Chaotic Inquiry – A dynamic system to engage adult learners

Observations made by the author, in her role as an Educational Consultant with a state-based Registered Training Organisation (RTO) which delivers language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) classes, funded by the Commonwealth Government

Inquiry of Chaos Purchased from iStock

Inquiry of Chaos Purchased from iStock

have indicated the vast majority of current teaching practices are oriented towards “…discrete basic skills and conveyance of factual information…” (Beder and Medina, 2001, p.25).  Extensive anecdotal measurement of these observations has provided limited evidence these skill sets are being transferred to authentic “…learning tasks and activities focused on the completion of realistic and complex tasks” (Herrington et al, 2014, p.23) which engage learners and provides experiences to prepare them for future work or study. The current status quo could be influenced by learners’ conditioning from their schooling experience, as Knowles argued (1988, p.46), “…to perceive the appropriate role of learner to be that of a dependent…passive recipient of transmitted content.” Teachers have also been influenced by this instructional practice during their schooling, and have adopted an authoritarian style which is characterised by a high level of structure and low levels of student involvement in content decision making (Thijs et al, 2009, p.2).

In order for the RTO to satisfy contractual Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Provider Performance sub-criteria, teachers’ praxes must engage learners, provide tools for assessment and effectively manage a classroom comprised of ethnically and academically diverse learners. For this report, anecdotal evidence was collected from the author’s own teaching experiences, current students and informal interviews were conducted with three teachers, trialling inquiry Project Based Learning (PBL) methodologies, from the RTO’s metropolitan site (A), and two regional sites (B and C). Based on results from teacher surveys, anecdotal and interview evidence, and supported by literature (Beder & Medina, 2001, p.57; Cook, 2009, p.95; Johnson, 2013, p.561; Jonassen, 2011, p.96; Karge et al, 2011, p.53; Thijs et al, 2009 p.1; Schussler, 2009, p.119), the author proposed introducing PBL to the RTO’s LLN classes as a schema to:

  • engage students through an inquiry approach to learning, that is, PBL
  • adapt teaching practices to adult learner needs
  • develop a collaborative, student-centred learning environment
  • provide authentic resources and learning materials
  • focus on the solving of ‘real’ life problems by developing problem solving skills, critical thinking, curiosity, creativity and reflective skills in conjunction with LLN skills and concepts
  • manage classes composed of diverse learner cohorts based on – gender, age, ethnicity.

Program Background – Skills for Education and Employment

To fully understand the reasoning behind this proposal, it is necessary to position the Commonwealth Government’s support of the “…productive capabilities of human beings… ” (Garrick & Clegg, 2001, p.120) as manifested through a national LLN program.

The program is a governmental mechanism which “… seeks to improve eligible job seeker’s LLN skills with the expectation that such improvements will enable them to participate more effectively in training or in the labour force, and lead to greater long-term gains for society” (Department of Industry, 2014, para. 1). Job seekers, in order to receive welfare payments, are referred to the program as a means to perform Centrelink obligations/activities. Outcomes of this practice have a direct result on class management and learner engagement as referred jobseekers attend, not as strategy to achieve personal goals, but as a governmental obligation. Outcomes from this practice affect classroom management e.g. disengaged students, poor attendance and behaviour management.

The program is a framework providing tools or mechanisms of governmentality, specifically – regulation, normalisation, examination, discipline and care (Foucault, 1990, p.75), which impacts teachers and learners alike. Positioning these mechanisms to produce capable societal members deems teachers as conduits of the program’s contractual obligations. One such obligation prescribes provider payments is based on the hours of student attendance. A teacher’s ongoing employment is reliant on payments received for the regulation, normalisation and discipline mechanisms, as practised through the monitoring and management of student attendance. This example outlines teachers’ responsibilities to, (a) ensure learners’ attendance is in accordance with their agreed training hours, (b) develop and maintain an environment which motivates learners to attend class, and (c) engage learners while in class. The alignment of this directive and the program objectives of work or future training with student-centred delivery methodologies, implies LLN teachers’ praxes should reflect a collaborative learning environment to ensure learners’ experience authentic, contextualised tasks which simultaneously engage them and prepare them for a work environment and lifelong learning.

