citizens now, rather than being prepared for this role in the future. How this plays out in each school is likely to be the subject of ongoing exploration and debate. Giving students too little support within a structure that has been predetermined for them may reinforce disengagement when the opposite is the teacher’s sincere intent. Again, this finding suggests the need for practical models that teachers can modify or adopt. The key competencies can be seen as providing a transformational intent to learning but teachers need models of what such transformation could look like. There is a need for leading practitioners and curriculum experts to work together to proactively develop exemplars that address these issues.

The place of disciplinary knowledge

Most primary and intermediate schools are focusing their integrated curriculum around social studies, science, health, and environmental education. These are learning areas that tend to align readily with integration around significant problems and issues, as proposed by Beane (1997). Literacy and numeracy instruction, as the central core of schools’ work, tends to be kept separate. This model of partial integration has some basis in the literature (Martinello & Cook, 2000), has been promoted by a number of providers, and appears to have been enthusiastically embraced, although integrated topics potentially provide real-life opportunities for critical thinking and focused literacy or numeracy instruction around an issue important to the school community or society.

Several primary principals and some teachers expressed concern that within an integrated/inquiry process the sense of the disciplines into which knowledge is organised is being lost and they are not sure what the ultimate cost of this will be. The literature suggests that inquiry or integrated approaches need to be carefully planned to ensure that students have real-life experiences that retain disciplinary integrity. Some schools are using a subject-centred multi disciplinary model of integration which is more 'top-down' and involves designing the curriculum as a juxtaposition of several disciplines around one problem or theme. While this type of organisation addresses the concern about loss of a disciplinary focus, Dowden (2007b) expresses concerns about the suitability of this type of subject-centred model for middle school students as these models can act as a vehicle for 'transmitting official knowledge' and therefore have the potential to marginalise the needs of sub groups of students. The balance to be achieved between subject-specific learning objectives and the use of a contextually meaningful topic could be a fruitful focus of ongoing professional debate about the benefits and costs of integrated and inquiry learning approaches.

Teaching as inquiry

Some teachers appear to conflate the use of inquiry models with the 'teaching as inquiry' process outlined in the 'Effective Pedagogy' section of NZC (p. 35). One of these approaches to inquiry is inquiry into teaching practice, and the other, inquiry as a teaching pedagogy, and as a way of structuring the curriculum so that it is more meaningful for students. This difference may need to be clarified for teachers.

The high priority on literacy and numeracy instruction, noted above, is likely related to school-wide professional development programmes in which most of the schools had recently participated. A number of teachers have found the MOE (2007) draft literacy learning progressions helpful but most schools have yet to fully explore the potential impact of the revised curriculum on literacy teaching and learning.

At present teachers hold differing views about whether NZC should prompt any changes in approaches to literacy and numeracy. Some see no need for change and others have yet to consider this question. (Staff in one school asked questions about what teaching for financial literacy could mean.) Notwithstanding the widely shared perception of no need for change, the vision, principles, values, and key competencies that frame learning experiences do suggest a need for some rethinking of current approaches. Researchers of literacy ask questions about the capacity of current approaches to equip students for 21st-century learning. The New London Group (2000), for example, has developed a futures-thinking approach known as a 'multi-literacies pedagogy'. This focuses on cultural diversity, literacy, student agency, and new technologies and hence appears to be well aligned with the intent of NZC. In view of these findings, it could be very productive to provide examples of literacy and numeracy teaching that model teaching as inquiry, to help teachers explore changes in their practice here. For example, one area that could be examined is the common practice of separating most literacy instruction from the meaningful “real-life” tasks that students are completing as part of their inquiry/integrated programme.

Published on: 15 Apr 2009