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 perfectly.


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 http://www.acara.edu.au/verve/_resources/The_Shape_of_the_Australian_Curriculum_v4.pdf

Nayler, J. (2014). Enacting Australian curriculum: making connections for quality learning. Retrieved from https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/downloads/p_10/ac_enact_ac_paper.pdf



Zeroing in on Constructivism


Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is by no means a new pedagogical approach and is a term often ‘thrown around’ in educational settings. My school identified IBL as its pedagogical approach long before I started teaching there, and theoretically, teachers across all year levels and all departments use this in their everyday teaching and learning. While my teacher training prepared me to recite the premise behind IBL and Constructivism on demand, it was not until I completed study in this area while enrolled in my Masters of Education, that I began to fully understanding exactly what IBL entailed. Inquiry-Based Learning has become of great interest to me as it is something that if often deemed effective and essential in best-practice teaching and learning, yet there are many educators, such as John Hattie, who remain sceptical about this approach. While Hattie does not claim that IBL doesn’t work, he does suggest that it is an ineffective teaching method, as the skills involved do not transfer easily across disciplines and content takes a back seat to critical thinking and exploration (Visible Learning plus, 2011, para 2.). Futhermore, Jeffrey and Peggy Wilhelm suggest that as a theory of learning, IBL caters for all learners in the classroom however, often, it is the delivery of IBL models that fail in their effectiveness (2010, p.40). Similarly, David Yun Dai, Kathryn Gerbimo and Michael Daley asserted in their study, ‘Inquiry-Based Learning in China: Do Teachers Practice What They Preach, and Why?’, that the effect of IBL is often limited by the understanding of school administrators, teachers and parents of the philosophy as they consider IBL as a teaching technique and not a way of learning (2011, p.154). It is factors such as these that lead me to believe, while Inquiry-Based learning has potential to be effective, it is greatly dependent on the understanding and delivery of this approach by educators. Perhaps one of the determiners of this is reliant on educators’ understanding and interpretation of Constructivism, the theory from which Inquiry-Based learning has evolved.

Constructivism is very much a theory about knowledge and learning although, often, is misinterpreted as a theory of teaching, leading to a vast range of ideas about what constitutes Constructivist practice in the classroom. We often hear Constructivism mentioned with jargon such as ‘student-centred’, ‘problem-based’, ‘real-world’, yet what we forget is, Constructivism does not constitute what we teach, but how we learn. To be truly Constructivist in their teaching, educators must connect theory to practice and sadly, this is often where they fail. Based on the work of Dewey, Paiget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Gardner and many others, Constructivism constitutes the idea that knowledge is constructed through the active participation and development of the learner (Twomey Fosnot, 2005, p.33). A Constructivist classroom environment is one in which students, “search for meaning, appreciate uncertainty, and inquire responsibly” (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.v). Through this, we encourage our students to think and rethink, validate and exhibit their understanding as they learn (1993, p.v). Thus, errors, reflection and dialogue are essential in meaning made by the learners as they build on earlier conceptions and ideas (2005, p.34). Consequently, Constructivist teachers must constantly analyse their curriculum and instructional methodologies while continually reflecting on the learning process as they go, rather than planning a unit with pre-conceived expectations of what and how learning will happen (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.13).

As educators, it is easy to misjudge learning as the recitation and repetition of facts, ideas and procedures. What is missed, is the fact that memorisation does not necessarily mean knowledge. Piaget emphasised that the construction of knowledge is an adaptive activity that occurs through assimilation and accommodation; once a new equilibrium is achieved in the learner, learning has happened (Von Glaserfeld, 1989, p.128).   Forman and Kuschner use the example of the difference between a student understanding or not understanding the game of baseball. Simply memorising the rules of the sport does not constitute knowledge. It is not until a student understands how to apply the rules of the game, make inferences about tactic and strategy and becomes generative in their use of the rules that learning has occurred (1977, p.84). This has great implications for many educators, who become overwhelmed at the thought of loosening the reigns and putting learning in the hands of each individual in their class. Constructivism is about abandoning what is familiar and comfortable in our perspectives and practices, and experiencing a paradigm shift through the adoption of new ones (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.25). John Dewey’s assertion that, “education is not an affair of telling and being told but an active and constructive process,” is a perfect articulation of this concept (as cited in Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p.14).    Essentially, the foci of Constructivism are cognitive development and deep understanding, as learners become nonlinear in their learning processes through the active organisation and reorganisation of structures and conceptions. The challenge for educators who adopt Constructivist practices, is not then to simply hand the responsibility of learning over to students and label their pedagogy as student-centred, but to change their classrooms to environments that encourage students to think and explore.

