Unit Rationale

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“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.  Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi



The Russian Revolution unit plan aims to cultivate and model curiosity for students.  While the unit provides somewhat of an itinerary for the journey, the focus is truly on modelling the process for students so that they may apply the skills and processes autonomously throughout their guided inquiry.  As I set out on the journey of discovery as a co-explorer with my students, a number of stages will be required:

  1. The Preparation
  2. The Expedition
  3. Personal Connection

The Preparation

Preparing for an inquiry learning journey requires significant planning, much like the extended preparation needed before embarking on a lengthy expedition.  Asking questions is at the heart of inquiry (YouthLearn, 2016) and encourage both the learner and the teacher to think deeply about the topics being studied (Murdoch, 2017).  Inquiry learning proponents Barell (2007) and Wilhelm (2007) both offer a toolkit of questions to help support teacher planning.  While the question prompts differ slightly, the table below (see Figure 2) illustrates that the processes are essentially the same.

Figure 2: Unit Planning – Guiding Questions.  Image created by author.

As I have never taught this topic before, Barell’s emphasis on creating a concept map proved particularly helpful in the early stages of planning the unit.  I used Barell’s prompts to brainstorm significant people, dates, events, points of view, historical/causal factors, current manifestations and related issues and future projections.  Secondly, devising a problematic scenario (Barell), also known as an essential question by other authors (Wiggins, 2007) and determining the “most essential” learning for students (Wilhelm) also helped to shape my thinking and planning.  Thirdly, the idea of “backwards planning” (Wilhelm), identifying the curricular objectives and the nature of the final project (the assessment piece) – the “bottom-line goals” – helped to ensure that the focus was not lost within the instructional sequence and the building up of requisite knowledge and skills occurs.  This backward planning also aligns with guidelines provided by the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA).  The “bottom-line goal” of this unit is for students to devise their own inquiry questions to support analysis, evaluation and synthesis of historical sources to make their own judgments about the nature of the Russian Revolution.  Students ultimately create a critical summary of the historical evidence they have gathered in order to tell the personal story of their learning journey rather than recounting facts as in a traditional paper (YouthLearn, 2016).  Although the focus of inquiry is that the teacher should not operate solely as a tour guide, this planning helped set me on the path to co-inquiry.

The Essential Question

An essential question, also referred to as a problematic scenario, compelling or rich question, or a guiding question, is a question which causes genuine and relevant inquiry into big ideas and core content and addresses the ‘essence’ of the issue – the heart of the matter (Wiggins, 2007; Wilhelm, 2007; Barell, 2007; Murdoch, 2012).  A summary of the key principles of such questions, as discussed by these authors, is provided in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Key Principles of the Essential Question in Inquiry Learning.  Image created by author.

Underpinning this whole unit, including the assessment, is the guiding or essential question: How does a government survive or fail?  This question helps to frame the inquiry and the problem orientation makes learning personally relevant and socially significant for students (Wilhelm, 2007).  The use of the term ‘how’ at the start of the question provides the basis for problem solving and synthesis throughout the unit (McKenzie, 2005).  The question is introduced as part of the class discussion in the opening two lessons of the unit (Define phase). It links to the real world via connections with the regular change of government in Australia in recent years as well as asking students to consider government in countries like America and Russia today (Wilhelm, 2007).  A compelling question like this also activates students’ prior thinking and experience before further investigation (Murdoch, 2012).  In this case, connections can be made with the French Revolution from term one.  Brainstorming ideas about how and why governments survive and fail using students’ current thinking at the start of the unit can also be returned to and revised as new thinking and new perspectives are gained throughout the term (for example, after studying the key events in 1905 and 1917 of the Russian Revolution) (Murdoch, 2012).

The assessment question asks students to evaluate whether it was the failure of the Provincial Government or the strength of the Bolsheviks which allowed the Bolsheviks to take power in October 1917.  Students are therefore able to further assess their understanding of the role of government.  Lastly, the concluding study asks students to consider the legacy of the Russian Revolution and inequality in today’s world.  In this way, students can connect personally to the Russian Revolution and to world concerns and current events (Wilhelm, 2007).