Classroom “Chaos” – advancing engagement as a stimulus for change

What teacher eagerly works towards a classroom where principles of chaos are applied? The simple answer is no-one, if the chaotic elements relate to bedlam. However, when the chaotic elements are reciprocally connected with Chaos Theory as a dynamic learning system, that is, “…a set of variables that interact over time…” (de Bot et al, 2007, p.7), which provides teachers with a toolkit permitting them to “…extract beautifully ordered structures from a sea of chaos” (Borwein & Rose, 2012, para.1). In this report discussion, the author recognises the sea of chaos as the impact disengagement has on teachers’ practices and learners in adult LLN classes conducted in the state-based RTO.   The principles of Chaos Theory, PBL elements and engagement, as a connection with learning, are established as both single and interconnected ordered structures.

It is generally held that literature defines engagement as three overlapping components (Fredericks et al, 2004, p.60) –

  • Behavioural – the idea of participation across a number of planes, such as academic and social e.g. achievement, attendance, collaboration and communication
  • Affective – the relationship between students and their teachers, peers and the place of learning – positive interactions between all stakeholders engenders a feeling of belonging
  • Cognitive – the degree to which learners, through multiple behaviours e.g. reflection, focus on goals, flexibility in their work and coping mechanisms, are willing to invest in their learning.

What is the significance of adult LLN learners’ engagement? Engaged students “…demonstrate more effort, experience more positive emotions, pay more attention in their classrooms…” (Thijs et al, 2014, p.1), and are associated with improved achievement and higher retention rates. Applying PBL as a classroom management structure, from the author’s experience, clarifies the sea of chaos and positions the principles of Chaos Theory (Fractal Foundation, para.2-7) as a dynamic system to induce change.   Establishing the relationship between Chaos Theory and PBL results in a model for developing a dynamic learning environment which supports a caring and collaborative learning community (Beder & Medina, 2001, p.81: Lloyd, 2010, 17;Thijs et al, 2009, p.2), across multiple learning landscapes (Bruce et al, 2012, p.524). Pivotal to the development and on-going engagement of students in a learning community is a teacher’s behaviour (Beder et al, 2001, p.55; Knowles, 1988, p.48; Schuller, 2009, p.115; Furrer et al, 2003, p.148; Skinner et al, 1993, p572; Thijs et al, 2009, p.2). For example, having collaborated and worked with Teacher A’s class on two separate occasions, she commented during the interview:

“When you (author) walk into the room you are prepared, you have the knowledge of PBL and you immediately capture the students’ attention. You engage them and they stay motivated long after you leave. I want to be able to do that. I want to engage my students and help them with their learning and to achieve their goals. How do you do it?”

Author’s response – “I am prepared, and from implementing PBL with my own classes for nearly ten years, I know this methodology motivates students by engaging them in a topic they have suggested and own. To guide myself and the class, I am constantly asking myself questions like – What skills do they need? Where can I locate suitable resources? Am I doing enough or too much? I reflect and then reflect some more. Long before I ever walk into the classroom I carefully plan how, what, when, where, why and for whom I do something. If I’m not engaged, how can I expect to engage students and generate a feeling of ownership?”

Evidence from the author’s personal experiences of developing a student-centred learning environment for adult LLN learners, by applying inquiry PBL within a dynamic learning system, resulted in a higher level of student engagement and relationships of mutual respect (Bracket et al, 2012, p.219; Schussler, 2009, p.119). Skills and competencies colligated within the framework’s scaffolding e.g. inquiry, reflection, need to know, problem-solving, are synonymous with chaos elements endorsing alterations which, from the author’s experience, improved academic performance, reduced behavioural issues, improved attendance, achievement of personal goals and created a sense of belonging.

