Teaching and learning


Curiosity and Powerful Learning

What is Curiosity and Powerful Learning?

“ The goal of the Powerful Learning School Improvement Strategy is that all students will be literate, numerate and curious”

Using the work on school reform in Melbourne, undertaken by David Hopkins and Wayne Craig; as a way of outlining a replicable model of school and system development that starts from the learner and moves outwards. Curiosity and Powerful Learning delivers both a moral purpose and succinct student achievement goals of enhanced literacy, numeracy and curiosity.

David Hopkins is Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Education, University of London, Director of Education for the Bright Tribe Trust and a Senior Fellow with McREL International; Wayne Craig is Vice-President McREL Australia based in Melbourne, State of Victoria.  David and Wayne began working together on school reform in Melbourne in 2007 when David was Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Wayne, Regional Director of Melbourne’s Northern Metropolitan Region. 

Why Curiosity and Powerful Learning ?

There is no more important goal for educators than enabling their students to develop the habit of enquiry and to embed a spirit of curiosity.

We know almost intuitively that curiosity is important. It can be the driver of engagement and lifelong learning and is seen by many as the force behind innovation and economic growth over recent centuries.

Curiosity thinkers are:

  • More motivated to learn
  • More likely to be academically successful;
  • Inclined to explore widely and deeply;
  • Likely to be able to think creatively;
  • Best suited to working collaboratively;
  • Less likely to be replaced by computers.

That said, if we want our students to be curious, then we must teach them.

What will this look like at Coorparoo State School?

Coorparoo State School has created a School Improvement Pathway in which common reference points around our shared understanding of effective teaching and learning practices have been committed to.

Powerful Learning details four whole school theories of action and six teacher theories of action (listed below). Building upon the work CSS has undertaken over the previous 3 years and importantly adhering to our school’s narrative that “We are united in a common goal to maximise the potential of all children at Coorparoo State School and encourage them to be kind, curious and resilient.” (CSS School Governance Model, 2015), a draft plan for embedding these theories into consistent, deep and meaningful practices across our school has been created.

The four whole-school theories of action:

  1. When schools and teachers set high expectations and develop authentic relationships, then students’ confidence and commitment to education increases and the school’s ethos and culture deepens. 
  2. When teacher directed instruction becomes more inquiry focused, then the level of student achievement and curiosity increases. 
  3. By consistently adopting protocols for teaching, student behaviour, engagement and learning are enhanced. 
  4. By consistently adopting protocols for learning, student capacity to learn, skill levels and confidence are enhanced.

The six teacher theories of action

1. Harnessing learning intentions, narrative and pace 

When teachers set learning intentions and use appropriate pace and have a clear and strong narrative about their teaching and curriculum, then students are more secure about their learning, and achievement and understanding is increased.

It has become very clear that when teachers are clear about their learning intentions then the students become more engaged and feel more secure in their learning. But it is about more than just setting a learning intention or goal; importantly it is also about linking the intention to the learning outcome and success criteria for the lesson, as well as ensuring curricula progression. This becomes the basis for the narrative of the lesson.

Teachers with a strong sense of narrative are able to engage with deviation, knowing how to bring the discussion back on track.

Pace is also necessary to keep the lesson lively and through increasing tempo, deal with potential low-level disruption. A learning intention for a lesson or series of lessons is a statement that describes clearly what the teacher wants the student to know, understand and be able to do as a result of the learning and teaching activity. In formulating the learning intention it is essential to consider three components: 

  • An action word that identifies the performance to be demonstrated
  • A learning statement that specifies what learning will be demonstrated
  • A broad statement of the criterion or minimum standard for acceptable performance, e.g. ‘By the end of the lesson you will be able to...’ 

2. Setting challenging learning tasks

When learning tasks are purposeful, clearly defined, differentiated and challenging then the more powerful, progressive and precise the learning for all students.

In Looking in classrooms, Good and Brophy (2008) identified the six components listed below as central to scaffolding support for pupils carrying out tasks:

  • Develop student interest in accomplishing the intended goal of the task.
  • Demonstrate an idealised version of the actions to be performed. 
  • Simplify the task by reducing the steps.
  • Control frustration and risk. 
  • Provide feedback that identifies the critical features of discrepancies between what has been produced and what is required.
  • Motivate and direct the student’s activity to maintain continuous pursuit of the goal.

Closely associated with scaffolding is the gradual transfer of responsibility for managing learning. As students develop expertise they begin to assume responsibility for regulating their own learning, by asking questions and by working on increasingly complex tasks with a simultaneous increase in learner autonomy.

3. Framing higher order questions

When teachers systematically use higher order questioning, the level of student understanding is deepened and their achievement is increased.

John Hattie reports in Visible learning (2009, p. 182) that questioning is the second most prevalent teaching method, after teacher talk. Most teachers spend between 35% and 50% of their time in questioning. Questioning has a positive impact on student learning—but this effect is associated more with higher order questioning which promotes more conceptual thinking and curiosity. The evidence suggests that most teachers ask low-level questions, related more to knowledge acquisition and comprehension. Research studies suggest that 60% of teachers’ questions recall facts and 20% are procedural in nature. Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl 2001) of learning objectives is widely used as a basis for structuring questions, particularly higher order questions. They are:

  • Knowledge—recall previous material learned
  • Comprehension—demonstrate understanding of facts and ideas
  • Application—solve problems by applying knowledge, facts and skills learnt in different ways and situations 
  • Analysis—examine information and break into parts, make connections and support ideas and arguments
  • Evaluation—present judgements, recommendations and opinions
  • Synthesis—compile information in different, more creative ways; choose other solutions.

