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Play to project: investigative learning in Stage 1


Teachers Sophie Parsons and Ariana Davis discuss the evolution at Balmain Public School of their Investigative Learning program, an inquiry and play-based program that incorporates a flexible environment, authentic materials and open-ended tasks.

Investigative learning at Balmain Public School

Balmain Public School embraces contemporary education as part of its future-focused vision for teaching and learning, which aims to ensure our students develop 21st century learning capabilities that will enable them to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Throughout Stage 1 (Years K-2), we have implemented Investigative Learning, an inquiry-and play-based program that incorporates a flexible environment, authentic materials and open-ended tasks. After 6 years of consolidating the Investigative Learning program in Kindergarten (PDF 2.5 MB), we are currently reviewing the program’s expansion across all of Stage 1.

The investigative learning philosophy is consistent from K-2, but the delivery of our program has evolved to ensure it remains challenging at every year level. As our students transition from Kindergarten through Stage 1, we have watched them become steadily more proficient in the application of critical, creative and computational thinking skills. In response, we have begun to envisage 21st century learning capabilities as a continuum, with every child progressing in inquiry skills in the same way they progress on the literacy and numeracy continuums.

Applying investigative learning philosophy to Stage 1, we aim to assist our students to:

·      Apply creative thinking to larger projects, focus on a project for weeks rather than days, separate tasks into parts and extend projects into a second medium.

·      Display more complex critical thinking through accessing information from more than one source of material, organising their information and using technology to present.

·      Begin to develop computational thinking through describing the steps in an inquiry, recording patterns using numerical symbols and exploring simple coding with robotics.

·      Use ethical reasoning as they begin to assign their own responsibilities in the investigative environment, take on different roles in larger collaborative groups and describe values concepts in the roles of photographer and reporter.

·      Develop metacognition as they begin to record processes, set goals and describe thinking strategies in their learning journals.

Increasingly complex learning stations

We found adding more layers to our investigative areas engaged Stage 1 students more deeply with a topic and encouraged them to gain new inquiry skills. A Kindergarten area of inquiry, for example, might have a single focus and 2 or 3 materials, but our Year 2 areas contain a range of source materials to research from, a wider variety of materials and complex topic word banks.

Student voice

Within our Stage 1 program, we have also embraced student voice as we set up investigative areas. Working side-by-side with teachers, students draw a design for the area, choose resources and arrange provocations. Our Mythical Creatures area (Fig. 5) was assembled with student input on the position of the table, the paper for the books, the vocabulary, colour and shape of the word wall cards. With increased agency we have found students feel more connection to investigative spaces. The classroom becomes their ‘studio’.

Visual/Sensory provocations in the Mythical Creatures Investigative Learning Area

The sensory glowing egg sparked two terms of writing from our Year 2 students. The egg has an incredible texture and can glow, pulse, or strobe fifteen different colours! We added a bubbling water feature, wood and stones to prompt students to imagine qualities of worlds they could write about.

Investigative question formed by students While we had originally purchased the egg as a light source, students began to imbue it with sci-fi properties and formed the question, ‘What will hatch from the egg?’

Literary provocations/source materials The passion of a group of students for mythical creatures prompted us to select a variety of books on myths and legends.

Visual boundaries that define the area The area has an overhanging tent, ivy wall and a round table. We often colour-theme our areas to visually define them rather than rely on screens to separate them.

Creative materials Textured paper, tea-stained paper, leather to bind books, ribbon and ink pens are available to create books. The latest student request has been for a feather quill and ink pot.

Text-rich environment Students chose topic vocabulary such as ‘tentacles’ and the scroll shape for the vocabulary cards. When the books became a series, we added Roman numerals for numbering stories.

Examples of outstanding work High quality student books remain on display as explicit quality criteria.

Moving mediums-where to next? Our investigative learning areas are ever evolving. We have built more storage into the area and added laptops as students began creating ‘merchandise’ (key chains, bag tags) and publishing the stories.

