Leading for inquiry learning

Leading for inquiry learning

I imagine some of my blog followers may well have given up on me by now!  This is the first post I have written in a long time….you may have been wondering why….

The release of ‘The Power of Inquiry’ late last year has meant a hugely, wonderfully busy year and time has been tight.  And, in a way, I have said so much of what I wanted to share in that book.  In addition,  I restored my facebook page earlier this year and committed to using it more frequently.  I have found my urge to blog has been satisfied, to a degree, by the ‘miniposts’ I write on facebook. I have even contemplated discontinuing the blog and just using facebook and twitter.

 On reflection, however,  I see them as serving different purposes.  The facebook posts I write are useful – but often don't require me to share my thinking in real depth. They are certainly easier to write than this!  The blog is something that takes me more time to think through, compose and write. And that’s good for me.  So I am going to stick with the blog despite the growing temptation of the ‘bite-sized’ thinking that facebook requires.  I need to keep challenging myself to pause, think more, write more. I just may not post as often J

This long-time-coming post has emerged while I have been busy planning a workshop I am running in Melbourne next week.  I will be working with a big group of teachers who are interested in exploring their role as leaders in an inquiry-based context.  So much of my work is located in the classroom space and focusses on how we work with children, it has been great to stop and reflect again on ways in which we work with teachers to empower them as inquirers. 

Over time, Ihave partnered withmany schools who have been eager to embrace the philosophy and pedagogy of inquiry as a whole school approach. While I have an important role in that process,  the success of my work depends so much on those in the school who‘keep the pot boiling’ in between or following my visits. I am often intrigued (and sometimes dismayed) by the lack of real ‘take up’ in a school despite what seems to be an enthusiastic and willing response from staff.  Of course we all know that strengthening and sustaining growth in a school goes way beyond what one consultant can do.  When it boils down to it, developing inquiry as a whole school approach depends so much on the quality of the leadership in a school. When I think of the schools I work with who have really embraced and grown a culture of inquiry,  I come to the same conclusion each time. They are schools with leaders who are, in themselves, inquirers.   The ‘administrative’ team and those charged with the responsibility of guiding or facilitating collaborative planning are committed to the process and committed to nurturing the staff as learners as well as teachers.  If the classroom teacher ‘controls the climate’ of the classroom – then school leaders have the same effect on the staff . In essence, great leaders give others they work with a real sense of agency.  Hence the notion of shared/distributed leadership.  Strong inquiry schools have a distinct climate – a climate that breeds curiosity, a relentless passion for investigation and a genuine fascination with learning. It isa climate that invites connection within and across communities and that supports learners take risks.  Inquiry leaders don't want passive compliance – they want active, questioning, engaged staff who care for each other as well as their students.

So…… as I mull over the question of how to lead for inquiry and reflect on those who do it so well,  I find myself jotting down some ‘nutshell’ statements.   They are in no particular order, but are an attempt to capture the essence of what this kind of leadership is all about….

  • Relationships are at the heart of all we do.
  • Questions are the inquiry leader’s most powerful tool.
  • Inquiry leaders need to be inquirers- they need to be willing to learn, they are people with a growth mindset – they view learners ( children and adults) as potentially capable, curious and creative!
  • Wonder, joy and passion are contagious. Passionate leaders inspire passionate staff.Pedagogy – not programs – help learners develop as inquirers. Programs can support the pedagogy but attention to pedagogy comes first.
  • Nurturing all teachers as inquirers builds a strong, whole school inquiry culture.
  • Cultivating curiosity in our teachers – about the world, about their kids, about themselves and about learning is critical to the success of an inquiry school.
  • When we see teaching itself AS inquiry – we change the way we think about our work and the way we view ourselves in the classroom
  • Collaborative planning is all about inquiring into the needs and interests of our learners  - and responding accordingly
  • The principles that underpin inquiry in the classroom apply equally to teacher learning.
  • When schools see themselves as ‘communities of inquiry’ everyone is a teacher, everyone is a learner.
  • Nurturing the ‘whole teacher’  means we balance personal and professional care and build stronger, more trusting teams.
  • True collaboration requires time.  When we consciously build our skill set for effective collaboration – our planning and teaching is strengthened.
  • Effective planning for inquiry takes time – people need space and time for the kind of deeper conversations from which powerful teaching is born
  • Standards/outcomes should inform our planning rather than drive it. Our students’ needs are the drivers.
  •  It is not the leader’s role to make the plans.  Plans are powerful when they are co-constructed rather than imposed.

What are your 'nutshell statements' for inquiry leadership?

Just wondering….

If you could take just one word into the new year….what would it be?

