Rosie Heckes (Milne) – 10/12/2020
As an Australian teacher in Switzerland for the last four years, it has been challenging to keep abreast of new programs and pedagogies that Australian teachers are using in their schools. There are exciting programs out there, and while my focus in Switzerland was on international students and bilingual education, I had heard good things about the Walker Learning Approach (WLA) through ex-colleagues in Australia.
The school I observed, in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, is using it in their Preparatory (Prep) classrooms (ages five to six). Children complete ‘Investigations’ every morning and there is a strong play-based attitude towards learning, which I knew the community at EmJoy would be interested in. The WLA can be observed throughout the whole curriculum for Prep students at this school, however the morning Investigations are arguably the most defining feature that will stand out to uninitiated teachers.
The WLA has been used in Australia for over 20 years.
More information about the WLA can be found here:
Below are my observations from experiencing a normal morning in the classroom, and my thoughts on what appears to be a rich experience-based approach to learning.
For context and visualisation, the classroom is set up as below.
The classroom has separate and clear investigative areas around the room, with tables and chairs at many of these spaces. A traditional ‘teacher chair’ is set up next to a small whiteboard, and acts as the tune-in area for children to sit in front of.
The separate investigative spaces are as follows:
- Construction – set up includes blocks, stackable items, and recyclable materials like cardboard
- Dramatic play – kitchen, dining table, felt food items of a high quality
- Atelier / Sensory – ‘moon rocks’ made from flour, baby oil and dye were ready to be explored and also made, and the teacher also had a project of making a Papier Mâche moon organised here. This photo is from a different day:
- Science/nature – includes different bowls/containers and stimulus of natural objects and materials:
- Maths – counters, questions and display numeracy:
- Collage – small organised containers of craft materials:
- Tinkering – work tools, old machinery, wood, nails and safety equipment:
- Small world area – on this day it was set up for a Goldilocks and the Three Bears provocation. This photo is from a different day:
- Literacy area – set up with letters for recognition and invitations to practise writing:
Setting up the classroom with many different learning areas must take a lot of time, however it felt quite open-plan, and while at a learning space it felt like a special area all on its own.
There were other clear areas too: a reading corner, some tables and a space for children to sit in front of the TV for reflecting on their Investigations together. Children’s work was hanging across the room and on a large display wall. The display pieces were cleanly organised and the room didn’t feel crowded at all.
The learning spaces were the first thing that I noticed in the classroom that felt like a different approach from other teaching styles, as they take up space which would more commonly be used for chairs, tables and a bigger area in front of a whiteboard or TV.
Special roles for children:
Every day, four children are selected to have a special role. These roles serve a purpose for both students and the teacher. They include two ‘Focus Children’, a ‘Reporter’ and a ‘Photographer’.
Two students are chosen to be the ‘Focus Children’ of the day. These children are asked to recap what they investigated last time they were in the classroom. The teacher prompts with questions and observations to tie in with the children’s interests and needs as well as the learning intentions of the week. They have first choice with which area they plan to investigate.
While the Focus Children are observed and discussed by the whole class during the morning investigations, they are closely observed by the teacher throughout the whole day, and can serve as a chance to test those children or make detailed notes on their approach to learning and development. These children also appear to apply more consideration to their choices and know that it’s a special day for them.
The Photographer and the Reporter:
One child is deemed the Photographer for the day, and takes photos of children engaging in investigations, paying particular attention to the Focus children.
The other child is responsible for following the Focus Children around and writing about what they are doing.
These children are asked to share their observations in the reflection part of the morning.
After the morning process, children are tuned in to learning intentions and prompted to consider their plans for investigative play. The teacher scaffolds and provokes different student interests while maintaining dialogue around the learning intentions. Children are given 45 minutes or so to play, then they reflect on their experiences as a group.
Children are either asked specifically what they will play, or the teacher will prompt by mentioning different areas to spark some interest in a particular learning space.
There are some structures around how many children can play in one area, and children are allowed to move from space to space during this time. Some children seemed sure of where they wanted to go, and others were prompted by the teacher or their friends.
One element that was meaningful to observe was how each child seemed totally engaged in what they had chosen, and when they were finished with something, they had many other places to go and options for activities.
The teacher had the Papier Mâche project going as well, so it was easy to catch any wandering children who were interested in what was going on with that project.
After investigating for a solid chunk of time, children sat in front of the TV which was ready with pictures the Photographer child had taken. The Reporter and the Photographer worked together to reflect on what they observed. The teacher also prompted and questioned the Focus Children, or any child who may have made a connection to the learning intentions.
The last stage of the process is resetting the room, placing everything back where it belongs. I preferred this method of first reflecting, while everything still felt fresh, then resetting the room and maintaining the ownership of all the learning spaces.
It was refreshing to experience a true play-based pedagogy in a classroom. The teacher’s role is extremely important as there appears to be a lot of time and consideration put into setting up the classroom and the spaces. The preparation of prompting questions and meaningful scaffolding are what encourages students to be mindful of their play and choices. It would be easy for a teacher do the work of setting up the classroom, but it is necessary to do more than simply send children off to play. Framing the play as ‘Investigations’, having clear learning intentions and certain children to help with questioning and focus really helps to add meaning to the children’s day.
Children are driven by their own interests and are also drawn towards other projects and experiences by a teacher who can then in turn pay attention specifically on two children during the day. All children are engaged and prompted to consider how their Investigations may tie in with the learning intentions which remain consistent all week. I could see how this play-based start to a day would encourage children’s enjoyment of school and set up meaningful learning connections throughout the rest of the day’s activities.
You would be more than welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have further questions.