Sky’s the limit with inquiry model in Southland

Issue: Volume 100, Number 15

Posted: 24 November 2021
Reference #: 1HARWc

A small rural Southland school is using an inquiry model to deliver curriculum – and student engagement has gone through the roof. One student even Zoom-chatted with Peter Hillary to talk about his famous father’s achievements in Nepal.

Year 3 student Anna wanted to learn about Morse code. Here she is building a coding machine with Ian Rogers, a technology teacher from Winton School.

Year 3 student Anna wanted to learn about Morse code. Here she is building a coding machine with Ian Rogers, a technology teacher from Winton School.

Hedgehope School is about halfway between Invercargill and Winton in central Southland with a roll of 26 Year 1-8 ākonga. For the past four years, the school has developed its own inquiry cycle under overarching headings such as enterprise, sustainability, and citizenship, but principal Sue Rogers says that she and her small team of junior teacher Lisa McCracken and senior teacher Cheryl Marychurch felt they weren’t tapping into the potential learning that could happen when ākonga were passionate about a subject. 

“It’s been quite student-driven to a point but always with massive teacher input and planning behind it – almost looking to an end product before we actually did the deeper learning. 

“While the learning was going really well and we were sitting quite high up in our data for ‘at curriculum’ levels, it didn’t seem like we were going deep enough and meeting the needs of the learners. 

“All students are particularly curious by nature, but many educators are noting that we are potentially stopping their curiosity by directing the learning for the skills and knowledge that the teachers feel students need to know,” says Sue.

Preparing for the journey

At the start of the journey, Sue and her team came across curiousminds.ac.nz, an online platform with goals, matrices and learning tips for independent inquiry learning developed by former teacher Tala Vos Palsey. With little money for PLD, the school has been working with Tala as she develops the platform.

Piwakawaka (Junior class) all work together on a theme chosen by a class member for a few weeks. They are encouraged to bring many of their questions to class from their weekly Forest School sessions in the local bush. For example, they asked ‘are there dinosaurs in the bush in Hedgehope?’ 

“Over the weekend their ingenious teacher, Lisa, created various fossil models and hid them around school; a deep investigation into fossil types followed. Students were even found in the school kitchen baking cookies and embedding pretend dinosaur footprints,” says Sue. 

In the senior room, 15 separate inquiries have been leading students down many interesting and engaging pathways from running their own restaurants to learning about animal testing, kinetic energy and global wealth distribution. Ākonga begin with a list of inquiries, do some research and gather some resources before delving deeper. 

“At the end of last year, we told the students they needed to start thinking about some things they really wanted to know about. We noticed very quickly that although they had a lot of ‘wondering’ – we have a wall of Post It notes of things they wanted to know about – the quality of their questions to lead a deep inquiry was really quite weak. 

“So, although we let them run straight away with their passions, we did a lot of work on research skills: forming good questions and critical thinking. It was everything we’ve been doing prior in our inquiries, but just really deepening it,” explains Sue.

In term 1 the school’s three teachers spent a lot of time supporting and scaffolding the students as they began on their individual journeys. 

“But now, when you walk into that senior room when they’re doing curiosity, they are independently running with some really high strategy stuff.

“Now we can’t stop them wanting to carry on. They race in the gate at 8.30 in the morning and they don’t want to go to morning tea and lunch, so we’re having to really reinforce that as well for wellbeing!” says Sue.

Some students who love cooking, like Oliver, ran a pop-up restaurant, and made takeaways, student meals and meals for people during calving.

Some students who love cooking, like Oliver, ran a pop-up restaurant, and made takeaways, student meals and meals for people during calving.

Energy quest

Teachers become coaches and if they don’t know about a topic, they learn along with the children.

“We’ve done a lot of PLD. We are the coaches and we’ve realised that if we insist on being the font of all knowledge, we’ve stopped that curiosity. So we have flipped it – we don’t need to know every step ahead. We need to know where they’re going and what they’re wanting to achieve, but we don’t have to be the experts in everything – we’re learning along the way, believe me!” says Sue.

Sue says they coach a lot of children with their questions, and might ‘accidentally’ slip something into a conversation as a question to help guide critical thinking to a different research process.

One Year 3 student wanted to learn more about kinetic energy and began with an assumption that the static caused by rubbing a balloon on her head was kinetic energy.

“Do we fix their assumptions that are not correct, or do we let them stumble along and find out? We’ve decided that the stumble along is the learning. The teacher-led ‘you’re not right, I want you to go THIS way, is not what kids need to be critical thinkers. They don’t learn to problem-solve if they’re guided like that.

The inquiry resulted in science experiments with bouncing balls and moving things using an external force; then Google search, where much of the content and scientific vocabulary was too advanced. Appropriate science websites were found, and the student ended up building her own website to help young people understand the different types of energies.

Wide-ranging interests

One student with a heart murmur began her inquiry about heart murmurs. She’s an animal lover and began to ask if her medication was tested on animals.

“That drove the next inquiry to the point that she worked with the SPCA to try and raise awareness about the fact that animals should be cared for, as well as laboratory testing. She ended up going down a natural path of creating some beeswax lip balm with essential oils to try and get people thinking about whether there is an animal testing element that should be pushed out of society. 

“That’s led her, randomly, on to cancer research, because she realised through doing that that a lot of sunscreens are tested on animals. We would not have gone through that if we had stuck to trying to deliver it as a science inquiry,” laughs Sue.

A Year 6 student became interested in Sir Edmond Hillary and researched his life history and the impacts that he had in Nepal. 