Level of Inquiry Continuum

Although not entirely necessary for student success, the unit has been planned with the aim of moving from teacher-directed structured inquiry to student-directed guided inquiry throughout the unit.  Structured inquiry requires students to investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure (Bell, Smetana & Binns, 2005).  For most of the teacher-directed component of this unit, the teacher decides the inquiry topics, the ways that students evaluate information and sources and how the findings of the inquiry are communicated and presented.  This is evident during the Collate and Decide phases of the teacher-directed component of the unit.  Guided Inquiry is introduced during the historiography activity of the unit (Week 3) because students are given greater agency for how they present their solution (e.g. role play, presentation, mind map/diagram).

Guided Inquiry means that students must respond to a teacher-presented question but the methods and solutions are open to students (Bell, Smetana & Binns, 2005).  The assessment task asks students to respond to a set question by completing research.  Students will come to their own conclusions about the question following their research and there is no ‘right’ answer.  The aim is to move further along the continuum to more open inquiry as the year and the course progresses as this is deemed ideal (Bell, Smetana & Binns, 2005).

The continuum is not necessarily developmental however as this is the first inquiry task for students in Modern History in the senior school, scaffolding and modelling of thinking during the teacher-directed structured inquiry will help to facilitate students’ skills and agency. During guided inquiry and future open inquiries, students are better able to ask their own inquiry questions and interrogate historical sources independently (Lupton, 2017).  Furthermore, within the guided inquiry (as opposed to open inquiry), specific skills needed for future inquiry investigations can be taught within context (Martin-Hansen, 2002).  The progression throughout the unit from teacher-directed modelling and scaffolding activities to group work to independent work increases student involvement and agency over time. It also encourages discussion and demonstration of the recursive nature of inquiry (Nayler, 2005).

The aim throughout the Modern History course is: appropriate scaffolding and modelling of skills + increasing complexity over time + gradual progression of student autonomy in development of research capability = greater student success and satisfaction (Bell, Smetana & Binns, 2005; Brew, 2013).

Model of Inquiry

Inquiry models help to support learning of both teachers and students.  For teachers, it is the pathway to designing inquiry learning.  For students, it is a model for “how I learn” (Guided Inquiry Design Institute, 2018).  This unit uses a school-devised model which shares common elements to many other well-known models (see Figure 4).  The table below provides a comparison (see Figure 5).  It aligns closely with the inquiry model – forming, finding, analysing, evaluating, reflecting – included in the senior Modern History syllabus and, like the syllabus model, the school-devised model also emphasises reflection at all stages of inquiry.  The phases in the school-devised model are made explicit to students via teacher emphasis and direction throughout the teacher-directed part of the unit.  The school-devised model was selected for use throughout the Russian Revolution unit because students are familiar with the model as it has been used in History units throughout the junior school.

Figure 4: Inquiry Model used throughout this unit. Image used with permission.
Figure 5: Comparison of school-devised inquiry model with other well known models of inquiry.  Image created by author.

The constructive process evolves through the phases of inquiry evident in inquiry models and involves emotions as well as intellect (Kuhlthau, 1994).  Teachers must discuss with students that finding a swift, pointed answer to any inquiry is not likely to occur (YouthLearn, 2016).  Furthermore, it is also important to teach students that they should expect positive and negative feelings during complex learning.  Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP) depicts the common waves of thoughts and actions of students as they complete an information seeking task (Kuhlthau, 1994).  Kay Oddone’s (2017) infographic will also be used to help support the explanation of these emotions.  The affective domain (focusing on feelings) of the ISP has been mapped against the school-devised model of inquiry, including the use of emoticons, to help demonstrate to students their likely feelings at each phase of the model (see Figure 6).  The ISP mapping is introduced to students during Week Two of the unit.  This is during the Explore phase of inquiry and therefore students are most likely to be experiencing ‘the dip’. For this reason, it is timely to talk to students about the necessity of tolerating uncertainty and confusion while intentionally seeking a focus (Kuhlthau, 1994; 2018).  Mapping the phases of the inquiry model against the affective domain of the Information Search Process also serves as a useful tool for teachers to determine the type and level of intervention needed for optimal learning when students experience difficulty (Kuhlthau, 1994; Murdoch, 2018).

Figure 6: Information Search Process (affective domain) mapped against school-devised inquiry model.  Image created by author.

The Expedition

I have gathered the essential supplies and planned my approach to the expedition.  Now I set out with students as co-explorer, using student questions to guide the journey.

Creating Questions

The generative framework advocated for in inquiry learning pedagogy emphasises the value of student-created questions to drive learning and assessment (Scholl, 2010).  However, as McKenzie (2005) points out, “without strong questioning skills, students are mere passengers on someone else’s tour bus.” They’re on the highway, but someone else is doing the driving.

