HSC and Inquiry Learning – What is the link?

Just last week, I received an email which started with, “When you get a moment I am looking for some advice, a magic wand, or silver bullet.” The author was expressing an emerging concern about how to respond to teachers when they say, “Guided Inquiry is all good and well, but if we are not EXPLICITLY preparing them for the HSC we are not doing our Job.”

Over the last few years our school has continued to pursue Inquiry learning as the scaffold to support student-centred pedagogy. Like any new approach, there were trail blazers, followers over time and obvious nay-sayers who are determined to remain loyal to what has ‘worked’ over the last so many years.
The author of the email is a trail-blazer who works with teams of teachers to engage in learning initiatives which strive for student-centred pedagogy. The Guided Inquiry Framework used at the College, modelled on Ross Todd’s work, challenges teachers to forgo their dominant instructional approach to one of facilitator and coach. Guided Inquiry acknowledges that the teacher is just one context for student learning with other contexts being online platforms including social media.
And sooooo, the HSC/Inquiry Learning conundrum. The author of the email wrote…. “Guided Inquiry creates conditions of learning/growth and that the description of a successful HSC student = a student able to undertake Inquiry independently.” However, over the first six weeks of school when this teacher/leader has engaged in professional dialogue with colleagues, the (I must say) diminishing ‘nay-sayers’ still argue, “Guided Inquiry is all good and well, but if we are not EXPLICITLY preparing them for the HSC we are not doing our Job.” HHHHmmmmmm……
Towards the end of the email I was asked two questions….
1) Does Guided Inquiry facilitate a ‘better’ HSC student? If so, what does this better student look like?
2) What compelling evidence/tools/videos/hallucinogenic drugs are there available to be persuasive in building bridges between GI skills in Stage 4 = HSC skills in HSC?
Here is an edited version of my response…..
Interesting email. What you are  asking in a sense is, “What is the purpose of schooling? To an extreme, some parents would see school as child minding until their child is adult enough to get a job – random! With that being said, a few points……
I do not see it as an “either / or”. I see inquiry as supporting and scaffolding student learning, especially in those ‘higher domains’ of learning such as evaluation, synthesis and creativity. Rote learning for a HSC may not always develop those ‘higher domains’ as well as inquiry learning.
When done well, an Inquiry approach to learning supports rigorous learning, promotes formative assessment and builds student capacity to ‘know themselves as learners’. These are all great attributes to have for the HSC, are they not?
Year 12 is not all about the HSC. No doubt, the HSC forms a very strong focus, but Inquiring students ask discerning questions which not only value adds to the content driven nature of HSC, but life after the HSC.
Also, teachers are no longer the font of all knowledge. Teachers have now become one (still very important) context for student learning. If so, are we trying to encourage students to source information from more than just the teacher? An Inquiry approach supports that.
The skills of inquiry will benefit students for University as much if not more than the rote learning aspects of HSC examinations. Also, the skills of inquiry will benefit students who produce major works such as Visual Arts Major Works, Music Composition, Drama major performance, Society and Culture PIPs, CAFS IRPs, Textiles Major Works, Design and Technology Major Design Project, etc, etc,

Overall, you can see the benefits, some others may not. Not just yet anyway. 
What are your thoughts? Please let me know

11 thoughts on “HSC and Inquiry Learning – What is the link?

  1. . . . This strategy DOES benefit my classroom, yeah I teach Design and Tech + Industrial Tech Timber (those major work type subjects!) but GI isn’t always about projects or big tasks. In my opinion it’s successful because they learn skills like: learning how to critically analyse and synthesise information, transfer learnt knowledge across contexts and learning how to learn independently.

    My message to your peers that don’t yet see it’s value, start by turning syllabus dot points into questions! — the perfect application of this is in preparation for their upcoming half yearly exams – they are then encouraged to respond to syllabus dot points, use SST and extend their content knowledge beyond their text book/notes. If they say they don’t possibly have time to do this create a GoogleDoc and allocate dot points per student – *BOOM true GI there!

    Good on you for challenging staff!! 🙂

  2. Provocative as per usual Greg. Thank-you.

    My early morning musings lead me to this: We are deconstructing the “production line” or “Factory Model” of education. Which is not only a fabulous thing, it is essential. Across a range of cultural, technological, educational and social ‘artefacts’ people are idealizing ‘the good old days’. I get the need to do that, today is busy, and yesterday’s grass is greener.

    It puts it into perspective, though, the change we are imagining is not one we have experienced. Certainly not in any more than a localized short term manner. This usually translates as a generous and patient tone of support to teachers learning to deal with change – and it should, but somewhere in this conversation there needs to be a: YES. BUT. moment where we realize we ‘must’ do this.