More complex areas facilitate more complex projects
Students begin to focus on a project for longer as they become more proficient investigative learners. In Kindergarten, students may move between investigative areas daily. At the end of Year 2, where groups of students might work in one area for up to 2 terms, our aim is to extend students within that area.

At our Mythical Creatures table (Fig. 5 and 7), students began by creating characters and writing a legend about their character. They assigned roles within the group to write about air, fire and water creatures and then went on to create 3 separate series of books where the creatures interact.

To align with numeracy outcomes, teachers prompted the group to create ‘merchandise’ with price tags for their book series. The group was expanded to include accomplished artists in the class to help design posters to sell the ‘merch’. The final stage was for the students to type and publish stories on the school Instagram and hold a stall where they sold their ‘merch’ to raise money for charity. Literacy, numeracy, visual arts and technology outcomes were all covered within the one project. Advanced collaboration skills, understanding how to break a project into parts, integrating technology and creating for a real-world audience were some of the skills we watched students develop.

But are you covering all the outcomes?
We never stop getting that question. One of our aims in Stage 1 has been to make explicit the links between our investigative learning activities and the NSW curriculum. The areas in our rooms also reflect our current programming in science, history, numeracy and writing. Further, we have created descriptions adapted from NSW Key Learning Area (KLA) Stage 1 stage statements (NESA, 2021) of how students work in each area. Design Briefs (Fig. 8) used in investigations display outcomes and can be used as formative and summative assessment tasks. We have found that visible outcomes assist teachers and students to articulate the content covered during investigations and help us form ‘next steps’ for projects.

While we clearly link the topics of the learning stations to the current class program, we are conscious that there is no need to rotate students through areas. Not every student needs to have worked at a History table to have gained knowledge in that KLA because during reflection time all students are listening and responding to the findings of the students that have worked in that area.

Relating investigative learning to targets in our Strategic Improvement Plan (SIP)
NAPLAN data identified measurement and space as a strand to focus on in Stage 1, so we created a STEM area with a measurement and space focus in every classroom. We applied for funding from our Director of Educational Leadership Iron Cove, Simon Paterson, and supplemented our program with new 3D shape construction materials and Kubo Robots. Year 2 students designed and built towns from 3D shapes and programmed the (very cute!) robots to move around the towns. This provided every Stage 1 student with daily chances to consolidate their understanding of measurement and space teaching through personalised inquiry tasks with hands-on materials.

Incorporating our SIP plan targets into the program has empowered us. It further establishes that our Investigative Learning program is not something we do ‘as well as’ our literacy and numeracy goals; it is the intentional method for consolidating the learning that helps us move towards those goals.

Returning to school after 2 years of online learning has been a transition for students. Connections with classmates built through collaborative learning and the excitement of interest and inquiry-based projects have seen them re-engage joyously and rapidly with school life. In our student goal reflections, more than three-quarters of the class commented that ‘a thing they loved about school’ was investigative learning. The addition of learning journals with annotated photos and written reflections have enabled us to track the growth of every student’s contemporary learning skills. It has been incredible to watch every child constantly progressing with their inquiry skills, growing at their own pace towards becoming independent 21st century learners. We love watching them move from play to project.

References and further reading

Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (n.d.). Creative and critical thinking learning continuum (PDF 58 KB).

Davis, A. & Parsons, S. (2019). Investigative learning – our journey at Balmain Public School (PDF 2.6 MB). Scan, 38(2), 14–18.

McWilliam, E. L. (2009). Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(3), 281- 293.

NSW Department of Education. (n.d.). Education for a changing world.

NSW Department of Education. (2018). A conversation starter: thinking for the future –preparing students to thrive in an AI world (PDF 650 KB).

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). (2021). Stage 1 (Years 1–2).

OECD. (n.d.). In brief: skills for 2030 (PDF 460 KB).

Parsons, S. (n.d.). Investigations character design brief [free resource]. TPT.

Parsons, S. & Davis, A. [@investigative_ classroom]. (2019). Investigative_ Classroom [Instagram]. Retrieved January 10, 2023.

How to cite this article – Parsons, S. & Davis, A. (2023). Play to project: investigative learning in Stage 1. Scan, 42(1), 26–31.