These ideas are but scratching at the surface of Constructivist thinking, however, they do provide a starting point for educators who are unaware of the theoretical background of pedagogies grounded in Constructivism, such as Inquiry-Based Learning. Whereas Constructivism is often seen as a relaxed practice that allows students to learn about whatever they want, in whatever manner they want, it is in fact a rigorous thinking process that allows for empowerment and genuine understanding in learners. The Constructivist theory of learning challenges educators to consider whether their students are simply memorising and repeating, or actively understanding what is taught in their classrooms. My examination of the foundations of Constructivism leads me to question whether it is the misinterpretations of this theory and its applications to pedagogy that influence educators such as Hattie to question the effects of Inquiry-Based Learning.

Reference List

Brooks, J. G., &Brooks, M. G. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dai, D. Y., Gerbino, K. A., & Daley, M. J. (2011). Inquiry-based learning in china: Do teachers practice what they preach, and why?Frontiers of Education in China, 6(1), 139-157. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11516-011-0125-3

Forman, G., & Kuschner, D. (1977). The child’s construction of knowledge. Belmont, Calif: Wadworth Co

Jeffrey, D.W., & Wilhelm, P.J. (2010). Inquiring minds learn to read, write, and think: Reaching all learners through inquiry. Middle School Journal, 41(5), 39-46. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/336833607?accountid=13380

Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K. & Caspari, A. K.  (2007).  Guided inquiry: learning in the 21st century.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Twomey Fosnot, C. (Ed). (2005). Constructivism: theory, perspectives, and practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Visible Learning plus. (2011). Inquiry learning. Retrieved April 9, 2014, from http://www.visiblelearningplus.com/faqs/inquiry-learning

Von Glaserfeld, E. (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese, 80 (1), 121-140. doi: 10.1007/BF00869951

Image Attribution

School Girls Learning From Teacher At Desk.[Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest.http://quest.eb.com/images/154_2877820



I started research on my Doctor of Education at the start of this year and have found that although I am reading so much and forming so many ideas, it’s really hard to actually start writing these down. After much procrastination and ‘note-taking’, I’ve decided that today is the day I start putting pen to paper and documenting what I’ve been ‘thinking’ about. After encouragement from my supervisors, I have decided to take my thinking public, and blog about my research as I go.

When I wrote my research proposal last year, I was hoping to develop a middle school approach to inquiry-based learning, using my current school as a case study. In order for readers to fully understand my ideas on this blog, I have included my proposal below as it outlines my initial ideas.


Research Topic: The design and implementation of an Inquiry-based learning Middle School pedagogical approach

Objectives of program of Research and Investigation:

Inquiry-based learning is essential in the development of a holistic and supportive curriculum that provides learners with the opportunities to direct their own learning in a twenty-first (21) century learning landscape. While inquiry-based learning is not a new concept, it has become the framework for learning in a society of innovation and the unknown. Often educators recognise the, “significant challenges we will face in today’s world, …[require] us to innovate, change, take risks, recognize problems and imagine alternate futures”, however, this is not always catered for across all disciplines (Barell, 2010, p.176). Education Queensland acknowledges that every school should have a research-validated pedagogical framework that is implemented and supported consistently across the school setting, with student-centred learning and evidence-based decision-making key principles in ensuring the success of learners (2013, p.1). The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, recognises Inquiry skills in its curriculum, however, does not mention inquiry-based learning. Essentially, it is up to the school itself to adopt a whole-school inquiry-based approach in order to accommodate for this. Without such an approach, educators may be teaching inquiry skills, without awareness or recognition of their relationship to inquiry-based learning. Thus, in order to successfully implement a curriculum focused on inquiry skills, it is necessary for a school to develop a systematic approach to inquiry-based learning that is transferable across each discipline.