    @Monique, Last I was lucky enough to be invited to do a preliminary Guided Inquiry interview with our Year 10 Metal class. Our Metal Work teacher is pursuing a Guided Inquiry project and we wanted to know what the students knew/thought/did prior to starting the project. The evidence is the same as your observation: Practical subjects lend themselves to Guided Inquiry. The strongest feed back affirmed the present approach, but the exciting “new” information pointed us in the direction of authentically solving the ‘student choice’ question. We discovered that “enjoying it” and “Following instructions” are not actually proof students have been offered a significant choice in the design of their own learning. 🙂 Exciting times.

  3. I wish you could have been at VoicED yesterday, Greg… you would have seen my year 12 students talk about PBL and their HSC. (Essentially PBL is GI by another name, same shit, different smell and all that, haha!) Their comments were really revealing – they explained how the inquiry/research process of PBL meant that they were better prepared for university life, work life and ultimately life-life (you know, the stuff we actually care about?).
    My thoughts on PBL/GI in the HSC are these:
    – teachers are scared, it’s the job of the school leaders to allay these fears, to create a culture where skills and values are more important than HSC results and that a teacher’s value is not tied to the results their students receive
    – change needs to happen earlier (7-10), which is what you’re doing, and by the time these baby GI learners become HSC students, they’ll demand GI – this is what happened at Parramatta Marist, no?
    – some teachers just lack creativity (sorry, but this is my experience) and find it insanely difficult to think critically about how to teach their content in new and different ways. A solution is teacher-observation pairs OR team-teaching.
    – unfortunately there is SO much content in the HSC syllabi, that time gets in the way… teachers forget that it is engaging, memorable, amazing learning experiences that makes learning ‘sticky’. We’re not there to ‘cover’ content. We are there to facilitate learning. Get them to do the traditional stuff for one module, use exit slips each lesson and see what students learn. Then do a module of GI and use exit slips each lesson and compare how much knowledge ‘sticks’.

    Ultimately, you’re right – year 12 is a whole year in the life of a human. Why are we destroying this year with really stressful, boring lessons? We need to see the person before the number. Good luck with changing the mindsets of the stubborn, sadly I think some just can not be changed. Great post, BTW. I’m grappling with this very issue myself, right now.

  4. Thanks Bianca. It appears to be only a few teachers who are still challenging ‘the new’. The English KLA leader @materdeiwagga continues to develop a PBL approach to various modules and units of work for Year 11 & 12. More broadly, most HSC teachers are ‘on board’ with taking on the challenge of implementing GI. Sharing your ideas and Monique’s ideas with teachers @materdeiwagga will continue the learning journey for us all. “Thank you.”

  5. Hi Greg,
    Speaking from the university point of view and someone who taught the Communications subject (essentially a cram course in GI, how to think, problem-solving and articulating/communicating your thoughts/findings) to first years for many years, students who come from a secondary background where GI and curriculum that is facilitated/guided rather than lectured (chalk and talk), do much better in the tertiary environment. Tertiary studies and even the workforce demand so much more from our students than the type of schooling that is content and test-based – the type of schooling that I entered as a teacher in the 1970s and one that is actually totally irrelevant in today’s information landscape. Recent studies from Finland, a country that has deleted testing altogether from education, have revealed that their students who are graduating from secondary studies are way in front compared to other students from around the world. We have the testing – a reality – but we don’t have to teach students the old fashioned way so the testing becomes the focus and learning is little more than a regurgitation of content. The end of schooling testing for tertiary entrance isn’t designed to test this either. For students to do well in these exams they need to be able to demonstrate a certain level of problem-solving, higher order thinking and articulation/communication. GI is all about preparing students to cope in a new and burgeoning information landscape. I really like this quote (from the late 70s) which seems to say it all when talking about the relevance of education and what we teach/test.
    Information seeking must be one of our most fundamental methods for coping with our environment. The strategies we learn to use in gathering information may turn out to be far more important in the long run than specific pieces of knowledge we may pick up in our formal education and then soon forget as we go about wrestling with our day-to-day problems. (Donohew, Tipton & Harvey, 1978, cited in Case, 2002, p.17).
    GI provides a scaffold for information-seeking, management, problem-solving and use. Having a consistent approach across the school that builds the process which is student-centred and encourages independent learning, also makes curriculum design so much easier for teachers. It is easier for students because GI gives them the tools and confidence to approach an information problem and their learning knowing exactly what it is they have to do to be successful. I have often thought that the problem with a lot of students when approaching learning, is that we as teachers keep this information a secret. From the students’ point of view, the only way to be successful at school is to find out what it is we the teachers really want – we don’t tell them and we don’t provide the tools to be successful, eg. go and discuss as a group then write about… How many people know how to run a discussion properly? Record minutes/make notes? Write about what exactly and for what purpose? We need to give students tools, scaffolds, guidance and a process to problem-solve and use information efficiently and effectively. Most give up because there is no consistency of approach to curriculum and the goal posts are constantly changing with each new program/topic. GI is one such process that is flexible and can be used across all levels of schooling, including univeristy! 🙂 BC (Dr Barbara Combes)

    1. Hello Barbara,

      “Thank you” for taking the time to write. Your insight from a tertiary perspective provides a great insight for me and secondary teachers. It is interesting you mention Finland. Although I am not aware of the detail, I have been told that Singapore are moving in a similar way to that of Finland.