“She then decided that she wanted to try and make a difference because she became aware that Covid had really hit the Nepalese people. Her teacher, Whaea Cheryl, said ‘why don’t you just go to the top and try Peter [Hillary]’; and he responded within 24 hours, bless him. So, they Zoomed,” says Sue delightedly.

The student then decided she wanted to fundraise for Nepal and combined efforts with other students who had set up their own takeaway restaurant as part of the curiosity project. A three-course meal was prepared, with Year 6-8 students waitressing and helping in the kitchen, and some of the profits went to the fundraiser.

“She’s now going from the Nepalese and knowing about poverty and children not going to school and her new inquiry is about equality and equity of wealth distribution ... in Year 6! She thinks wealth should be distributed fairly throughout the world.”

This year, in response to students’ curiosity about water quality, native species and their ongoing Silver Enviro Schools journey, Hedgehope School was nominated for an Environment Southland Community Award.

Curriculum links and data

The curiosity projects are explored for about two hours a day. Sue says some subjects are still taught as straight curriculum subjects, but increasingly links are made between the curiosity topic and a curriculum learning outcome.

“Maths is still quite standalone, although as we are having coaching conversations with each student, we try and make the link within what we’re doing in the classroom. A lot of the arts are coming through in the ways they are sharing their learning, but we are still doing a deliberate art focus. 

“The conversations the students are having are really deep, compared with previous kōrero – they’re making the links and we’re making sure that we’re using learning progressions so that they’re self-assessing and can see their growth. We talk to them about the shift from one level to the other across the curriculum,” says Sue.

Hedgehope is a dairying area and prior to Covid a number of families moved in and out of the district, which affected tracking. However, about 85 percent of children were working within, or above, curriculum levels. This year data shows reading at 92 percent and maths and writing at 100 percent across the board.

“If you have the support to pick up on any issues and scaffold you through new learning, the mileage that you’re doing is going to be really positive. With them having their own passions that they want to research about, they are easily doing double what we covered in a normal reading or writing session, but they’re not realising it,” explains Sue.

 Rylan, Year 2, shares his knowledge about harakeke/flax in a piece of shared class writing.

Rylan, Year 2, shares his knowledge about harakeke/flax in a piece of shared class writing.

With Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum content on the horizon, Hedgehope School plans to focus curiosities on local history themes, as well as making a concerted effort to link te reo Māori to each line of inquiry.

Be bold

The school’s parents are excited and can see the shifts in engagement and achievement, says Sue.

“They know what the students have been doing all day – even in the Junior room. They absolutely know what the senior kids are doing – they can see the shifts that are happening. Their curiosities involve the community in so many different ways – 26 students, 18 families – they all know what each other is doing,” she says.

For curious schools willing to dip their toes in the water, Sue says you need backing from the board of trustees and the community. She advises, “Be bold – we have a motto ‘anything is possible’. There’s no such thing as ‘no’, there’s just ‘how’.” 

Many areas of interest

Tamariki at Hedgehope School have been curious about a wide range of topics and learning this year. Education Gazette Zoomed into Southland and spoke to some of the children in the senior class about their curiosity topics.

Anna, Year 3 I have researched kinetic energy, my ancestors, Marie Curie and am currently on the phonetic alphabet and Morse Code. I did robotics in the lockdown. I like the option to choose what I’m doing because I have my own thing to do, not just the teacher saying ‘you need to do this because the whole school’s doing it as well’.

Charlie, Year 5 I explored how cows produce milk (I live on a dairy farm), engines, Mongolian death worms and also the Loch Ness monster, and right now I’m on aliens. We had a tanker come to school because of my curiosity, but everybody was involved.

I liked learning about the Loch Ness monster because it was really interesting and fun going onto Google Maps and looking at sightings. I made a slideshow about the Loch Ness monster.

Charlotte, Year 8 I’ve investigated water pollution, child brain development, the history of cosmetics and now I’m on my family heritage. I like this way of learning because we get to use our own opinions on what we want to learn about. It makes us more motivated to do it. We get a whole heap of websites, resources and the links and we’ll skim read through and find the information and we can put the information however we want. 

I also visited some kindys for child brain development. It was quite cool because I got to study how the different ages reacted to things and about their physical and mental wellbeing. I researched about what they should be doing and what they should know at their age and I would see what they knew and the learning styles they had and what they did. It was really interesting. I did a babysitting course over the holidays because of that.

Oliver, Year 5 I love cooking in the kitchen; we had a pop-up restaurant, takeaways, and made student meals and meals for people during calving. Most of the ingredients are all from the school garden. I learned maths from the fractions; science because what different ingredients do if you mix them together and, I made my own blog. I’ve also been doing eels, made a hinaki and we caught five eels. We did some maths, but they’re not easy to measure because they wouldn’t stay still and you can’t hold onto them.

Sophie, Year 6 [showed Education Gazette a beautifully made dress, complete with shirring]. My first topic was how dogs swim, then I did brains, Downs Syndrome and fashion design. I designed and made two skirts and dresses – I pretty much made it all by myself.

I really like it when we’re allowed to do our own curiosities, because if we have to do one that someone else has picked, at the start you’re disappointed that it’s not what you want to do, so you don’t really get involved throughout the whole thing.

 Helping tamariki at Hedgehope school follow their passions are (from left) Cheryl Marychurch (senior teacher), Lisa McCracken (junior teacher), Wendy Horton (learning support), Sue Rogers (teaching principal), Tarsh Campbell (student teacher on practicum

Helping tamariki at Hedgehope school follow their passions are (from left) Cheryl Marychurch (senior teacher), Lisa McCracken (junior teacher), Wendy Horton (learning support), Sue Rogers (teaching principal), Tarsh Campbell (student teacher on practicum).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 11:25 AM, 24 November 2021

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