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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Professional learning for IBL in the middle years

Craig Cummings

Craig Cummings was IBL Team Leader at Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College 2007–2009. He is currently an Ultranet Coach for the Barwon South Western Region, DEECD. The article is based on the author’s presentation to the December 2009 Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education. The complete paper is available from the author: cummings.craig.g@edumail.vic.gov.au.

A growing body of literature supports Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) as a means to improve students' engagement and active participation in their education, and as a way to equip students for employment and social participation in the modern world. However, the introduction of an IBL curriculum raises significant challenges for teachers. By emphasising the teacher's role as a facilitator of students' independent learning, it replaces the traditional, deeply embedded role of the teacher as imparter of knowledge. At the current time, introducing an IBL curriculum also means being at the forefront of change, so there are few working examples of the paradigm one is setting out to create.

This article describes the introduction of a middle years IBL program at a large public school in Victoria, and its development over three years, focusing in particular on the impact of the IBL on the professional learning experiences of the school's middle years team.

The school context

Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College is situated in the Geelong central business district. It has a student population of close to 1,000 and experiences a strong demand for enrolments at all levels. Years 8 and 9 are based at a separate campus. The College has an SFO (School Family Occupations Density Index) rating of 0.47 placing it near the average SES for Victorian State Government Schools. There are 70 EFT teaching staff.

The IBL program

In 2007 the school introduced an IBL program for Year 9 students. Its introduction was seen as a way to address low student engagement in the middle years, which had been identified in data from the 2005 and 2006 Student Attitudes to Schooling surveys (administered to all Year 5–12 students in the Victorian public school system). The Year 9 IBL program comprises 15 50-minute periods per week and replaces the traditional areas of English, Humanities, Science and Mathematics. In 2008 IBL was extended into Year 8, replacing English and Humanities for eight periods per week.

The introduction of the IBL program was supported by a grant from the Leading School Fund that provided $500,000 for building and refurbishment, and allowed for the creation of two large open learning spaces. The LSF funding also paid for the assignment of two Leading Teachers (Curriculum and ICT) to a three-year project to support the introduction of the IBL unit. The curriculum position has been 1.0 EFT for all three years while the ICT position was 1.0 EFT for the first year and 0.6 EFT for the subsequent years. The funding also contributed towards resources for the open learning centre, including ICT and alternative furnishings such as cushions, couches, interesting furniture and rugs.

IBL relies on a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. The IBL model developed by the teaching team has many influences such as the Lane Clark Inquiry Model, Queensland Rich Task approach and ideas from Positive Psychology. The degree to which students direct their own learning increases throughout the program. The unit culminates in a specific rich task, at which point students pose their own questions, design their own projects, share their findings, and review and reflect independently. By this stage the role of the teacher is to facilitate, support and monitor the progress of the student. The course covers authentic topics that are designed to relate to the world of the student, address topics relevant to the wider world and to have a real social impact.

Assessment of the unit is based on the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS), with standard skill-based progression points rewritten to reflect the course content. Assessment is not graded. The unit is designed to cross at least two Standard levels, which allows students to 'buy in' at lower or higher than expected levels.

Features of the program

Team teaching. All teachers operate in pairs. Students are arranged in groups of up to 50 and have the same two teachers for their IBL time each week. From the outset, team planning time has been allocated for teachers to plan, share, review and reflect on their practice. In the first two years of the program Year 9 teachers were allocated a 100 minute time provision to allow a weekly team meeting during the school day. This year, the meeting time remains, but the time allowance has been reduced to 50 minutes. The Year 8 team has a 100 minute time allowance to allow a scheduled weekly meeting during the school day.

On-demand access to ICT and multimedia. The students have had access to 90 Macbook computers, with one computer for every two students. Students have also had on-demand access to multimedia including digital video, flipcams, still cameras, interactive white boards and other devices. The project has used an online curriculum management system allowing 24 hour access to curriculum resources and web 2.0 collaborative tools.

Deinstitutionalised and flexible classroom space. The new open spaces and furnishings have created a less institutionalised space. There are fewer restrictions relating to where students may sit within the open learning centre and students are free to move from one area to another.

Deakin partnership. A formal partnership has been developed between the IBL project and the Deakin University Faculty of Education Applied Learning course. This partnership has been created to give the Applied Learning students direct access to the IBL project, and for the Faculty to act as a critical friend of the project.

Professional learning for the IBL

The initial stages of professional learning for the IBL were delivered mainly by the leadership of the middle years team and selected external consultants. It covered the skills, knowledge and understandings needed for the 21st Century workforce and community, current trends in ICT within and beyond education, and the changing way in which information is accessed and used. It also covered the pedagogy needed to prepare students for this new environment, able to support both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ literacies. The professional learning also included practical demonstrations of new ICT software and hardware, with discussion of their potential applications in the classroom.

The teachers initially expressed some anxiety and uncertainty about the new curriculum. They were concerned about how well it would prepare students for the VCE, how capable they would be of teaching outside their KLA expertise, and about the potential loss of control over the teaching and learning process. By explaining the context for the new curriculum the leadership helped to alleviate these concerns.

Shifts in learning culture

During the three years of the project there have been a number of significant shifts in the professional learning culture operating within the middle years team. Members of the team have increasingly generated their own professional learning and have disseminated what they have learnt to other teachers within and beyond the school.

The focus of professional learning has shifted from individual subject areas toward more general skills in pedagogy, interdisciplinary assessment and ICT.

In the past, attendance at seminars and conferences provided individual teachers with discrete practical activities for the classroom that sometimes focused on their personal interests and passions. There is now an emphasis on the sharing of theory and practice through group reflection and discussion. Most importantly, a strong 'closed classroom' mentality has been replaced by a willingness to discuss classroom practice on a regular basis, and to share resources, including web-based resources. The advent of team teaching has made peer observation, feedback and review a normal part of teaching practice.

The open culture has encouraged the participating teachers to share their knowledge with teachers from outside the project, within the school and beyond. Over the last three years the middle years campus has been visited by teachers from over 60 schools from Victoria, interstate and overseas. Furthermore, teachers from the team have presented at a number of education conferences.

Another effect of the new culture has been the creation of a more dynamic professional learning environment. The teachers have become willing to continually adjust or change components of their practice rather than make marginal changes. Entrepreneurialism in their use of ICT has become more evident, with individual teachers sourcing and trialling useful software from the web, applying it to classroom situations and then sharing their findings with the team.


This article has underscored the crucial task of developing and working within a professional learning culture that aligns with 21st century ideas  a culture where there is the expectation that learning is continual and is in response to the needs of the students. It is a culture where entrepreneurialism is valued and encouraged. It is a culture where there is a strong team commitment to learning from each other, and an emphasis on creativity and sharing new knowledge with the wider education community. Teachers should be drivers of change; they need to become change agents.


Subject Headings

Inquiry based learning
Project based learning
Curriculum planning
Professional development