On Safari – Synthesizing Sightings of Inquiry Learning for Junior Secondary English

On Safari – Synthesizing Sightings of Inquiry Learning for Junior Secondary English


As I set out on my safari, I had very little knowledge of what inquiry learning was let alone how it would be useful for learning English in the junior secondary context. Gradually as I moved through the inquiry learning landscape, a picture began to form and a light started to glow dimly in my mind lighting my way forward.

I initially viewed inquiry learning though the lens of distance education. I quickly realized I needed to pinpoint the essence of inquiry learning before applying extraneous boundaries. The first sighting that gave me a taste of this essence, defined inquiry learning as ‘a process where students are involved in their learning, formulate questions, investigate widely and then build new understandings and knowledge’, (Branch and Odberg, 2004, p. 1). They identify six phases of the process from planning through to evaluation. Harada and Yoshina (2004) discuss eight characteristics of this process. They underline the importance of a team approach to learning with the teacher, the librarian and other instructors working with the students. This gives the students access to a wide group of mentors rather than solely to one teacher. The team acts as guides and facilitators promoting learning socially and interactively. The students are also part of the team engaged in meaningful, authentic tasks. Markham (2013, pp. 8) notes: ‘Effective collaborative inquiry requires that students learn how to perform in a team, not a “group.” Team building will have to be built into the curriculum.’

Assessment is not teacher’s role alone either but also includes the students in a continuous cycle. The learning develops skills of questioning, collaborating, researching, higher-order thinking, problem solving, creating and presenting. These skills are elemental for all disciplines and therefore appropriate for the teaching of English. Students in effect are learning to think at a deeper level rather than just consuming content and then regurgitating it. The YouthLearn Initiative (2009) supports the notion that the inquiry–based approach is so flexible that it can be used across disciplines. Branch and Solowan ( 2004, p. 22) maintain that using the same process skills uniformly in a school enables students to transfer their learning to other situations and prepares ‘students for problem solving and lifelong learning.’ Kuhlthau (2012) agrees that systemic support for inquiry learning is necessary to implement change and to sustain it.


As I reflect on my readings, the messages coming through strongly are that the world and how we operate in it has dramatically changed, and now how we teach must also change to meet the new challenges our students face. The recurrent threads arising on how we do this are the student as the driver of the learning not the teacher, extensive team planning, expert questioning; thinking skills and reflection are embedded in this approach. This differentiates it from what we have traditionally thought of as sound teaching practice. Parr, Bellis and Bolfin (2013, p. 19) describes an English inquiry-based classroom: ‘…contemporary English classrooms are not spaces where knowledge can be neatly defined before, during or after students ‘get to work’; rather they are space where shared knowledge is constantly evolving…’ Of concern is does this description of 21st Century English classrooms marry with what and how we teach in Australian Junior Secondary schools?

The Australian Curriculum: English (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2014) describes the general capabilities required by all students as incorporating literacy, numeracy, ICT capability, critical and creative thinking, ethical behavior, personal and social capability and intercultural understanding. These are applied across the English strands of Language, Literature and Literacy. Searching through the ACARA Year 8 English documents more deeply fails to uncover any specific scope and sequence for inquiry or information literacy skills. On unpacking what the student does with the content in Year 8 English, the words recognize, explain, analyse, interpret, explore, share, understand, clarify, evaluate and reflect are prominent. It would appear that the intent of the curriculum is consistent with an inquiry learning approach though it does not deal with an inquiry approach. This is also evident, as the personal and social capabilities are not reflected at a ‘big picture’ level that would be expected in an inquiry learning approach. Lupton (2012, p.13) noted a similar omission in Science: ‘What seems to be missing from the Science Inquiry Skills sequence is the consideration of science in a larger social, cultural and economic context.’

The aligning and development of assessment tasks are heavily reliant on the teachers and no mention is made of students being involved in the selection or construction of these tasks. See figure below from Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority, 2014, Year 8 English Assessment.

Assessment Process

Markham (2013, pp.17) states that: ‘At some point, it will be difficult to pinpoint exactly what an ‘educated’ person should know. Where inquiry will lead us then, it’s hard to predict. But it would be best to have inquiry-based assessments in place before that time arrives.’

As I review how far I have come in my inquiry-learning safari, most of my previous questions have been answered. Though of course, I now have many more and they are getting more complex. From not knowing a lot, I have progressed to having at least some informed views and understandings. On considering the Australian English curriculum, it is not easily unified with an inquiry approach but an inquiry approach is suitable for teaching English. We need to go further as Parr, Bellis and Bolfin (2013, p.18) notes: ‘discrete, pre-determined bodies of knowledge simply cannot do justice to the complex interplay between students’ lives both in and outside of school, their varied textual worlds and the textual worlds of their teachers.’ My plan for the future is to continue my safari and take it into the wilds of distance education.




Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2014). F-10 Curriculum English. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/english/Curriculum/F-10?layout=1

Branch, J. Odberg, D.  (2004). Focus on Inquiry: a teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning. Alberta Learning Teaching and Resources Branch. Alberta, Canada. Retrieved on 18th August, 2014 from https://education.alberta.ca/media/313361/focusoninquiry.pdf

Branch, J. L. Solowan, D. G. (2004) Inquiry-based learning activities: developing opportunities. [online]. Synergy; v.2 n.1 p.22-31. Retrieved August 22, 2014 from http://search.informit.com.au.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/fullText;dn=136411;res=AEIPT

Harada, Violet and Yoshina, Joan, (2004). Chapter 1 : Identifying the inquiry-based school. In Harada, Violet and Yoshina, Joan, Inquiry learning through librarian-teacher partnerships, (pp.1 – 10). Worthington, Ohio: Linworth Publishing.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (2012). Guided Inquiry Learning in the 21st Century. Retrieved August 22, 2014 from http://www.kzneducation.gov.za/portals/0/elits%20website%20homepage/iasl%202009/,n-kuhlthau[1].pdf

Lupton, Mandy. (2012). Inquiry skills in the Australian Curriculum. Access, 26 (2), 12-18. Retrieved August 20, 2014 from http://www.google.com.au/urlsa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CCYQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fslansw.asn.au%2Fdownload%2F2013plluptonkeynoteinquirylearning.pdf&ei=O9gLVJG9B4qXuASe0oDwDQ&usg=AFQjCNGEZM2krrXUPICF-b1-Inw7lRus2A

Markham, T. (2013). The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry-Based Learning. MindShift. July 3, 2013. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/07/the-challenges-and-realities-of-inquiry-based-learning/

YouthLearn Initiative (US). A Guide to Inquiry-based Learning. [online]. Agora; v.44 n.1 p.4-11. Retrieved August 22, 2014 from  http://search.informit.com.au.ezp0.library.qut.edu.au/fullText;dn=174497;res=AEIPT

Parr, G. Bellis, N, Bulfin, S. Teaching English Volume 48 Number 1 2013 Teachers for the Futures: Speaking Back to TPACK English in Australia Retrieved August 19, 2014 from https://clarekosnik.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/parr-bellis-bulfin_2013_teaching-english-teachers-for-the-future.pdf

Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority. (2014). Year 8 English Assessment. Retrieved August 22, 2014 from https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/yr8-english-assessment.html




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