Research methods: Research will be conducted using a case study methodology. Thus, data will be collected through interviews, questionnaires and observations of the staff and students at a secondary order-based Catholic School.

Case Study Site:

The site under investigation currently adopts an inquiry-based learning pedagogy, particularly in the middle school, with students completing a subject entitled Integrated Studies that incorporates the core subjects of English, Social Sciences and Religious Education. Theoretically, Integrated Studies is built around Kath Murdoch’s Phases of Inquiry model, however often, due to the unfamiliarity of teachers with the inquiry process, this is often overlooked and student’s are instead exposed to teaching and learning that focuses heavily on summative assessment and, the inquiry process and development of twenty-first century skills, are marginalised. In addition to this, not all departments are encouraging their staff to adopt inquiry-based learning, as they believe their disciplines are more suited to other approaches or, do not see the merits of inquiry-based learning. With the onset of a year seven (7) cohort entering the college in 2015, the college hopes to develop an atmosphere that actively incorporates an inquiry-based philosophy across all departments within the school. In order to be successful in this, the school needs to consider how current and future trends in learning, such as John Hattie’s Visible Learning, can be incorporated in the inquiry process and additionally, how the inquiry process, and the skills developed in this process, can be transferred across all departments and into the senior school. The staffing, professional development programs and practices of teaching and learning within the school need to be assessed so that all learning within the school models a singular inquiry-based learning approach.

Prior Research:

With the rapid advancements in technology, the transformation of literacy and the constant bombardment of information that twenty-first century learners are faced with, it is evident that a change is need in our teaching styles to effectively cater for today’s learners.  The concept of inquiry-based learning, whereby students become active participants in locating and using a range of information sources to construct their own understanding of a problem or issue, is one appropriate student-centred response that attends to the needs of twenty-first century students (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p.2).  Often in the twenty-first century, students are presented with tasks that require them to research and draw on a range of information sources to construct their knowledge independently without guidance  (Todd, 2006, p.6).  By incorporating inquiry learning, teachers are able to guide students through the process of locating and selecting appropriate information and assist them in developing the skills needed to transform information into knowledge.

 Inquiry-based learning is modelled on the constructivist theory that allows a student to be an active participant in the construction of deep understanding and learning. Early Constructivists, such as John Dewey, argued that education involved creating new knowledge through an inquiry process. He advocated a Reflecting Thinking process that allowed for reflection in each stage of understanding and learning (1915, p.158). The concept that learners actively reflect on new information in the learning process and then form their own ideas that lead to deep understanding, is the foundation of inquiry-based learning  (Kuhlthau, et al., 2007, p.15). This, coupled with research that suggests the brain runs on emotions that drive thoughts and actions which are increased when a learning environment is challenging, social and engaging, is the focus of guided inquiry: to challenge students to become engaged in their own quest for knowledge and understanding through personal and social construction (Kuhlthau, et al., 2007, p.15). There are numerous pedagogical approaches to inquiry-based learning, however, essential to these approaches is the need to contain a combination of three key elements: a questioning framework, an information seeking process and an action research cycle, in order to contain an authentic student-centred approach (Lupton, 2012, Para. 1). Thus, as Barell suggests, it is integral that we recognise inquiry is a, “natural outcome of encountering situations characterized by doubt, difficulty, complexity, novelty, conflict and mystery” (Barell, 2009, Loc 460).

Inquiry-based learning is an effective active learning pedagogy. Harste suggests that incorporating inquiry-based learning involves changing the way we view instruction, so that curriculum is focused on the personal and collective questions of the learners (2001, p.3). This is supported by Schuster’s discovery that incorporating inquiry learning into her courses allowed her student’s to discover that their knowledge was valued and essential to their own learning (2008, p.176).  By transforming her classroom from a teacher-centred environment with prescribed textbooks that provided students with answers, to a student-centred environment that allowed active learning through research, discussion and analysis, Schuster found that her students were equipped with skills that promoted life-long learning (2008, p.177). Similarly, Fitzgerald found in her case study on inquiry learning in a classroom setting, that students achieved more when their own research and inquiry provided direction and guided the final result  (2007, p.35).    Thus, it is evident that a learning experience that embraces inquiry-based learning, will allow students to construct their own meaning and become active and engaged learners as they share responsibility in the direction and outcome of their learning.