      Also, I like your comment… “GI provides a scaffold for information-seeking, management, problem-solving and use. Having a consistent approach across the school that builds the process which is student-centred and encourages independent learning, also makes curriculum design so much easier for teachers.”

      Again, thank you for taking the time to write.


  6. Fantastic post Greg! I was wondering the same thing over the last few weeks. I have avoided teaching Stage 6 for the last 2 years for this exact reason. When I teach stage 4 and 5, it is about learning and the learner so my students and I feel like we can do guided inquiry, PBL, whatever else that student-centred pedagogy that is about learning and not regurgitating content for a high stakes test.

    Teachers need to feel safe when taking a risk with their teaching. When there’s a high-stakes exam where newspapers rank schools in number of Band 6s and teachers receive the HSC statistics in December often with a ‘please explain these results’, many teachers will not safe to take a risk. This is particularly true for subjects that traditionally lends itself to focus on teaching content like science and maths.

    I agree that guided inquiry, PBL, etc should be the way to go for ALL students, but we have to recognise the barriers and pressures faced regularly by teachers.

  7. Hi Greg,

    I strongly agree that guided inquiry provides vital skills for HSC students and beyond. One of the biggest issues with content driven instructional pedagogical approaches is that students fail to learn the skills to apply their knowledge to questions in written exams or develop their own questions or lines of inquiry or concepts in major projects. This can often leave students in Band 4 or Band 5 rather than reaching the top bands where deeper analysis. Beyond school, I am of the belief that content is becoming irrelevant. The workforce of today and the future requires people who can find information and use it to solve problems, identify problems and use it creatively to ask questions. Retention of “facts” is a skill of the past. That being said, HSC students clearly have to remember and recall facts. However, they need to do more an that. They need to apply the facts to problems/questions.

    Guided inquiry should be scaffolded to help students frame their own questions using the BOS verbs. The skills required to develop an inquiry question can surely be transferred to the skills of knowing and understanding what is required to answer HSC style questions. It would be interesting to conduct teacher inquiry into whether these skills are in fact transferred? Would more students achieve a higher learning growth in Decourcy for example.

    As always, a thought provoking blog!


  8. I agree with the points made in this post and the comments that have been added so far. Learning that is based around inquiry is far more powerful than approaches based on content transmission. Models of inquiry such as Guided Inquiry, Project Based Learning and Problem Based Learning are all drawing on the same ‘good oil’ in relation to educational theory and practice.

    There is one claim you make that I think is a little downplayed. You explain above that “Year 12 is not all about the HSC”. I certainly agree – but do all Principals agree? No. So that creates pressure from above. Do all parents agree? No. And that creates pressure from the sidelines. Will the news media continue to crucify poor performing schools while celebrating those at the top of the league table? Yes. The pricks.

    We are going to need a heck of a lot more case studies and research evidence to convince the trolls that inquiry approaches > content transmission and rote learning. We need more leaders like you, more teachers like Bianca, more academics like Barbara getting the word out in big loud voices. It is hard work and it is brave work – it is work that is happening, but my oh my the discourse of schools is slow to change!

    I believe that parents are an underutilised ally in this field. Whether it’s parents that over-value the HSC (they exist in droves) or parents that would rather see rich, authentic learning (also exist in droves – there are soooo many parents out there!) all parents could be more strategically involved in school-based decision making in order to empower teachers to engage inquiry-based learning design.

    Thanks for the post and for your blog generally – hearing voices like yours helps other practitioners (including me) feel supported and strong!

  9. Hi Greg,

    I agree with many of the previous comments. For many students the HSC has become about learning the tricks to succeed as a student in this context. I believe that inquiry based learning and pbl and guided inquiry has the potential to look beyond that context. Students are able to harness and develop skills that transcend beyond a set of exams in October. My experience has been that when the students can see beyond rote learning and exams that more authentic learning becomes possible. The students are then able to engage with their learning in a more meaningful way and then apply their knowledge and skills to familiar and unfamiliar situations. When minds are open, amazing things can happen.

    Thanks to all for an interesting read.

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