The following sequence works well, as this approach makes everyone responsible for generating an answer, particularly when combined with some of the simple cooperative techniques:

  • Frame a question to the whole class
  • Allow students time to think—‘wait time’
  • Only then, call on someone to respond.

4. Connecting feedback and data

When teachers consistently use feedback and data on student actions and performance, then behaviour becomes more positive and progress accelerates.

Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on student achievement. That is clear from both psychological theory and research. In Visible learning, John Hattie (2009, p. 173) provides a powerful insight, as he describes his attempts to understand feedback:

It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better. When teachers seek, or are at least open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged—then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful. Feedback to teachers helps make learning visible.

In considering data and feedback that moves beyond the purely academic, Hattie suggests that a behavioural focus on student performance helps students to recognise the linkage between effort and outcome. In addressing this behavioural dimension of student performance and achievement, it is recommended that the teacher should:

  • Model beliefs
  • Focus on mastery
  • Portray skill development as incremental and domain specific
  • Provide socialisation with feedback
  • Portray effort as investment rather than risk.

5. Committing to assessment for learning

When peer assessment and assessment for learning (AfL) are consistently utilised, student engagement, learning and achievement accelerates.

The generally accepted definition of Assessment for Learning (AfL) is:

‘The process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there’. (Assessment Reform Group 2002).

This may be organised differently in different schools, but the rationale is always the same.

  • Clear evidence about how to drive up individual attainment.
  • Clear feedback for and from pupils, so there is clarity on what they need to improve and how best they can do so.
  • Clarity for students on what levels they are working at, with transparent criteria to enable peer coaching. 
  • A clear link between student learning and lesson planning (Hopkins 2007).

Teachers need to continue to develop their understanding of how students learn so they can help them to: reflect on how they learn; develop learning strategies and apply them in different circumstances; and engage in high quality dialogue with teachers, peers and others.

6. Implementing cooperative group structures

If teachers use cooperative group structures/techniques to mediate between whole class instruction and students carrying out tasks, then the academic performance of the whole class will increase as well as the spirit of collaboration and mutual responsibility.

Cooperative group work has a powerful effect in raising pupil achievement because it combines the dynamics of democratic processes with the discipline of academic enquiry. It encourages active participation in learning and collaborative behaviour by developing social as well as academic skills. The approach is highly flexible and draws on a wide range of methods—individual research, collaborative enquiry and plenary activities—and allows the integration of them all into a powerful teaching tool. It is most commonly used as part of the direct instruction model, both as part of teacher instruction and the structuring of group activities, although at times the teacher will use the approach to structure a whole lesson or series of lessons.

There are a wide range of strategies that comprise cooperative group work. They are all underpinned by the following five principles (Johnson & Johnson 1994):

  1. Positive interdependence: When all members of a group feel connected to each other in the accomplishment of a common goal—all individuals must succeed for the group to succeed. 
  2. Individual accountability: Where every member of the group is held responsible for demonstrating the accomplishment of their learning. 
  3. Face-to-face interaction: When group members are close in proximity to each other and enter into a dialogue with each other in ways that promote continued progress. 
  4. Social skills: Human interaction skills that enable groups to function effectively (e.g. taking turns, encouraging, listening, clarifying, checking, understanding, probing). Such skills enhance communication, trust, leadership, decision-making and conflict management. 
  5. Processing: When group members assess their collaborative efforts and target improvements.

Cooperative group work requires pupils to practise and refine their negotiating, organising and communication skills, define issues and problems and develop ways of solving them. This includes, collecting and interpreting evidence, hypothesising, testing and re-evaluating.

Theories of Action for School and System Reform

It is this development of an action framework for school improvement, which moves us from what we know, by addressing the barriers that prevent us realising that potential, to theories of action that give more precision to the achievement of our moral purpose. The overarching or meta-theory of action, which relates to our overall model of school improvement described at the outset, is something like this:

When all the distinct but interrelated parts of what we know about school and system improvement are aligned and working together, then all students, schools (as well as the system as a whole) will realise their individual and collective potential.

Our continued work over the next 3 to 5 years will give us the opportunity to develop the following set of more specific theories of action related to individual aspects of the overall comprehensive process (Hopkins 2013):

  • When schools and systems are driven by moral purpose then all students are more likely to fulfil their potential 
  • When the focus of policy is on the quality of teaching rather than structural change, then student achievement will increase 
  • When schools and teachers are of high quality, poverty is no longer such a determinant of educational success 
  • When the focus is on powerful learning, then students will both attain more and develop their cognitive and social skills 
  • When teachers acquire a richer repertoire of pedagogic practice then students’ learning will deepen. 
  • When data is used to monitor, feedback and enhance student performance, then students’ progress will more quickly accelerate 
  • When teachers and schools go deeper in their search for improvement (rather than adopting fads) then the student learning experience also deepens and outcomes improve 
  • When leadership is instructionally focused and widely distributed, then both teachers and students are able to fully capitalise on their capacity to learn and achieve 
  • When teachers and leaders employ more precise strategies for teaching, learning and improvement, the whole system benefits 
  • When the system as a whole takes student learning seriously then moral purpose is achieved
Last reviewed 17 April 2020
Last updated 17 April 2020