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Investigative learning – Our journey at BPS

Investigative learning – our journey at Balmain Public School

Ariana Davis and Sophie Parsons, both teachers at Balmain Public School, explain the many benefits of investigative learning in Early Stage 1 and beyond at Balmain Public School, and offer advice for creating investigative learning environments.

Every teacher knows that student engagement is inextricably linked to student learning, and that engagement is most powerful when linked to student interests. With the department’s Future focused learning and teaching initiative in mind, staff at Balmain Public School have been working to embed individualised, interest-based learning at the core of our programs.

Our journey towards inquiry-based learning began in 2015 when Principal Maria Lambos, a passionate advocate of the process, initiated a study tour on the Walker Learning approach. Inspired by this tour, Kindergarten coordinator Ariana Davis developed an investigative learning program for Early Stage 1 that aligns with NSW outcomes. With the continued support of our principal and P&C, this program has since been modified and expanded into Stage 1. We have been proud to share it with our community of schools through teacher professional learning and classroom visits over the last few years.

What does investigative learning look like?

Investigative learning starts with the students. Teachers build a profile of each student’s strengths, background and readiness. The traditional classroom set up of a desk for each student is replaced with ‘stations’ – construction, sensory play, STEM, writing, numeracy or any topic that aligns with our current program. Stations display ‘provocations’ – activities or materials that invite students to engage in a learning activity. (Some provocation ideas can be viewed on our Instagram page.) Each day begins with an hour where students have free reign over which stations to explore.

A flexible learning environment is crucial to our program, as our resources and class layout change constantly in accordance with student interests. Visiting teachers are often amazed that our areas remain set up throughout the day and that the children complete standard classwork surrounded by fish, shells, LEGO and paint – without touching it constantly! We have found the structure of our learning routine encourages students to be extremely responsible in the care of this special environment. Secure in the knowledge they will be continuing to explore the following day, they are happy to reset their stations and move on with other activities when asked.

How do we know students are covering all the outcomes?

Our explicit teaching time happens in the middle session, and during the morning investigation session teachers are guiding the students to reflect on and consolidate explicit teaching from the day before. An hour in the morning seems like a lot of teaching time, and some people have wondered how we find that time with the extensive NSW curriculum requirements. But play-based curriculum delivery doesn't change the what of a curriculum. It is about how that curriculum is taught and learned. While investigative learning time offers many choices for students, there is also a clear structure that teachers follow.

Every child is timetabled as a ‘focus student’ on a fortnightly roster to ensure they receive equal teacher support. Focus students begin the session by describing what they want to achieve or explore. During this time, teachers scaffold the child’s plans and understanding in front of the class, gently referring to literacy and numeracy teaching from the day before. For example, if the child wants to write a letter to the tooth fairy, and the grammar focus of the week is question marks, the teacher might suggest that the child can write ‘How many teeth do you need for your castle?’ in the letter. While the rest of the class is investigating, the teacher works closely with the focus children, supporting them to progress with their individual goals, such as spelling or fine motor development, and to use the explicit teaching in the investigative environment. Using numeracy and literacy skills in an authentic context with an audience makes leaning real and meaningful for students every day. At the end of the session, focus students present their findings and creations to the class. For instance, the teacher can point out successful use of punctuation in the student’s letter to the tooth fairy, and all students are again guided back to the explicitly taught outcomes. Other children are inspired by the mastery of literacy and numeracy skills in their peers, and individual, goal-oriented progress is celebrated every day as a class.

What are the benefits for students?

  • We have found investigative learning to be the ultimate in differentiation. For example, the curriculum is modified specifically for the focus students. Additionally, students on the Autism spectrum, and students struggling with emotional development or fine motor development, can access tasks especially suited to them on a daily basis. Teachers are able to personalise learning on a deeper level than basic ‘task modification’ by actually personalising the environment for the child.
  • Gifted and talented students are continually engaged. While investigative learning provides access points for all students, there is no ‘ceiling’ to tasks.
  • The learning environment is perfect for fostering a ‘flow’ state. Working side-by-side with the teacher, students have the opportunity to consolidate skills to the point of mastery and work ‘in task’, displaying sustained interest and serious investment in their work.
  • The experience eases the transition to school for Kindergarten students, since the learning environment is not such a big jump from the preschool environment.
  • Higher achievement occurs in the writing strand, with a particular increase in the engagement of boys. ‘Reluctant writers’ cease to exist in the investigative learning environment, because writing tasks have meaning.
  • Increased engagement reduces problem behaviors throughout the day and increases overall student wellbeing.
  • Increased opportunities exist for the practical, daily application of contemporary learning skills (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking).

What does investigative learning look like in other stages?

Investigative learning looks different in every stage. Stage 1 learning centres reflect current science and history topics, with provocations involving more complex language. Using ‘experiment tables’, whole class science tasks can be completed in students’ own time throughout the term. In Stages 2 and 3, investigative learning can look more like project-based learning in agile workspaces, using technology to reflect on learning.

What about assessment?

Work samples produced during investigations are valid snapshots of a child’s progress and can be used as assessments to inform reporting. Students are more likely to show us what they can really do in the context of investigative learning due to their high level of engagement. Inquiry-based learning means whole-heartedly embracing formative assessment – collecting data through observations and continuously assessing outcomes instead of regularly sitting all students down for one static assessment. Realising that not every student needs to be doing the same task at the same time in order to be assessed has been mind-blowing for some teachers! We have discovered that through working closely with the students in a structured rotation, we know our students really well and can describe where they are on the continuums more easily than in a traditional classroom set up.

How do you set up an investigative learning environment? What are the challenges for teachers?

While the payoff of having every child completely engaged in a task for up to two hours is a major carrot for most teachers, the setup of the learning environment does require a significant amount of work. In Kindergarten, we recreate at least one learning station per fortnight so the kids always have new provocations to tempt them. Wholly child-centered learning does not leave much room for the teacher’s own ego – you might set up a station you think is exquisite but experience most of your students rejecting it because you didn’t pitch it right for their development level or interests. Trial and error are part of the journey of creating learning stations, and reflecting on your practice becomes a natural part of the day. We found truly allowing students to engage in their own way can be challenging for the control freaks among us! Teachers need to transition into a completely responsive way of teaching in investigations, to move wholeheartedly from the role of instructor to the role of facilitator. Thinking on your feet becomes essential as you link explicit teaching with your focus student’s activity choice.

Open classrooms and flexible learning spaces also bring their own challenges. Working in one room with 58 kindergarten children and three teachers, it was crucial to build a coherent, shared education philosophy – a common understanding of what teaching and learning means. This means sitting down regularly to have big conversations – but the gift of having another professional consistently present to bounce ideas off and offer support is more than worth it.

For us, investigative learning has become an intuitive, professional partner dance of give and take, and of responsiveness, in which we choreograph learning not for our kids, but with them.


References and further reading

Davis, A. (2018). STEM design brief. Retrieved from Teachers Pay Teachers (free download).

Davis, A. & Parsons, S. (2018). Investigating together: ‘I learn, we learn’, Balmain Public [Filmpond video].

Early Life Foundations. (2018). Walker Learning.

Investigative_classroom. (2019). Creative playbased learning [Instagram]. Retrieved January 14, 2019.

NSW Department of Education. (2018). Future focused learning and teaching.

Walker, K. (2011). Play matters. Investigative learning for preschool to grade 2(2nd ed.).  Camberwell, VIC: ACER Press.

Walker, K. & Bass, S. (2011). Engagement matters. Personalised learning for grades 3 to 6. Camberwell, VIC: ACER Press.