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Wonderings at Whalan.

This article is dedicated to the amazing teachers and leaders at Whalan Public School whose passion and commitment to learning make an extraordinary difference to the lives of the students in their care.

At Whalan Public School our aim is to develop students who are confident, connected, actively involved, life long learners. To cope with the demands of the 21st century, students need to know more than core subjects. They need to know how to use their knowledge and skills by thinking critically and creatively, applying knowledge to new situations, analysing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems and making decisions.

Lane Clark (2009), a teacher, author, and public speaker on powerful pedagogies from the United Kingdom, has taught us to ask two pertinent questions. 'Why at this age, at this time in their lives, at their developmental level, in this community and this culture, do my learners need to know this today?' and 'How can our learners make a difference in their life and the lives of others?' (p. 103).

Her visits to our school to work with staff have forced us to examine our beliefs about what real learning looks like. We believe that real learning has purpose and relevance for the learner. We believe the purpose drives the need for knowledge, processes and skills. We believe that real learning is cross-disciplinary. Embedded in our teaching is the belief that purpose informs the design and delivery of curriculum.

As teachers we believe that authentic learning, or 'real-world learning', can be emulated in classrooms through student inquiries. We have framed our teaching around open-ended questions or problems. We link investigations to authentic contexts.

In his book, World Class Learners, Yong Zhao (2012) talks about 'the true basics'--the skills of literacy. 'When a child has a reason to learn, the basics will be sought after, rather than imposed upon. If they are true basics, they are hard to avoid' (p. 153). We believe that students should have authentic purposes in order to develop and master the skills of literacy.

Lane Clark (2009) also emphasises that notion of integration occurring naturally in real world learning: 'When a person learns in the real world, integration occurs naturally' (p. vi). The only place where subjects actually exist is in schools. Real learning involves the integration of cross-curricular knowledge and skills and that's why we plan and teach through inquiries.

The Australian Curriculum identifies literacy as a general capability because the skills inherent in literacy allow students to engage with the world around them. As Brian Cambourne, Whalan Public School's academic partner states, literacy 'is a K-adult curriculum now' (in Cambourne & Turbill, 2007, p. 23). We believe that children's literacy skills are developed through true integration with meaningful learning experiences.

Teachers at our school have also been influenced by other educational leaders in their advocacy of inquiry learning. Claxton, Chambers, Powell, and Lucas (2011) stress the importance of emotional engagement in the development of student learning with the claim that 'emotional engagement is a prerequisite for learning that stretches and develops students' powers of learning' (p. 87).

Carol Dweck's (2011) work around growth mindset has encouraged us to build our students' self-belief, self-determination and high expectations for themselves, and to see themselves as successful, competent learners.

Our belief in the importance and power of inquiry learning is affirmed by Kath Murdoch's (2015) book Power of Inquiry. She states that, 'to suggest that learning is not about inquiry is, in many ways, nonsense. The act of inquiry is critical to our learning and growth' (p. 11).

The following are our examples of inquiry learning in action. In New South Wales (NSW), we use the NSW syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum and when we plan our units of inquiry, we always integrate English with other syllabus content. Our syllabuses are organised in stages of learning. Early Stage 1 is Kindergarten (Foundation year), Stage 1 is Years 1 and 2, Stage 2 is Years 3 and 4, and Stage 3 is Years 5 and 6.

Early Stage 1 inquiry unit integrating History, Science and Technology

At the start of the school year, our Kindergarten students were intrigued with a school tradition. Many years ago, students from each class across the school worked with Aboriginal community members to create an Aboriginal 'Wisdom story' for their room. At the start of each school year the new class to occupy the room has this oral story and painting handed to them during a ceremony by the previous class. Through this process the new class become the custodians of their room, with the knowledge and responsibility that they also will hand the class wisdom story over. Our Kindergarten students were fascinated. They had many wonderings about who was in the class before them.

As teachers we listened to their wonderings and used it as an opportunity to create an authentic experience that also linked directly to the history syllabus. We used a 'hook' to capture the students' imagination and ignite wondering. Students 'found' an old letter that had been hidden in their classroom many years before. This letter was from the students of 1983. The letter explained the burial of a time capsule and included a map.

Students were intrigued. They had so many questions. What is a time capsule? Who are these students who are writing to us? Was our classroom once theirs? Did they create the 'wisdom story'? What will be in this time capsule? How will we find it? What do we need to do to find it?

Students desperately wanted to find the capsule. They learnt how to read maps and symbols. They planned how they were going to retrieve it. They organised the tools they would need. The adventure began. The capsule was excitedly dug up and carefully returned to the classroom for exploration.

Students were able to ask questions and wonder about the 'stories' the past students had shared and the multiple ways they gave clues about their lives. Students wondered why photographs of family life were in the capsule, what the photographs were telling us, and why toys, household technology and trinkets were included. Why were the school rules, a diary entry and letters about themselves included? These wonderings were recorded on our wondering wall and helped to develop our 'roadmap of learning'.

