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Inquiry learning – from knowledge to understanding

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How do you use inquiry learning to move from knowledge to understanding? Vic Hygate, from Windsor School in Christchurch, explains how she carefully focuses her planning, then uses events and provocative statements to make inquiry relevant and fully engage her students.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

Enhancing the relevance of new learning

The New Zealand Curriculum (p34) states that:

"Students learn most effectively when they understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will be able to use their new learning. Effective teachers stimulate the curiosity of their students, require them to search for relevant information and ideas, and challenge them to use or apply what they discover in new contexts or in new ways. They look for opportunities to involve students directly in decisions relating to their own learning. This encourages them to see what they are doing as relevant and to take greater ownership of their own learning."

  • For Vic Hygate, inquiry is getting students "from knowledge to understanding". Take up Vic's closing challenge, and discuss this statement in relation to your own school context.
  • In what ways do you challenge your students to take ownership of their learning, and apply what they discover in new ways?
  • How could you frame inquiries so that they are authentic, relevant and engaging, and ensure that learning experiences enhance understanding?

Have you seen?

Teaching through inquiry
This Ed Talk features an interview with Kath Murdoch who shares her expertise in inquiry based learning.


Vic Hygate, Windsor School, Christchurch

The biggest difference for me as a teacher with ‘inquiry’ is it’s that shifting your students from knowing about their world to understanding their world - and understanding is so much more than knowledge! If I think about my own life, I studied French at high school and I passed French exams. But recently I've been to France and I've actually had to use French and that's actually given me a whole different understanding of the French language - and how much I knew and how much I didn't. Whereas, when I did it in an exam it was a little bit different.

So inquiry for me is the way I get my children to move from knowing into understanding. I think the biggest thing I've learned over the last couple of years is for an inquiry to be really meaningful it actually has to hook your children in right from the start, and it needs to be relevant to their world.

There's two ways that I tend to frame my inquiries. So I either base it around an event because I think events are a really good way to naturally bring everything in together and integrate. So through planning an event, you have children that have to work together - they've got to find out by making phone calls, or calling experts, or writing to people. So it gives you that natural, authentic integration. It also gives you a natural assessment process for the children because at the end they can look back and go, ‘Did we manage to do this, what were the hard things, what did we learn?’

The other way that I tend to frame my inquiries is through a provocative statement. So I like to throw out a challenge to my children - tell them something that they're going to react against. At the moment my team's doing an inquiry about ‘change’. We threw out at the beginning a statement that ‘Kids can't change the world.’ It was really fascinating because we threw that out before we actually even spoke to the children about what we wanted the inquiry to bring about. From the second we put that statement on the wall, and we put it on a sheet in the kids’ books, the kids crossed out the word ‘can't’ and at that point we already knew that they were interested. As soon as we had that it was like, ‘Yeah we've picked something that actually they can relate to.’

I think the biggest thing in inquiry, as a teacher, is it's changed the way we plan. So when I sit down with my team and we think about our inquiry, we think:

  • At the end of this, what is the understanding that we want our children to walk away with?
  • What do we want them to understand about their world, and why do we want them to understand it?

Because if we can't pin down that ‘this is what we want them to get from it’ and ‘this is why it's important; this is why they need to know that’, then there's really no point doing that inquiry.

With the inquiry we're doing at the moment, we really sat there and we thought - I have a year five class, my team is year five - we don't want these children going forward being passive in their lives, thinking that everything happens to them. We want them to realise that they have ownership of their lives and their world. So we really sat there and nutted out that, at the end of the day, we want these children to come to the understanding that they need to take action if they want to change their world. From there, once we decided as a team that's really where we were heading, we back-mapped and, instead of going, what activities can we do, we thought, what learning experiences are going to highlight for our children that understanding? How do we bring them to that? So the biggest thing for us was to find other children that have changed the world and to develop among our children, before we even started, a common understanding of what we meant by those words 'change the world'. If we didn’t have all that on the same page we couldn't be sure that we're all going to move forward together. It's been fascinating, actually, the children have looked at all sorts of different children that have changed their worlds, from big names like Anne Frank to children in their local community. They've interviewed junior buddies - they've got out there and talked to their wee five-year-old buddies about how they change their worlds and what they do, whether it’s at home or at school.

By keeping it really real and hands on - children they know, faces they relate to, as well as those more secondary sources that back up what's going on - the children have a really clear understanding now of the process of change and they can actually break that down. What they're going to do to take action is really personal for them. So from there, our children in term four are going to be making personal pledges about what they want to change in their world. They’re going to be making them at the start of term four and they're going to keep a pledge diary. At the end of term four, they're going to feedback - and that diary doesn't have to be written, they can video that, that's fine.

So what we want to do is actually make it something that's really meaningful for our children, but we want it to be manageable for them too. So for some of those children it may be a change such as, ‘I'm not going to whinge when Mum or Dad tells me to go and clean my room, I'm just going to get on and do it.’ For other children it may be something much bigger - they may want to start a project in our community - but what we want is that at the end of the inquiry every child to be able to go, ‘Look, I understand the process of change and this is how I've applied it to my life.’ That's the difference from just knowing what change is - we could do a project about Anne Frank, we could find out about her life, the kids would end up with all this knowledge but they wouldn't necessarily take that away and relate that to them.

So I think the biggest thing for me in my journey of inquiry has been really moving... how do I get my children away from just this knowing, this filling up of facts, to actually having a deep understanding of how something works or what it means in their life and how that applies to them. So I guess my challenge to other teachers is how do you do that for your children? How do you move your children from knowledge to understanding?

Published on: 14 Feb 2012