Shifting Perspectives and Global Competency as Keys to Learning

People often ask why I believe Inquiry learning is such an important approach and to be honest, this can be a really difficult question to answer persuasively in fifty words or less.  In fact, numerous educators have admitted to me that they knew about inquiry, could define inquiry but didn’t really have that lightbulb moment of understanding on the effectiveness or positives for adopting inquiry learning, until they used it in their classroom.  This is completely understandable as approaches to inquiry are so vast and broad-ranging that it can be difficult to articulate the foundation behind this concept in one fell swoop.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to listen to Veronica Boix Mansilla‘s keynote address on Global Competency at the Adolescent Success Asia Pacific Conference of Middle Schooling in Singapore.  Whether or not this was the intention of Mansilla’s keynote, this presentation provided for me one of the most persuasive arguments for inquiry learning and reminded me of exactly why inquiry is so integral in creating learners who are active participants in the  twenty-first century.


Essentially learning is about perspectives.  Students enter the classroom with a range of different understandings, knowledge and skills, i.e, a range of different perspectives.  Learning happens when our students investigate, challenge and add to these perspectives to create a shift in the perspective they had when they first walked into the classroom.  We want our students to take, use and understand perspectives in their learning as they build their own understandings, rethink what they ‘know’ and add to this.   We want our students to be future-proof learners and this involves ensuring that they are globally competent. Mansilla describes the concept of global competency in the video below:

It is easy to see how this notion of global competency relates to inquiry learning.  The essence of inquiry learning isn’t about simply answering questions, it’s about asking questions and taking action.  True inquiry doesn’t discriminate against discipline or subject area, instead it pushes students to challenge identities and perspectives through encouraging them to identify problems and issues that require investigation and act on these.  It is the understanding created and shifts in perspective that result from these investigations that ensures students are truly learning.

As a convert to the work of Project Zero, I look forward to examining Mansilla’s work further and strongly suggest the work of both Mansilla and fellow Project Zero researchers such as David Perkins as a great starting place for those interested in inquiry learning.

Utilising ICTs to Enhance Inquiry


I’ve recently read an article by Elizabeth Buckner and Paul Kim documenting their research on the implications of Integrating technology and pedagogy for inquiry-based learning using the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE).  While this particular study examined the influence of SMILE on inquiry-based learning in developing countries, it raised several factors for consideration by any school wanting to integrate ICTs in an inquiry-based learning environment.  

The Integration of ICTs and Pedagogy

Schools around the world are increasingly adopting technology into their classroom environments and boasting one-to-one or mobile device programs.  While these initiatives are essential in twenty-first century learning environments, what we are yet to hear about is exactly how effective ICTs are in enhancing the learning in a classroom.   Learning using ICTs incorporates more than putting these devices in a classroom or the hands of our students, it must involve an integration between pedagogy and technology by supporting the incorporation of meaningful educational content and contextualized pedagogy (Buckner & Kim, 2014, p.100).  This may include for example, considering what effect placing a mobile device in the hands of every student in a classroom will have on their ability to collaborate and problem-solve.  There is argument here that, without appropriate pedagogy, this would actually decrease the way dimensions mentioned in the Australian Curriculum General Capabilities, particularly the ICT Capability, are met by students in their learning.  

While effectively, mobile devices broaden the learning environments and opportunities students are exposed to, as educators, we are focusing too much on the type of technology we provide, instead of the pedagogical techniques designed to utilise this technology appropriately.  

Student and Teacher Training in ICTs

It may seem obvious that educators must have a strong knowledge of the technology and devices they are using with their students. However, Buckner & Kim suggest that often, this is the biggest factor in decreasing the ability of students to learn using ICTs. Educators who feel uncomfortable with the use of ICTs or are scared of losing authority and control when students use ICTs in the classroom, greatly decrease the opportunities of students to question, problem-solve and learn (2014, p.102). This factors supports the notion that schools must begin to provide greater support for staff in their use of ICTs and place greater focus on the skills they need to use their in their teaching and learning – not the programs.  

ICTs and Mobile Devices role in enhancing Inquiry Learning

As educators, we are well aware of the potential of ICTs and mobile devices to increase engagement in the learning of our students, however, we must pay attention to the effect our pedagogical practices has on this.  Simply providing a student with a Mobile Device to type their work instead of write does not automatically increase engagement in learning.  Instead, we must consider how we can change our teaching and learning in relation to ICTs and Mobile Devices to promote, “a pedagogical shift from didactic teacher-centred to participatory student-centred learning” (Looi, Seow, Zhang, So, Chen, & Wong, 2010, p. 156). In their article, Buckner and Kim examine the use of the SMILE model to promote the questioning involved in an inquiry-based learning environment through several different case studies across many countries.  The video below provides an accompanying overview of the SMILE method used in the research of Buckner & Kim.  

Whether or not the SMILE method is adopted in your school, Buckner & Kim lead us to acknowledge the importance as educators, particularly those who adopt inquiry-based learning practices, to consider exactly how we are using and integrating pedagogy AND ICTs to improve teaching and learning in our classrooms.  