After spending significant time exploring the capsule and its contents the students came up with the idea that they would like to create their own time capsule to inform future students about their life. This was when the students identified a real world problem and wanted to solve it. Our inquiry became, 'What is my story and how can I share this story with others?'

Through this inquiry question and the idea of producing an authentic product, our students became historians. They used the historical inquiry process to investigate the stories of others and how these are told. They observed, questioned and planned, researched, interpreted and analysed sources, made conclusions and communicated their findings. They discussed and reviewed their own work and also the work of their peers.

Using the knowledge they gained from exploring the stories of others, they decided on the most effective way they would like to share a part of their story. Students wrote diary entries about their life, shared photos of their family with captions explaining the significance, and chose to share their story through artefacts that represented their life. Students worked closely with the art teacher to draw portraits of themselves. They wrote stories, lists and created pictures of their hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes, friends, their family celebrations and the community they live in.

Students had the freedom to represent their story in a mode of their choosing. They could tell their story through photographs, artefacts, written information, drawings or digital media as long as it met the criteria. The criteria stated that their time capsule piece must be from their point of view, tell their story, show important aspects of their life, and be of a high standard. Each item had to have had feedback from peers and a teacher, and fit in the time capsule space.

To store their story for the future, students needed a time capsule. It is here that they became scientists. Students used the working scientifically process to decide on the best material to use for their time capsule. They questioned and predicted, and planned and conducted investigations of materials that could withstand a significant amount of time in the ground. They worked collaboratively to process and analyse data and information. They communicated their findings with each other. Using their findings, they chose materials that would be most effective for their class capsule.

Students problem solved to determine how to leave a clue about their buried time capsule. They designed maps and made a plaque to ensure it would be opened in the correct year. They organised and hosted a capsule burying ceremony, inviting their families and members of the community. As a class, students decided that this capsule would be opened at their Year 6 graduation and their stories of Kindergarten and their younger self would be shared. The community has become the 'keeper of the capsule'. The idea being, that even if staff change, the community and the students will take ownership of the opening of the capsule.

Kindergarten teacher's reflection

I found allowing the students to drive their own learning created an environment where students were highly motivated and engaged. They willingly questioned, discovered problems and would seek solutions. They learnt to think and act as historians and scientists. Professional readings we found of interest were Unearthing Why: stories of thinking and learning with children (2015) by Jill McLachlan and Clare Britt, and The Power of Inquiry (2015) by Kath Murdoch.

Emma Tamsett was Assistant Principal at Whalan Public School and is now an Instructional Leader at Homebush West Public School, Homebush, NSW. She has 19 years of experience as a primary teacher and school leader.


Stage 1/Stage 2 inquiry unit integrating History and English

What better way to engage with the NSW History syllabus than to turn our Year 2 and 3 children into historians! Students were instantly engaged with the inquiry--Who lived in Australia first and how do we know? You could have heard a pin drop in the classrooms when teachers read a letter from our librarian to the children asking them to write some books that could be placed in the school's Twilight Tales boxes.

Challenge accepted! Write a narrative, non-fiction text that informs and entertains, on the topic of Australia's first people. The criteria laid out for this type of genre set the expectations and the children were eager to begin.

Students began to wonder:

* What do we want to find out about Australia's first people?

* How do historians find out about the past?

* How will our book inform and entertain at the same time?

* From whose perspective will we write the book?

The children became immersed in the topic through a variety of learning centres that allowed them to acquire and integrate new knowledge and skills. They became skilled as historians as they learnt about different kinds of sources, both primary and secondary, critically analysing them to determine such things as:

* What's fact and what's opinion?

* Whose version of what happened is reliable?

* Is there more than one perspective to examine?

The more they engaged with the content of the topic, the more wonderings they had. The students had the freedom to explore their wonderings both individually and as a whole class. Their ideas, thoughts and interest areas were valued. When looking at a range of coolamons, for example, the children were fascinated by the material they were made from and their design. A small group then began a conversation about why containers today aren't made of wood and why they look different. Then more wonderings came. What material makes the best container?

The more they learnt about what historians do and how they learn about the past, the more they worked and sounded like historians. Visitors to rooms could see children questioning and planning, conducting research, interpreting and analysing sources, and communicating their findings. When viewing some secondary sources online at the Australian Museum (e.g. see http://, students were able to draw conclusions about the lives of Aboriginal people. The students recorded their learning in journals and then were able to draw on this information when they were ready to write their narrative, non-fiction text.

Using a range of different sources which included photos, artefacts, letters, first-hand accounts, historical texts, diary entries, videos, experts and artworks, the students recorded information about how Australia's first people lived and interacted with the land. They were now experts about the topic and couldn't wait to include what they had learnt in their book.

To prepare themselves to write, the children read narrative, non-fiction texts by other authors, becoming experts in the genre. They planned and made decisions about their story, their characters, the information they would include, the layout of the pages, the title, and the cover - just like real authors and illustrators do!

