The quality of the education experience in its broadest sense from initial teacher training to the learning outcomes of students currently enjoys a large amount of publicity, particularly following the publication of the present NSW government’s Great Teaching, Inspired Learning – A Blueprint for Action reforms across a number of areas. The focus of this initiative is largely about teacher quality, a notion reiterated by John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and recently appointed chair of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL).
Hattie says that the biggest issue facing educators and teachers is consensus on student progress, how big the growth in results and learning should be and what that looks like. “Expert teachers understand the Goldilocks principle of challenge in that if you set the challenge too high you won’t get there, but if it is set too low, then what’s the point?” he asks. Hattie highlights concerns about students stalling in their learning, particularly if not experiencing the opportunity to maximise their potential due to approaches to teaching and learning. Hattie notes that these factors, combined with the importance of delivering effective feedback, are challenges that we face. “We will have a lot of passive kids doing the minimum,” he says.
The power of effective teaching and learning models, how students perceive and reflect on their learning and the role of teacher feedback is of central concern to other researchers too. Dr Carol Dweck (2006) highlights the need to foster a ‘growth mindset’ in learners whereby they are not limiting their capacity to a fixed entity.
The capacity of an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning is its potential to increase intellectual engagement and foster deep understanding through the development of a hands-on, minds-on and a ‘research-based disposition’ towards teaching and learning. Here students are active participants who guide their understanding through exploration and connection. Inquiry values the complex, interconnected nature of knowledge construction, striving to provide opportunities for both students and teachers in collaborative relationships to build, test and reflect on their learning.
Conventional approaches to learning are focused on the mastery of content with less emphasis on the development of skills and in the cultivation of inquiring attitudes. Teachers drive the learning, focussing on giving out information about a known body of content. Much of the assessment of the learner is often focused on the importance of “one right answer”. Traditional education is more concerned with preparation for the next year level and in-school success than with helping a student learn to learn throughout life.
In an educational setting that is sometimes overshadowed by external testing and measurement at both national and international levels. Learning needs to be the ‘focus’ whereby our students are developing life skills and capacities rather than just recalling content in its simplest form. In essence, the difference between traditional learning and inquiry learning is that traditional learning focuses more on learning about things (WHAT), while inquiry learning focuses more on learning things (HOW)!
Educators across the globe are charged with the responsibility of teaching students who are immersed in a rapidly changing world. Having the right disposition to manage information and to apply skills learned will be critical attributes in the future. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education researchers (2012) identify key 21st century skills that students should develop and demonstrate. These include critical thinking, problem-solving, the ability to collaborate with others, strong written and oral communication skills, creativity, self-direction, leadership, adaptability, a sense of responsibility and global awareness.
The ‘knowledge society’ in which we live requires new thinking about what constitutes effective and engaging teaching and learning. Teachers are now faced with the challenge as Sharon Friesen (2009) points out that “former conceptions of knowledge, minds and learning no longer serve a world where what we know is less important than what we are able to do with knowledge in different contexts”.
In contrast with more traditional forms of teaching and learning, inquiry emphasises the process of learning in order to develop deep understanding in students in addition to the intended acquisition of content knowledge and skills. Inquiry draws upon constructivist learning theories where understanding is built through the active development of conceptual mental frameworks by the learner. Most importantly, inquiry needs students to be encouraged to take risks, make mistakes and solve problems. In a world of standardised testing, this often takes second place.
As Great Teaching, Inspired Learning gains greater impetus in educational reforms in NSW, so too must we as a learning community respond to the challenges that living in a ‘knowledge society’ pose to us as a school.
- Dr Greg Cunningham is the Director of Teaching and Learning whose special research interest is in visual literacy having completed his doctorate in this field.
- Dr Brad Merrick is the Director of Research in Learning, has a keen interest in emerging technology, investigating student self-efficacy and self-regulation for his doctorate.