Reference List

Buckner, E., & Kim, P. (2014). Integrating technology and pedagogy for inquiry-based learning: The stanford mobile inquiry-based learning environment (SMILE). PROSPECTS, 44(1), 99-118. doi:10.1007/s11125-013-9269-7

Looi, C. K., Seow, P., Zhang, B. H., So, H. J., Chen, W., & Wong, L. H. (2010). Leveraging mobile technology for sustainable seamless learning: A research agenda. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(2), 154–169.

Exploring Integrated Units

Exploring Integrated Units.

I have been witness to much discussion of late across various  school sites that I have visited regarding the difficulty of integrating math and science using an inquiry approach.  While this discussion could stem from educators who do not have a clear understanding of multi-disciplinary approaches or inquiry-based learning, it is interesting that this has been a common area of discussion by educators across a variety of contexts.  In the discussions that I have been involved in, there are three main issues I have identified that are often raised by Math and Science educators in particular.  These are:

1. Math and Science lend themselves more to content-driven instruction.

2. Math can not be integrated with any other subject.

3. Both Science and Math need  teacher-lead direction to ensure that learning occurs and this isn’t possible in an inquiry unit.

The video below provides an excellent example of an integrated math/science/english (whether intentional or not) unit on Decomposition using an inquiry process to guide student learning and suggests that it is possible to integrate both math and science using an inquiry approach.

The Decomposition Unit undertaken in the example above demonstrates purposeful integration at its best, as the seamless inter-disciplinary approach is complemented by an inquiry process.  While the learning that takes place in this unit is student-driven, there is great evidence of teacher preparation, direction and guidance throughout the inquiry process. Initially, students become engaged and immersed in the unit through teacher-directed content that introduces them to the concepts being examined.  The students are then prompted to brainstorm as a class the questions they would like to examine in the unit.   Students were also involved in the selection of assessment criteria through defining what they believed the quality of their work would look like under the specific school-identified key areas of: inquiry, knowledge and skills, communication, enhancing and supporting community and work habits.  This process allowed both students and staff to define and have a clear understanding of what quality work would look like.

This introductory/immersion process allowed teachers to engage students in the topic of learning and provide them with the content, knowledge and understanding they needed before the students were handed the reigns and allowed to start their own investigations. I believe the detail and time the teachers of this unit took in preparing their students for learning in this unit, is one of the reasons it was such a success, as every learner was engaged, had a problem to solve and knew the process they would take in the search for answers.

The scientific study regarding the nature of decomposition provides the foundations of this inquiry, however the skills required by the students to measure, gather, document and graph data provide a clear cross-over into math, as does the blogging and reflection process to English. What provides the greatest evidence of purposeful integration in this unit, is that students are not at any stage focussing on a particular discipline,  rather, they are using the inquiry process to build understanding and many of the skills mentioned in the Australian Curriculum General Capabilities  in a quest to explore and build on their knowledge and skill set.  The involvement of teachers and the wider community was obvious in the unit, however, this involvement acted to guide and complement the learning that happened, rather than direct and control this learning.

This is just one example, of the way in which inquiry and purposefully connected curriculum can enhance not hinder the learning of students regardless of the disciplines being studied.

Considering Purposefully Connected Curriculum in the Enactment of Australian Curriculum

As secondary teachers, the importance of our chosen teaching areas/disciplines has been engrained in us since our teacher training and our natural instincts to ‘protect our own’ are strong. Unfortunately, what many of us fail to consider is that, our own interests are leading to unrealistic teaching and learning experiences for our students, as we force them to separate what is normally integrated in their world outside school.   I stumbled across the image below on Twitter and can’t help but think it illustrates this notion


With the preparation for Year 7 into secondary in QLD in 2015 in full swing at my school, I have been engaged in and witness to much discussion around how we can plan a curriculum that will effectively cater for the ethos and values of the school, while incorporating relevant national curriculum and state government requirements. Although we are a school that has been long utulising an inter-disciplinary approach across some core subjects, the addition of Year 7 into the college, has presented an exciting opportunity to rethink the approaches to curriculum enacted within the school. We have begun to ask those ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ questions as we investigate how best to provide an engaging curriculum for our learners.

One key consideration in our planning is how best to incorporate the Australian Curriculum in our teaching and learning in cohesion with our pedagogical approach of inquiry-based learning.  The three-dimensional design of the Australian Curriculum in its catering for, “discipline-based learning areas, general capabilities as essential 21st century skills and contemporary cross-curriculum priorities” is somewhat overwhelming for many educators who are struggling to accommodate the requirements of this in their teaching (ACARA, 2012, p.15). Thus, the concept of ‘purposefully connected curriculum’ as discussed in Jennifer Nayler’s paper, Enacting Australian Curriculum: Making connections for quality learning (2014) presents a worthwhile option for consideration in Middle Years environments.