“The resources in this class were absolutely phenomenal. They were enlightening, interesting, and they weren’t dumbed down at all. They were aimed at adults, not childish things. We got to pick the subjects we were interested in for the projects and that gave you all the motivation you needed to learn. The face-to-face teaching was fantastic as it helped me get over my dyslexia, because I was shown different ways of learning. I went from Level 1 to Level 3[1] in my literacy. Now that was an achievement.” (Bob, 64 year old literacy/numeracy student)

Engagement – from butterflies to fractals

The proposed project to introduce inquiry PBL (Kai et al, 2001, p.236) as a methodology to engage LLN adult learners and support classroom management, was motivated by the author’s recognition that inquiry skills are integral to an adult’s immediate and lifelong learning experiences (Maab et al, 2013, p.779; Smith et al, 2012, p.22;). Research implementation of the project commenced in January 2014 and until October 2014, and during this period inquiry PBL has been introduced through professional development workshops – conference breakout session (N=38), a small group workshop at site A (N=9), and a total of 14 one-to-one sessions with the teachers who trialled PBL and were interviewed for this report. To date 50 LLN teachers in the RTO have experienced an inquiry PBL taster. (Tasters are Guided PBL experiences where the author determines the inquiry topic. These sessions are presented in a limited timeframe (1.5 hours) and the Driving Question, in conjunction with the initial phase, is designed to engage the participants in order for them to experience and orientate them to the elements of PBL.)

To review and evaluate this project to date, the principles of Chaos Theory will be applied to –

  1. elements of inquiry PBL as a methodology for learner engagement, and
  2. outcomes will be examined from the position of the teachers, learners and project manager.

Employing the principles of chaos as an instructional teaching framework and evaluation tool provides a dynamic structure which accounts for the three components of teacher and learner engagement. To elucidate on the framework this section will unpack the principles as they relate to inquiry PBL and engagement.

Principle – Butterfly effect

Principle Description Relationship to PBL Engagement
Butterfly effect One small action has exponential results Driving question, reflection, voice, choice, development of underpinning skills and personal knowledge Behavioural Affective Cognitive

The butterfly effect phenomenon was proposed by Edward Lorenz in 1961 (The Conversation, 2012, para.8-9) after he studied the variance of the same data entered a second time into a weather predicting program. His analogical illustration described the exponential effects of a butterfly flapping its wings is the causal event for the formation of a hurricane half a world away (The Conversation, 2012, para.18).   Aligning this phenomenon with PBL elements demonstrated how one action, for example, introducing learners to information literacy (IL) mechanisms, can impact on learners’ engagement. This is reflected in the extended learning team model (Kuhlthau et al, 2012, p.12), teacher, librarian and author, established with the class at site[2] A. Comments from students and the teacher at Site A indicate the importance of introducing this model.

The time I’ve spent with Naomi (librarian) has been great. I’ve learnt so much about how to find stuff on the internet. I found info I need for study, not just YouTube or games. Yesterday I did a Google search and located info I need for my presentation and I was able to get exactly what I wanted. I know the other guys are using what she showed us. Wish I’d known about all this in school, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted that time. Who knows?” (Chris, 22 year old male literacy/numeracy student)

“I never knew you could use plus and takeaway signs to do a Google search. It makes things easier, if I can keep it all in my head. I need to practise it. The teacher has worked with me in class when I’ve done a search for my Dog Grooming course. I found some good sites, and fast. It’s good to learn new things.” (Cassie, 19 year old female literacy/numeracy student, Site A)

Teacher A

“Getting Naomi involved has been a major bonus. The students have thoroughly enjoyed her sessions. I think the next time we do PBL I’ll involve her earlier as there’ll be a large class turnover and it’ll be great for them to get the skills before they start their inquiries.”

Whether you consider the introduction of a librarian a small or large action, the change was certainly exponential. Reflection, as an integral component of PBL, has been beneficial to students and Teacher A. She commented “…as my students are only enrolled in literacy units or Certificate 2 courses, I didn’t think the librarians would have time, or to be honest, be interested.” From her statement this action has changed her affective engagement with colleagues and students. Teacher A is promoting strategies which assist learners to take responsibility for their learning (Knowles, 1988, p.46) and become lifelong learners (Bruce et al, 2012, p.524).

Teacher A is at the initial stages of introducing PBL into her classes and her approach demonstrates an authoritative teaching style which is “…characterised by high levels of involvement, [and] entails high levels of structure” (Thijs et al, 2009, p.2). Personal experience has shown a structured introduction to inquiry PBL assists learners’ and teachers’ transition from teacher-centred to student-centred praxes. Reflective comments from the learners demonstrate the butterfly effect has altered their behavioural, affective and cognitive engagement. Feedback has also prompted a change in the guidelines the author developed to support LLN teachers who are exploring PBL or currently implementing this method. The change introduces Kuhlthau et al’s extended learning team model (Kuhlthau et al, 2012, p.12-13) into existing guidelines.

