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The students who built a school

March 23, 2018


Starting a brand new school gives teachers and students alike amazing opportunities to use the inquiry process to empower students to genuinely contribute to the establishment of school culture and practices.


All the things which established schools take for granted – sports houses, canteen monitors, peer mediators, specialist classes, etc. – have yet to be instituted and thus an incredible opportunity for the students to be part of the development cannot be ignored!


This year, I am lucky enough to have time in a classroom on top of three leadership roles – anyone who has been in a new or small school will appreciate the many hats you are required to wear!  We are not on site at our new school, and possibly won’t be there until mid year. Currently, we are working from a neighbouring school.       


I have four Year 6 girls and twenty-three Year 4 and 5 students in the class I share, and from the very first day these students knew the important role they were about to play in setting up their brand new school. By using inquiry approaches to address the English and Civics and Citizenship content areas, as well as Personal and Social and Critical and Creative Thinking Capabilities [1], we explored opportunities to consider how they might contribute to the school and what learning I could support them with in order to achieve it. To me, this opportunity to support student inquiry is why I made the decision to go back into a school and is what makes all the lost school jumper disasters worth it!


So far, my students have written proposals to our principal regarding school initiatives, sports houses and student leadership roles. When we move to our site, we plan to propose using STEM education methodologies to consider sustainable gardens, design learning spaces and recommending resources. We are looking forward to engaging with local industry and indigenous elders to ensure our school environment and culture is developed in acknowledgement of local history and biology. We can also contribute to the establishment of school celebrations and communications. The only limitation is time and the possibilities are endless!


All of our work thus far has been done through co-design of curriculum content, skill development and targeted support for students to propose and trial their own ideas. For both my students and I, the learning is purposeful. It isn’t something I tell them to do and it isn’t something I solely determine the hows and the whens of. It is something my students engage in in order to achieve the objectives they have set, and the vehicle we use to facilitate the purposeful learning is the inquiry process.


But what really is inquiry learning? I mean, everyone seems to be doing it - and many people are doing it really well. But what is it? Despite the best of intentions, I wonder how many times teachers and students have struggled to articulate their school’s philosophy of inquiry learning, or struggled to genuinely utilize the power of inquiry [2] in the face of crowded curriculums, standardized testing requirements and challenging workloads.


In my experience at both school and system level, I have seen how the reality of day to day school life does not always easily lend itself to genuine inquiries; rather forcing time bound, content driven “projects” or, worse, inquiry as a “subject” or Friday afternoon “activity”. This of course is not to say that there aren’t genuine attempts to empower students in their learning by allowing opportunities to direct and tailor learning for specific interests and purposes - but sometimes, the role of facilitator of learning is a difficult one for teachers to adopt due to the pressures mentioned above.


Inquiry learning indeed asks more of the teacher – articulating the purpose for learning and tailoring curriculum in often many different ways - and more of the student - taking responsibility for their own learning - so true inquiry can be difficult to master. Whilst I do not propose to have mastered this myself, for me as a teacher, the empowerment and engagement of my students has always been the highest priority. In any of my classrooms, I have always been conscious of ensuring learning had a purpose, and that the students were not only aware of this purpose, but were also expected to enact their specifically designed learning in recognition of this purpose.


This calls for deep learning that relates and extends ideas, and has an intention to understand and impose meaning [3] in order to act in ways that promote citizenship and responsibility. Inquiry learning also asks the students to seek the questions to be answered and the problems to be solved.


Indeed, in the age of Google, knowledge acquisition is merely the beginning, and it should not be the main focus of educators and students. Building the capacity for problem solving, critical thinking, synthesis and entrepreneurship in students so that they may contribute to the school and local community should be the greater objective of any educational system.


The ultimate goal for me this year, is to have a group of students who have, almost literally, built their own school. Especially for my Year 6 students, my hope for them is that they leave a legacy for future students. If I am able to create the conditions for these students to truly embrace inquiry learning as a means of building their capacity to live in and contribute to their world today and in the future, then I will feel confident that I have done my job!

[1] Victorian Curriculum
[2] Murdoch, K., (2015) The Power of Inquiry, Northcote, Seastar Education.
[3] Hattie, J.A.C. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Building Teacher Quality: What does the research tell us ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, Australia.


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