While it obvious that students benefit from the flexibility they have in building and developing their knowledge and understanding, the inquiry process must be supported by a flexible team of educators who assist the students in developing their research and information literacy skills (Kuhlthau & Maniotes, 2010, p.18).   Kuhlthau and Maniotes argue that, as the implementation of inquiry learning is complex and multi-faceted, it is essential to develop a team of experts with a range of expertise who will supervise and assist students in their inquiry (2010, p.19).  Kuhlthau and Maniotes identify five kinds of learning in the inquiry process: curriculum content, information literacy, learning how to learn, literacy competence and social skills (2010, p.19).  By creating a team of educators that will assist students in these areas of learning, a unit will be fully utulising the expertise of the school community. Todd asserts that a team of educators who assist students in carrying out and scaffolding their inquiry, ensures that evidence of student learning can be gathered and, “provide a mechanism for teachers and school librarians to recognise those critical moments when intervention and instruction is essential, and then to tailor interventions to enable students to achieve successful outcomes in their inquiry” (Todd, 2006, p.6).   Therefore, it is essential that inquiry-based learning needs to be planned, negotiated and supervised by an instructional team who are able to guide, support and enable students to become effective researchers, information users and seekers, as well as constructors of their own knowledge.

It is apparent that inquiry-based learning is an effective and logical teaching and learning approach, as it allows for students to be active participants in the construction of their knowledge in an engaging and social process.  By creating an instructional team that caters for the content and skill needs of the learners as they learn, students will be able to achieve outcomes that utilise the information literacy skills needed to be active participants in the twenty-first century technological society.  Inquiry-based learning greatly enhances the learning experience of students and should be considered and catered for in twenty-first (21) century pedagogy.

 If you are someone who is interested in pedagogy that is supported across disciplines in a whole-school approach, particularly inquiry-based learning and movements such as Visible Learning, please follow my blog and join the conversation as my ideas and research grow.


Reference list:

Barell, J. (2008). Why are school buses always yellow?: teaching for inquiry, preK-5 [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/School-Buses-Always-Yellow-ebook/dp/B00AFFRRY2/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1382839480&sr=1-1&keywords=john+barell

Barell, J. (2010). Problem-based learning: The foundation for 21st century skills. 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn, 175-199.

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Dover Publications.

Education Queensland, Department of Education, Training and Employment (2013). Pedagogical framework – at a glance. Retrieved from http://education.qld.gov.au/curriculum/pdfs/pedagogical-framework-a-glance.pdf

Fitzgerald, L.  (2007).  Investigating guided inquiry: a beginning.  Scan, 26(2), 30-37.

Fitzgerald, L.  (2011).  The twin purposes of guided inquiry:  guiding student inquiry and evidence based practice.  Scan, 30(1), 26-41.

Gillon, K.  & Stotter, J.  (2011).  Inquiry learning with senior secondary students: yes it can be done!  Access, 25(3), 14-19.

Harste, J. (2001). What inquiry is and isn’t. In S. Boran & B. Comber (Eds.), Critiquing whole language and classroom inquiry (pp. 1-17). Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

Kuhlthau, C.C.  & Maniotes.  L. K.  (2010).  Building guided inquiry teams for 21st-century learners.  School Library Monthly, XXVI(5), 18-21.

Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K. & Caspari, A. K.  (2007).  Guided inquiry: learning in the 21st century.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Lupton, M. (2012, August 22). What is inquiry learning? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://inquirylearningblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/what-is-inquiry-learning/

Murdoch, K. (2010). Phases of inquiry. Retrieved from http://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/uploads/media/phasesofinquiry.pdf

Schuster, L.A.  (2008).  Working-class students and historical inquiry:  transforming learning in the classroom.  The History Teacher41(2), 163-178.

Todd, R. J.  (2006).  From learning to read to reading to learn: school libraries, literacy and guided inquiry.  International Association of School Librarianship.  Selected Papers from the… Annual Conference, 1-18. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/236087169?accountid=13380