Principle – Unpredictability  

Principle Description Relationship to PBL Engagement
Unpredictability Not all initial conditions in a system are known, therefore even slight changes will result in amplified outcomes – positive and/or negative Critical reflection provides an axis for change in teachers’ and learners’ frame of reference[3] Behavioural



Collaboration with Teacher C provided the opportunity to introduce team building activities. The importance of team building skills is reflected in the Commonwealth Government’s policy, Core Skills for Work (CSfW) (2013, p.10), and directly relates to the national program’s objectives e.g. preparation for work. Team work is a sub-criteria of inquiry PBL and is essential to develop peer-to-peer relationships through affective engagement. One activity, Defend the Egg, was presented as a guided PBL challenge and the students enthusiastically researched devices for protecting fragile objects, brainstormed and decided on a solution, planned the project timeline, constructed a device from available materials, tested the device, reflected on the reasons for success and/or failure and their final product was a marketing presentation for the device.

Teacher C commented on one change he observed during the team planning session.

“I had no idea Lynn (students name was changed) would have done anything like this before. She has helped the team with the design and instead of bullying them along like she usually does, she is actually guiding them. From observing her today, I think I’ll have to change my view of her behaviours. Hopefully I can keep this behaviour happening.”

Andragogical practices acknowledge and cater for adult learners who define themselves “…in terms of the accumulation of their unique sets of experiences” (Knowles, 1988, p.50). Strengthening and building on an adult learner’s experiences will “…assist the learner to understand new subject matter…become more responsible and effective at working with others to …solve problems…” (Mezirow, 1997, p.9) and transfer new knowledge and skills to other formal and informal learning environments. This was demonstrated by the following student during the design phase.

“In science at school I did this same experiment, except we dropped it from a 10 metre tower, not 4 metres like today. The egg was totally scrambled the first trial, but I modified it and the next trial it survived. I have a special device to save the egg and I shared it with the team today. It’s good to be able to do something for them. I’m already thinking about making a video to market the device. That’s a first for me! I know we can use the iPad to video and find out how to make a good one from YouTube. ” (Jamie, 19 year old male literacy/numeracy student, Site C)

Principle – Order/Disorder

Principle Description Relationship to PBL Engagement
Order/disorder Transition between these two states is interrelated with surprising outcomes Transition from authoritive classroom management to collaborative management supports engagement through voice and choice Behavioural



To the uninitiated observer, an adult LLN class actively involved in PBL authentic, real world inquiry tasks may well resemble disorder. Maintaining what is perceived as order – a relatively quiet classroom with learners working on prescribed tasks, over perceived disorder – teams collaborating to solve a problem and driving their own learning. Disorder can amount to chaos when transitional scaffolding is “…a poor fit between the activities that form the day-to-day tasks of the project and the underlying subject matter concepts that gave rise to the project” (Thomas, 2000, p.27). The author noted this very point as a barrier for Teacher A and C. Teacher B had been structuring class delivery around research projects and explained –

“I’ve been developing learning materials to support the students in their projects for several years. I can see how these are necessary to develop skills and progress the project, and I haven’t experienced any issues with introducing PBL to the students.”

To assist Teachers A and C, the author conducted demonstration lessons and provided learning exemplars for scaffolding their lessons. This included using an outside expert (judge from ABC program “The New Inventors”) to engage the students from Site C when introducing the driving question for their Defend the Egg guided inquiry.

“When we first started I didn’t know what to do. Skyping with your sister was awesome, and she liked the questions I asked. It made me feel important. Like what I have to say matters. Her answers helped me to think about ways to solve the problem and not wait for someone else to do it. When we first started it was scary and sometimes the noise in the room was annoying, but you and the teacher talked us through it. Before this I never would have thought I could help design and market a device to protect an egg. I’m hoping we can do projects all the time. (27 years old, female literacy/numeracy student, Site C)

Introducing inquiry PBL is a collaborative, nonlinear and incremental process and, from the author’s experience, moves from an authoritarian or teacher-centred style of prescribed order, to authoritive and finally Thijs et al’s permissive style with limited structure and an apparent disorder (2009, p.2). Johnson and Delawsky (2013, p.561) propose the level of teacher engagement, demonstrated through their application to the physical, affective and cognitive components, will be reflected in the level of the students’ engagement.