The result is a collection of narrative, nonfiction texts, published professionally using ThePhotobookClub, that the children are proud of and own a copy of. The children eagerly share and talk about their books with anyone who will listen! Our Year 2 and 3 classes produced 18 different books as part of this unit and copies of these were placed in the library and into the school's Twilight Tales boxes. Over time, these books will be enjoyed by many members of the school community.

Helen Polios is Deputy Principal at Whalan Public School, Mt Druitt, NSW. She has 27 years of experience as a primary teacher and school leader. Email: helen.

Stage 2 inquiry unit integrating Science, Technology and English

The students in Stage 2 classes participated in a unit of learning centred around the inquiry question: What actions can we take to improve the survival of living things? A skeleton unit outline was provided to teachers to ensure the unit was student driven, and that the shape and direction of the learning would be formed by their interests. All classes were required to communicate their learning in the form of a documentary. One of the classes that participated in this inquiry learning unit was a support class for students with moderate intellectual disabilities. This is their learning journey shaped by their wonderings:

What are living things? What do plants and animals need to stay alive?

Students needed to build their knowledge prior to being able to pose questions that would determine the course of their investigations. This prerequisite knowledge included defining living and non-living, exploring the needs of living things and identifying what lives in the school gardens. The students participated in guided research focused on living things. They conducted a scientific experiment to investigate the needs of plants and explored the school gardens in preparation to pose 'meaty' questions. It was from here that they began the immersion phase of their learning.

What lives in our school gardens? How can we find out what lives in our garden?

During visits to the school's kitchen garden, the indigenous and cultural garden and other formal gardens, the students collected data about what plants and creatures they discovered. Students identified various types of plants and noted the different stages of growth, particularly for plants growing in the kitchen garden. They conducted tree shakes and sieved through soil in the undergrowth in their search for insects, spiders and other creatures. They collected data on their findings and discussed whether it matched their expectations of what they had thought would be in the gardens. A problem was identified when it was discovered that there were not many insects or small creatures in the garden.

Why are the living things in our school garden important? How can we encourage more living things in our garden?

The students' interest centred around the spiders, butterflies, bees, lizards and other small creatures that they had discovered in their visits to the garden. They posed questions about the role of these animals in the garden and completed mini research tasks. This phase of the inquiry enabled students to develop their research skills in the areas of internet research and consultation of experts. Students researched ways to encourage more insects and small creatures to live in the garden. Collectively, they decided to create an insect hotel that would provide a shelter and home for insects, spiders and lizards. This hotel would be surrounded by flowering plants to attract bees and butterflies.

What materials are best for making an insect hotel? What would be the best design for an insect hotel? Students investigated appropriate materials for creating an insect hotel and determined their suitability by testing the materials for properties such as strength, durability and waterproofing qualities They drafted their designs in labelled diagrams and presented these to their peers for feedback. A class design was established through combining individual ideas, and the desired materials of sticks, logs, bricks, roof tiles and metal fencing were located in the school so that construction of the insect hotel could commence.

What is a documentary? How can we make a good documentary?

All classes were required to communicate their learning in the form of a documentary. As part of the process for developing criteria for creating a documentary, the students watched a range of documentary examples and identified the key features of each. The students compiled a list of features for each documentary and highlighted the common features to create their own documentary. The class created a storyboard plan for their documentary and were supported to create their product using iMovie. They experimented with animation using iStopMotion, including theme music and text overlays. Their final product was presented to other students in Stage 2 and provided an opportunity for the students to evaluate their learning. The documentary can be viewed at http://

Greta McCann has moved from Whalan Public School and is now Assistant Principal at Riverstone Public School, Riverstone, NSW. She has 13 years of experience teaching students in a variety of special education and mainstream settings. Email:


Clark, L. (2009). Where thinking and learning meet. Cheltenham, VIC: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Cambourne, B., & Turbill, J. (2007). Looking back to look forward: Understanding the present by revisiting the past: an Australian perspective. University of Wollongong Research Online. Retrieved from: viewcontent.cgi?article=1968&context=edupapers

Claxton, G., Chambers, M., Powell, G., & Lucas, B. (2011). The learning powered school pioneering 21st century education. Bristol, UK: TLO Limited.

Dweck, C. (2011). Mindset. New York: Random House.

McLachlan, J., & Britt, C. (2015). Unearthing why: Stories of thinking and learning with children. NSW, Australia: Pademelon Press.

Murdoch, K. (2015). The power of inquiry. Northcote, VIC: Seastar Education.

Zhao, Y. (2012). World class learners. California, USA: Corwin.

Caption: Figure 1: Digging up the time capsule

Caption: Figure 2: Exploring artefacts from the past

Caption: Figure 3: Laying our time capsule

Caption: Figure 4: A page from one of the narrative non-fiction books

Caption: Figure 5: Exploring artefacts

Caption: Figure 6: Reading about the past

Caption: Figure 7: Some of the narrative non-fiction books

Caption: Figure 8: Sharing artefacts

Caption: Figure 9: Collecting data from the garden

Caption: Figure 10: Analysing the data from the garden
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Title Annotation:Whalan Public School
Author:Tamsett, Emma; Polios, Helen; McCann, Greta
Publication:Practical Literacy
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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