Purposefully connected curriculum involves planning for the integration of two or three learning areas or subjects, as an alternative to the usual ‘single-subject curriculum’ approach (Nayler, 2014, p.3). While multi-disciplinary integration is not a new concept in curriculum design, often it is misjudged by educators who believe they will be sacrificing areas of their own subject area in trying to build links to other subject areas with little relevance. This is a valid concern, as without a clear link between the purpose of a learning experience and the skills and content being covered, lines become blurred regarding the integrity of the learning. As Nayler suggests, it is essential to be purposeful in curriculum connections and ensure a tessellation between ‘student-focused’ and ‘subject-focused’ curriculum (2014, p.12). With this in mind, connected curriculum provides a solution to the curriculum ‘over-crowding’ we often experience as educators, and allows for the development of, “a set of knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions, or general capabilities that apply across subject-based content and equip [students] to be lifelong learners able to operate with confidence in a complex, information-rich, globalized world” (ACARA, 2012, p.15).

The pairing of connected curriculum with inquiry-based learning seems a logical correlation, as the exploration involved in inquiry lends itself well to the development of understanding and skills not confined to one particular discipline. Nayler makes an important distinction between confusing the notion of common themes with focused inquiry as this practice leads to the creation of more of a single-subject curriculum as the overarching questions and links are not clear (2013, p.19).   Additionally, it is essential that necessary skills of a particular discipline are not blurred as distinction must be maintained between the difference in interpretation of understanding and skills across each learning area/subject (2014, p.20).

Nayler’s paper provides realistic considerations and insight into the planning and enactment of the Australian Curriculum. I would recommend this reading as a starting point for discussion on the benefits inter-disciplinary curriculum and inquiry-based learning in a Middle Years environment might have on our teaching and learning practices. Secondary educators perhaps need to be more open to the influence purposeful connected curriculum could have on providing realistic teaching and learning that mirrors the real-world environment for their students.

Reference List

ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority). 2012. The shape of the Australian Curriculum (4th ed). Retrieved from ACARA website

Nayler, J. (2014). Enacting Australian curriculum: making connections for quality learning. Retrieved from



Genius Hour has become quite a trend in the educational sphere lately and, after seeing it in action at Merrylands East Public School last term, I decided to try it with my Year 8 class this term.  Genius Hour is based on the initiative by Google to give their employees twenty percent of their week to explore something they are passionate about.  Google found this incentive incredibly productive and many of their recent projects such as Gmail, originated from the work completed by employees in this time.  Although, Google has since cancelled 20% time in the workplace, I really love the idea of working on something you are passionate about.  Students often whinge that they don’t like the topic being studied or wish they could be doing something else, and for me this is what Genius Hour is about – working on something you are passionate about.  Genius Hour in the classroom gives the students a lesson a week to work on something they are passionate about and discover their ‘genius’.  This program at Mount Alvernia is based around our Inquiry-Based learning approach and allows students to create a passion-based project as they move through the stages of inquiry.

There have been many studies undertaken around Genius Hour in education and I encourage you to explore these online by typing ‘Genius Hour’ into a Google search.  Dan Pink in particular, is a key motivator in this area and his TED talk explains the ideas behind Genius Hour well.

There are many resources and approaches available online provided by particular teachers, and while many of these approaches vary, the key idea I have taken on board is that genius hour, while student-centred, needs a defined structure.  I think many people are quick to jump on board because they like the idea of giving students an hour to ‘do whatever they want’, in my perspective, this would never work.  While students may like this idea for a few lessons, I could see them quickly become bored and disengaged as they run out of things to do, or, achieve what they want to in one lesson and be left with nothing to do.  I approached Genius Hour as an opportunity for students to undertake  an inquiry project on something they were passionate about.  While the topic and outcomes were completely up to them, what I was looking for was their ability to move through the inquiry process and measure the differences in their knowledge and understandings before they started and after they finished.  While this approach is quite student-centred, it does involve the teacher (or a team of teachers) to act as mentors and guide the process.  Much like guided-inquiry, there is always opportunity for teachers to intervene when things aren’t going to plan and ensure that students are on task and achieve what they set out to.

Recently, I came across a blog post by Ewan McIntosh suggesting that 20% time (Genius Hour)  is not measuring up to expectations when applied to a classroom context.  I interpreted his main concern as being that when students are given this time, they don’t know what to do or quickly lose interest when their projects become too difficult for them to manage. I guess this comes back to structure and process, I don’t expect all 30 students to create something that ‘wows’ me, what I do expect is to all students passionate about why they are learning.  I think Simone de Beauviour hit the nail on the head when she stated,”One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius”.  This is exactly what Genius Hour provides for, allowing students to consider what their passion is and how they might go about using their passion to create something.  Personally, I am hoping that Genius Hour will inspire the girls to explore their passions, allow them to take ownership of their learning and further develop skill such as research, collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking. We are only a few weeks into Genius Hour, but I am expecting students to be actively involved and enjoying a project of their choice.. the passion this involves is more the genius I’m looking for.

While it is still early days for #geniushourmta I have included some screen shots of some of the plans the students have for Genius Hour (taken from their reflective blogs).  I’m looking forward to the final products!