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Learning to learn and inquiry

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Ricky Prebble from Wellington East Girls' College discusses the role of inquiry teaching and learning in his social sciences programme. He unpacks the elements of inquiry that support the learning to learn principle, specifically how inquiry encourages students to explore why they are learning and how they are learning.

Professional learning conversations

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Clarity about the learning

"For students truly to be able to take responsibility for their learning, both teacher and students need to be very clear about what is being learnt, and how they should go about it. When learning and the path towards it are clear, research shows that there a number of important shifts for students. Their motivation improves, they stay on-task, their behaviour improves, and they are able to take more responsibility for their learning."

Absolum, M. Clarity in the Classroom, 2006

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NZC Update 21
The NZC Update 21 provides resources to help schools explore the learning to learn principle. It also makes links to key research papers.


In social science there’s a big accent on learning as being through inquiry teaching and learning. So that’s one way of concentrating students to be considering what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. That goes hand in hand with, I guess some people are calling them learning intentions, but making explicit at the beginning of each class what we are doing and why we are doing it. I guess there is, talking to people recently, that there’s maybe a bit of a divide on whether that’s a useful tool or whether students enjoy that. Some of the feedback I have had from students is that they do like that - it signposts for them where their learning is going.

The learning intentions do really work though when the teachers go back at the end of the lesson and they say, ‘Do you think we have achieved this goal?’ and then we know if we have learnt what we are supposed to learn. Then we know if we’re on the right track and stuff like that.

So the question of evidence is obviously a crucial one. There’s anecdotal evidence that we can get in our department and me personally with my classes. As well as being supplied evidence through studies from the ministry and other education experts from the teachers’ college. We do have relationships with people there and they are constantly sort of communicating to us about the most recent studies around inquiry learning especially, and about how to enable students to understand more about what they’re learning.

Anecdotally I think a really important way that I try to get evidence from students is through (obviously formative assessment) but a big part of that I think is the reflection evaluation side of inquiry learning which is in my mind a central cog, a central driver so that it’s informing all aspects of what students are doing. So it’s not something to be done at the end, it’s to be done throughout. But getting students, posing them questions about:

  • what’s going well
  • why you're doing certain things
  • what could be next steps?

Trying to have them consider those issues in a reflective way I think is a powerful tool. We have also incorporated that into formative assessment and summative assessment as well. So we actually give them, it’s called an evaluation tree, where they sort of, it’s a picture of a tree with lots of different people on the tree. They identify, they’re all doing different things, some are clinging on to a branch, some are sitting there happily, some are out on the edge. They try to identify with a particular person and explain why it is that they're there and how that relates to their learning.

I think that coming back to evidence it’s still something I need to consider myself the best way to do it and I think departmentally that’s something that we’re trying to wrestle with and work together on.

Focusing on the process, focusing on the skills of teaching and learning I think is definitely an accent we’re trying to place on our practice - so that it’s moving beyond content. So that when they’re in social studies for instance, if they’re doing an aspect of the inquiry (say they’re gathering information) they recognise where that sort of fits into the whole picture of inquiry learning. That therefore could be when they’re in science if they're doing something similar they maybe have some resonance, ‘Ok this is kind of similar perhaps,’ Or ‘this skill is somewhat the same’. Even though there’ll be specific differences around context.

So just trying to kind of, I think for me, be really clear when I’m talking to the students about what it is we’re doing, where it fits into the overall picture, being clear that as a department, saying to the students as teachers we’re trying to reinforce this idea of inquiry learning. This is why we think it’s important, and just making that obvious for them perhaps. So learning is not necessarily a mystery as much as perhaps it has been in the past.

Published on: 04 Apr 2013