Whether you are soon to begin a new school year or returning to school in a new calendar year, this is inevitably a time of heightened intention.  I love this ‘moment’ in time when the new and old year hinge on each other.  Reflection is made more purposeful when it casts light on the way ahead.  As a new year dawns, I can’t help but wonder about the way my thinking, my learning and my teaching will unfold.  This will be my 33rd year of teaching (how on EARTH did that happen?).  Whether teaching children, student-teachers or experienced teachers in the field I continue to love what I do and marvel at how much I learn, unlearn and re-learn each year.

As I have shared before (http://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/blog/2014/01/23/and-the-word-is)  my family and friends have a tradition of selecting a word to bring into the new year.  Just one, single word. The word provides as a kind of ‘tincture’ to the year – its purpose being to regularly nudge you along a path of your choosing – a path that strengthens you in some way.  

This year, I have chosen the word ‘space’… it works for me on a personal and professional level.   My passion for inquiry requires a lot of thinking about, providing for and curating space.  I know the best learning happens when I give myself and my students enough space to explore, grow, to think and to talk.  Clutter (physical, emotional and cognitive) feels like the antithesis of discovery and learning.  Even having some space to think, to read, to walk and to write is palpably nurturing for me as a learner as I enjoy some down time over the Christmas break.  I need space – and as a teacher, I need to provide it.

As I walked the spacious sands on a nearby beach early this morning, I pondered some single powerful words that resonate with the practice and stance of the inquiry teacher.  If you are so inclined, perhaps one of these words might act as your talisman for a wonderful year of inquiry.

Connect...If ever there was a ‘multi-purpose’ word for inquiry, this is it!  This year, help your students make connections – between ideas, between new and past experiences, between eachother and with themselves.  Make your own connections – not just within your school but with the wider community of inquiry teachers around the world. Stay connected to why you do what you do.

Wonder...No word list for inquiry would be complete without it.   Wonder fuels inquiry.  This year – commit to providing your kids with more time and reason to wonder.  Start a class wonder-journal into which you record things you have marveled at, noticed, been puzzled by.  Make your wonderwall a place for dynamic investigation. Give your kids time to explore their interests. Most of all, share YOUR wonders with your students. Be the curious, passionate learner you want to see

Open...One of the most challenging aspects of being an inquiry teacher is learning to stay open to the possibility that things may not go as planned – but it is also one of the most satisfying dispositions to build in yourself and your students.  Stay open – to new thinking, new ways of doing things, new questions. Design tasks that are open enough to allow diverse and individual responses. Open your doors. Open up your spaces. Ditch some tables. Move.

Dare... With a nod to Brene Brown, we sometimes have to ‘dare greatly’ in order to see inquiry truly flourish in our classroom.  Dare to express yourself with more candor and passion in your planning or staff meetings, dare to suggest and try new ways of doing things, dare to ditch the stuff you KNOW is a waste of time, dare to be spontaneous when you see a truly teachable moment worth inquiring into, dare to spend an entire day exploring something fascinating with your students,  dare to stop doing something you have always done just because you’ve always done it. Dare to try something that scares you a little.  Dare your students to challenge themselves, to move out of their comfort zone. Dare to help your students inquire into something you know nothing about.  Dare to question

Play...We know the value of play for learning and how vital it is that children have opportunities for the exploration and stimulation of play.  But play is not just about interacting with materials or having discovery time a couple of times a week.   Inquiry teachers help students play with ideas, play with thinking, play with words, play with possibilities. They bring a playful disposition to learning that creates a culture in which even the most challenging tasks can have a joyful element. Playfulness -  knowing how to bring a lighter touch to classroom discourse often to more sophisticated engaged thinking than the dull seriousness of an all-too-earnest conversation.  Don't lose sight of YOUR inner child. Play. Commit to learning some new circle games and play them all year.  Laugh together. Enjoy your teaching more. Enjoy your kids!

Grow...Inquiry teachers see themselves as learners.  It is our responsibility to continue to grow ourselves and our thinking along with our students. Make this a year of growth – whether you are in your first or last year of teaching.  Show your students that you too are an inquirer and that learning never stops. I am regularly stunned by conversations I have with some teachers who cannot tell me a professional book they last read, who don’t subscribe to any blogs or lists or attend any workshops other than those required of them. I don't get it.  We can ALL grow ourselves as learners more easily than we have ever been able to before.  Learn something new.  There is a world of wisdom in our pockets, at the touch of a button. Grow!

So….those are 6 words that come to mind when I think of entering the new year as an inquiry teacher.  I’ve merely scratched the surface. What’s YOUR word?


Just wondering…




Inquiry and all that jazz....