“Enthusiasm! That’s the key! I’ve been working with smaller research projects, but I’ve never seen the students as enthusiastic as they are now. Since the teams were formed, they’ve been discussing the problem at every available opportunity. I’m drawn in and feeding off their enthusiasm and I think vice versa. I was worried the process would be overwhelming for some, but no, they supported each other with the language and everyone was assigned a task, regardless of their level (language). (Teacher B)

Principle – Mixing

Principle Description Relationship to PBL Engagement
Mixing Turbulence creates a nonlinear transgression from a starting point to a very different point over time Nonlinear transgression/transition through PBL phases will support divergent outcomes for each learner Behavioural Affective Cognitive


“The educator’s part in the enterprise of education is to furnish the environment which stimulates responses and directs the learner’s course. In the last analysis, all that the educator can do is modify stimuli so that response will as surely as is possible result in the formation of desirable intellectual and emotional dispositions.” (John Dewey, 1916, p.219)

Turbulence, or as Dewey states stimuli, provides the foundations for a dynamic system that clearly illustrates the connectivity of our holistic, non-linear world (Herdina et al, 2002, p.83). Nearly a century ago Dewey promoted teaching practices which moved beyond the one size fits all teaching model (Houston, 2004, para. 1). Since Dewey’s statement, the progress in teaching and learning theories has been prodigious, and yet, as stated, I observe teacher-centred methodologies which hark back to times when slates (Davies, 2005, p.63) and not tablets were a progressive technology. Dewey’s statement endorses a trichotomy, that is, an educator’s development of the physical, cognitive and affective environments within a classroom. Research indicates stimuli in the physical learning environment have an impact on learner engagement (Johnson & Delawsky, 2013, p.560; OECD, 2003, p.8; Thijs et al, 2009, p.268). Mixing, like the butterfly effect, amplifies results from a simple action, for example, creating a team work space by rearranging desks. Teacher B has created an environment which encourages her language students to relax and engage with the learning environment and each other.

“I want to feel good about walking into my classroom and I want my students to feel that too. The students are adults, and as such, I create a space where they can feel comfortable enough to engage in real world activities. They make a cup of coffee when they like or they use the “lounge” area to sit back, relax and talk with myself and other students. Every week I sit in the lounge with each student for their feedback session. They comment how much they enjoy being in the room and I believe this has an impact on their learning. I only have anecdotal evidence but it supports my belief.”

While Teacher B is affectively engaging learners in her class, due to asset management regulations, Teacher A is prohibited from displays on the walls and introducing furniture. Feedback from the teacher and a student demonstrates the impact on both the teacher’s and students’ affective engagement.

“I’d love to have more learning materials on the wall for students to refer to, and to liven up the room, but there is a policy about attaching anything to the wall. Another policy! I can only use the pin board in the room and that’s little more than a square metre. How inviting is that? I need colour! I need more!” (Teacher A)

A student reflected Teacher A’s sentiments and felt a level of disengagement as a result of the physical environment alone.

“If it wasn’t for the computers in the room it’d be like a coffin, a long white coffin. Even the windows are too high to look out. Whenever you leave the room the door locks if you don’t put a piece of cardboard between the lock and frame. If it wasn’t for the computers to do stuff, and a couple of classmates, I don’t think I’d come.” (35 year old male, literacy/numeracy student, Site A)

It is the author’s opinion, when PBL is supported by a dynamic learning system, mixing is a conduit for motivating and enriching students’ learning experiences and provides scaffolding which relocates learners in a community of practice (Lloyd, 2010, p.18).