Formulating effective questions is a skill which helps improve student research strategies so that they can cut past the info-glut which can impede search for insight (McKenzie, 2005).  During the Explore phase of the unit (Week Two), students brainstorm what makes a good inquiry question (Hung & Popp, 2009).  Murdoch (2013) refers to this as the “art of question-asking”.  She argues that students need ‘success criteria’ to figure out what constitutes effective questions for a particular task.  Furthermore, using the term ‘wondering’ rather than question may provide greater softness and encourage risk taking and could be included as part of the class discussion.

It is also important to demonstrate to students that developing research questions is an iterative process which evolves with their project (Hung & Popp, 2009).  In the Russian Revolution unit, the preliminary questions and information quadrant (Define Phase – Week One) introduces the value of student questions shaped by their background knowledge, curiosity and wonder about the world (YouthLearn, 2016; Jackson, 2013).  In Week Two, during the Focus phase, the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is introduced to students which provides a critical inquiry model to teach students to ask their own questions and evaluate the characteristics of good questions (interpretive questions rather than factual retrieval) (Rothstein & Santana, 2011; YouthLearn, 2016).  Using this technique, students produce their own questions, improve these questions, prioritise their top three then consider how they will use the questions.  Class collaboration also includes discussion about the most powerful questions – they start with the words how, why, or what if (Jackson, 2013).  The three questions formed as a result of the QFT form the basis of student interrogation of sources on the October Revolution and will change or evolve in response to information students find (YouthLearn, 2016).

Process Questions

Process questions encourage students to take control of their inquiry and help to promote motivation and engagement throughout the inquiry process (Gordon, 2012).  In the Russian Revolution unit, the process questions being used have been adapted from The Inquiry Cycle (Gourley, 2008).  The school-devised model of inquiry does not match up perfectly with The Inquiry Cycle however, within the unit plan, the process questions have been aligned to the appropriate phase of the school-devised model.  Throughout the teacher-led component of the unit, the teacher introduces the questions as part of the reflection within the Define phase and the questions are used to guide student learning.  Explicitly using the questions helps students to view learning through inquiry as a process and provides a scaffold for student thinking (Gordon, 2012).  During the guided inquiry (student research), the question prompts are used each lesson to help students evaluate their progress.

Evaluative Framework

The evaluative framework in historical inquiry focuses on supporting students to critically evaluate historical sources and many of the questions integrate the transformative window of the GeSTE Model of information literacy (Lupton & Bruce, 2010).  Evaluative questions drive source and information seeking (Lupton, 2012).  For this unit, I have devised a model which contains disciplinary-specific questions combining the principles of the SCIM-C model by the Historical Inquiry Project at Virginia Tech and the question prompts for using primary sources from the Library of Congress (n.d.) (see Figure 7).  A unique model has been devised in order to capture the strengths of the questions in each of the above models, while also emphasising to students the value of ongoing monitoring and reflection as they collate their sources to assess how they are progressing overall and to ensure that they do not lose sight of their key inquiry question.  Although both of the models are designed for use in evaluating primary sources, the model below could also be used with secondary source evaluation.

Figure 7: Source Evaluation Framework used throughout this unit.  Image created by author.

Personal Connection

The aim of inquiry learning is for students to explore ‘true questions’ – things that students really care about and which have a personal connection to them – so the inquiry learning journey is more enduring than the unit itself and therefore the journey is worthwhile (Murdoch, 2012).

GeSTE Windows

Historical inquiry requires students to apply generic and situated information literacy skills, however the transformative and expressive windows of the GeSTE Windows model of information literacy are also necessary in order to enhance personal relevance, empowerment and social impact for students (Lupton & Bruce, 2010).  The diagram below provides examples of how the windows are applied in the unit (see Figure 8).  Exploring the legacy of the Russian Revolution and discussing continued inequality of wealth and power in the Modern World provides opportunities to incorporate all windows however the deeply personal nature of the expressive window allows students to evaluate how this inequality makes them feel and to reflect on their expression of self.  Using translated historical sources which provide perspectives from people living in Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution (for example, from the book 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution) provides further opportunities for engagement with the expressive windows as students reflect on aesthetic questions (Lupton, 2016).

Figure 8: Snapshot of application of the GeSTE Windows model of Information Literacy within this unit. Image created by author.

Final Reflection

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