When I am not inhabiting the world of schools (which I must say takes up a good deal of my time!) I love nothing more than to immerse myself in my other passion – music.  I have adored listening to, playing and sharing music since childhood and it remains my go to activity when I have some time away from work.  I recently re-visited Brian Cambourne’s tried and true ‘conditions for learning.’  When I think about it , I can see that all those conditions for learning have been in place my whole life in relation to music.  I have been immersed in it (to the point where my siblings and I had to yell out from our bedrooms….‘can you please turn Ella Fitzgerald down we are trying to sleep!!’) I had a love of music demonstrated to me even though my parents didn’t play instruments themselves, I saw their genuine appreciation and interest every day.  I was engaged IN it by having the opportunity to explore different instruments at different times in my life.  There was an expectation that I could improve. I could experiment and approximate and learn from mistakes. I got to use music – to perform and create and of course, I had response – feedback, encouragement and advice. Without even knowing it, my parents, my school and my friends helped create the perfect recipe for a life-long love affair with all things music related.  If you have not re-visited or come across Cambourne's famous conditions – take a look and consider the degree to which your classroom and school provide them for students.

Last weekend, I took my eldest daughter to see an ensemble comprising four of the best jazz musicians around. She is an accomplished musician but has had less exposure to this genre and despite my father’s love for it,  jazz is something I appreciate but don't often choose to listen to.  I have had so many great responses to the recent blog post on ‘letting go’ I guess that post was in my mind as I watched and listened to them performing:  


Peter Johnson (Choice Words, 2004)  describes quality teaching as a kind of ‘conversational jazz’.   I have always loved the metaphor but it really came home to me on Saturday night.  Great jazz musicians , like great teachers, are improvisers.  At one point, it was obvious the pianist was doing something entirely unexpected.  The singer (highly experienced) smiled broadly and said to the audience “ah, you never know what he will do and that’s what makes it so fun”.   Like so many jazz gigs, there was a palpable sense that the musicians were thinking on their feet AND this kind of immediate, playful, ‘go with the flow’ style was what fuelled their joy and the quality of what they did.  A skilled jazz musician knows how to honour the tune AND let the tune go.  They can take a tune in all kinds of pathways and tributaries - every so often, returning to the core melody as a kind of auditory anchor.   When playing in a band, each musician has to remain acutely empathic: listening to each other, following leads, pulling back when necessary taking the spotlight for a moment but never drowning the others out.   And behind all this amazing innovation, improvisation and seemingly free, fluid performance is an incredibly deep understanding.  The melody is known inside and out: so intimately,  it can be let go.  And in letting go and branching out, in innovating and exploring new music is born.   And each performance, each rendering of the piece is unique.  Jazz is such a profound example of the way solid structure, certainty, shared agreements and routine lay the path for innovation, choice, the unexpected and the new.

Inquiry teaching can divide people in much the same way that jazz divides music lovers…I wonder if it is because we can’t cope well if we think we are leaving the familiar safe haven of our curriculum and our ‘knowns’ behind?   Of course the very best inquiry teachers are like the best jazz musicians – they bring deep understanding of their craft to the classroom, they KNOW how to teach like a skilled musician knows their instrument, they know the curriculum well enough to improvise without losing it completely and they know their kids.  They are strongly grounded in the fundamentals of quality teaching practice and so…they can improvise. Teaching becomes a form of highly sophisticated play.

And if we think of a collaborative teaching team in the way we might think of some of the very best music ensembles, each person listens with respect, steps back when needed,  gives others time to ‘solo’,  applauds their colleagues’ innovations.

How strongly do you trust pedagogical expertise?  How free do you feel to improvise and innovate?  

Just wondering…




Letting go, shedding skins and teaching as trapeze….

One of the great privileges of my job is bearing witness to the process of ‘reconstruction’ that teachers experience as they transit to more inquiry-based practice.  Becoming an inquiry teacher can mean a significant degree of ‘unlearning’ as beliefs and roles are reconsidered and re-shaped.  In a series of conversations I held with groups of teachers last week,  I asked what they were noticing about themselves and how they were changing as they engaged in a year of learning about and through inquiry.  We discussed the struggles and the joys of working this way and the new questions and goals that were emerging.  Taking time to do this – to press the pause button,  look back over the year and identify new growth makes us better teachers, I am sure of it.

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Inspiring inquiry through picture books.

"The bridge will only take you halfway there, to those mysterious lands you long to see. Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fair, and moonlit woods where unicorns run free. So come and walk awhile with me and share the twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known. But this bridge will only take you halfway there. The last few steps you have to take alone." 

—    Shel Silverstein

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Tuning in... to tuning in...

‘In pursuit of knowledge, something new is learned in pursuit of wisdom, something old is unlearned. To grow, we need to learn, unlearn and re-learn.’  Med Jones I began this week working with collaborative planning teams at St Bernadette's primary school in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The school is only a few blocks away from my childhood home (in fact I vividly remember the school office calling home on occasion when our adorable Border Collie found his way to the school ground at lunch times!) At the end of the day, I decided to take a small detour and drive past the house in which I grew up. It’s been a while since I have seen it and curiosity got the better of me.

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