Principle – Feedback 

Principle Description Relationship to PBL Engagement
Feedback Systems often become chaotic when feedback is present, with positive or negative effects Reflection and critical thinking stimulate personal feedback and either positive or negative feedback from teacher affects learners’ engagement Behavioural



“Feedback can be called “negative” and “positive” and the two adjectives simply indicate that one type of feedback regulates while the other amplifies” (Herdina et al, 2002, p.80). Beder et al (2006, p.80), noted highly engaged behaviour after students received positive and reflective feedback from their teacher. In this case, feedback has had an amplifying effective on student’s behaviour. Feedback sessions are a critical component of a dynamic learning system, and as such, provide a platform for amplifying or regulating learner and teacher engagement.

Effective or amplifying feedback “…relates to information presented that allows for comparison between an actual outcome and a desired outcome” (Poulos et al, 2008, p.143). During a demonstration session with Teacher C’s class, the author provided a guided framework for personal and team reflection. Students referred to their initial goals and plans and moved through a series of questions relating to what actually happened and what they proposed.

“I’ve never done anything like that before. Asking yourself questions helps you see how you made things happen. Even if they weren’t what you wanted. It helped me to see things better. Can I use this at home or is it just for class? I think it’s really helpful. (59 year old female literacy/numeracy student, Site C)

Teacher C

“I do give individual feedback, but it’s usually about attendance, work or behaviour, I’ve never approached it like you did. It was very successful with the class and they want to use it for all sessions. With the model you gave them this should be possible.”

Regardless of Teacher C’s enthusiasm for PBL and the positive feedback from his engaged students and the author, he did not continue with PBL for the following reasons.

“I want to be a great teacher, but all this is too hard. I’m casual part-time and to prepare the resources etc I’ll have to work and not get paid. The RTO gets a lot of something for nothing. I know the students are excited about doing other projects, but I can’t see that happening unless I get full time work. Just give me the workbooks, it’s what they are used to and enjoy doing.”

Beder et al’s (2001, p.49-50) reported the negative reaction observed from a student when the teacher called for feedback. The student reprimanded the teacher and the authors suggest this may have occurred because the student did not view this type of activity as part of a real lesson. Knowles (1988, p.46) discussed the deep conditioning of schooling and to overcome this model suggested preparatory experiences to assist adult learners develop a new pattern of thinking about a learner’s role. Developing and implementing such tasks would provide a platform for affective and cognitive engagement.

Principle – Fractals 

Principle Description Relationship to PBL Engagement
Fractals Never ending patterns, created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop Elements of PBL can be repeated over and over producing a complex system of inquiry resulting in the development of knowledge and skills to be used across formal and informal learning environments Behavioural



Working with students to develop and apply inquiry skills is central to engagement (Beder et al, 2001, p.34) and lifelong learning (Bruce et al, 2012, p.525; Knowles, 1988, p.41). Knowles argued that adult education was no longer a process of transmission, but “…a lifelong process of inquiry (1988, p.41)”, and as such, the fractals of inquiry PBL – problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, reflection, provides learners and teachers alike with the opportunity to develop a personal framework of mean making (Beder et al, 2001, p.98). In short, as previously discussed, the current teacher-directed methodologies evident in the RTO’s LLN classes are as equally likely to be the result of repeated practises (Beder et al, 2001, p.99) as are inquiry PBL elements.

Program contractual conditions for students to achieve one learning outcome  in every 100 hours of attendance, is a pattern perpetuating failure. Teachers A and C commented on the difficulties they experience in complying to this condition as their students had limited or no academic achievement in the schooling system. For some LLN students their self-identity within an educational setting is borne out of their previous schooling experiences and the conclusion that they weren’t able to achieve at school transfers to a belief that they are not academically smart (Knowles, 1988, p.46). From the author’s experience, and Knowles discussion, learning barriers can be a product of negative events or teacher/peer interactions during their schooling, and not an innate disability. This point was raised by Teacher A in reference to the timeframe for assessments in the national program.

“Assessment for the program is ridiculous. Every client, every 100 hours, they’re not robots and most of the students had problems at school because of learning difficulties, or maybe because of school. Who knows! All I know is the stress levels are major and I can’t see how I can assess and fully introduce PBL. We now have assessment tasks that are contextualised to our site, and simply, it is the best option for me. I know what you are going to say, but I have to teach the students specific skills and content. I’ve seen and learnt many things from what I’ve done with PBL and I will introduce it again. At the moment though, I need to keep my sanity.”

From examining educational and work backgrounds, Beder and Medina (2001, p.99) concluded the repeated patterns of practice which maintained a teacher-oriented or authoritarian teaching style were a direct result of the teachers’ experiences. They came to the conclusion the pattern was cyclically replicating personal learning and their own teaching experiences in both the primary and secondary schooling sectors. Considering the nature of fractal mechanisms, elements of inquiry PBL can provide a foundation for the establishment of new patterns in order to engage both learners and teachers in a dynamic learning system.

Synchronisation of inquiry PBL and Chaos

Chaos Theory, as a dynamic system, has provided a strong framework for reviewing the introduction of PBL into LLN classes in a state-based RTO. These principles furthered the author’s understanding of PBL elements by illuminating focal points within these components, and, for this exercise provided a reflective framework to support a significant evaluation.

Acknowledging feedback and anecdotal evidence obtained from a trial group, composed of only three teachers, and teachers who attended professional development (N=47) introducing PBL strategies, restricted qualitative data collection of approximately 8% of the RTO’s LLN teaching staff. However, outcomes from this report strongly signal the predominant, authoritarian teaching practices which may limit learners’ capability to effectively participate in future training, education or work due to prescribed knowledge and skills sets which do not support transference of skills or knowledge to new contexts.

The programs objectives scaffold the Commonwealth Government’s Core Skills for Work (CSfW) framework, through development of non-technical skills within a contextualised model. The intention of this framework considers underpinning LLN skills to be greater than concrete skills and factual information, as it recognises individuals’ progress from novice to expert performers (CSfW, 2013, p.7). This progression relies upon an individual’s ability to access, assess and apply information (CSfW, 2013, p.8) and this requires higher order literacy, cognitive, affective and behavioural skills e.g. collaborative and independent problem solving and critical thinking. Beder and Medina’s conclusions (2001, p.iii) suggest the intense socialisation of teachers into teacher-centred instructional practices, regardless of their desire to change, impedes their ability to initiate learner-centred methodologies to develop higher order literacy skills. Inquiry PBL may not be a panacea for this situation, however, it does offer an alternative which directly addresses learners’ immediate and future needs with regards to learning occurring within a variety of landscapes.

Feedback from teachers indicates the actions of the author’s work team to provide professional development (PD) for a student-centred instructional methodology is a polarity to their perceived needs. A recurring theme from discussions with PD participants indicates contextualised resources is at the top of their support list, and not student attendance, behavioural management, assessment, classroom management as indicated in annual LLN teacher surveys. The author also considered this feedback in light of her bias towards PBL and inquiry methodologies, and regarded these statements as a regulating form of feedback. Interpretation of this passive resistance to change has resulted in an extension of the scope of the project to include the development of exemplar project learning materials, currently underway, within the context of guided PBL inquiry. The author has also proposed a team of teachers, currently calling for participants from across the state, to undertake ongoing inquiry PBL professional development, in order to receive and provide collegiate mentoring.

Chaos principles exist throughout nature and the acceptance they exist within teaching practices is demonstrated by the synthesis within this report. Combining these principles as an analytical tool to study teacher and learner engagement, reveals the potency of PBL as an inquiry mechanism. The author’s analysis also supports findings from the literature reviewed, and demonstrates the fractal nature of teaching instructions and learner outcomes as based on these practices within the LLN sector. However, the butterfly effect is discernible, with Teacher A confirming her intention to adopt and incrementally implement inquiry PBL elements in her teaching practices. Teacher B has extended the parameters of her already existing project structures to include aspects of PBL elements e.g. driving questions to focus projects, however, Teacher C has left the RTO and returned to a school environment.

The cathartic nature of this review has strengthened the author’s argument for learner-centred practices to be the change factor introduced into LLN practices within the RTO. The ripple effect of the flapping butterfly wings, in conjunction with the other principles of a dynamic learning system, is already evident within this area. The challenge is to develop and maintain support for the effects to build into cyclonic proportions.


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[1] Australian Core Skills Framework – ACSF

[2] No librarian at the site C and limited access to the librarian at site B.

[3] Mezirow, 1997, p.7

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