12 'Lesson Hacks' to Nurture Inquiry


Using a more inquiry based approach to teaching and learning can be an overwhelming challenge. There is a lot to it. For some of us, inquiry challenges our very identity as a teacher and throws into question our approaches to classroom design, planning, assessment, curriculum ‘coverage’ to name a few. One way to manage the feeling of being ‘swamped by expectation’ as you journey toward inquiry can be to focus your attention on individual teaching-learning engagements.  Cliched as it sounds, taking one step at a time or changing just one thing makes a lot of sense.  

So here are some of my favourite ‘lesson hacks’ for inquiry. I use the term ‘lesson’ very loosely.  Not all learning engagements work this way. Throughout the week, kids and teachers are often in the flow of great, self-directed routines that need little change. The ‘hacks’ I am referring to here might come in handy when facilitating small or whole group workshop/clinic/introductory sessions. 

Hack #1 Flip it

One of the most powerful lesson hacks I know is to subvert the standard sequence of ‘I do it (modelling, explaining) ‘we do it (practicing examples together) you do it (independent application).  This reflects the important model ‘gradual release of responsibility’ model but it can mean that opportunities for learners to actually get on with it are limited.  By the time we have explained and modelled, there may be much less time than desirable for the learner to figure things out for themselves.   So try it in reverse: YOU do it, we do it…then, if necessary, I’ll do it.  This flipped lesson means we are releasing responsibility more quickly to students. This is usually in the form of a challenge or problem. Time is spent individually or in groups grappling with the problem before coming together (we do it) and sharing possible solutions and processes.  As students are working with the challenge, teachers are listening, prompting, observing, nudging – stepping in where necessary. The direct, instructional work tends to happen towards the end of a session and is based on the teachers’ analysis of what has and has not been uncovered by the learners.  In this kind of lesson, the learner is doing the heavy lifting.  There is a stronger focus on investigation and generation of questions. Some great examples of the flipped lesson can be found in the collection of ‘3 act Maths lessons’ here: https://whenmathhappens.com/3-act-math/

Hack #2  Turn your intention into a question

I have written about this in more detail previously.  We know that it is important for kids to understand the ‘why’ of a lesson and one way to do this is to share a learning intention with them. A simple hack to reflect a stronger inquiry stance is to turn that intention into a question. So instead of  ‘We will learn about the factors that influence people’s opinions about places’  we might pose the question “How do we form our opinions about places?” or ‘Why do people feel the way they do about places?”   As soon as we pose the intention as a question, we invite speculation, first ideas and prior knowledge. The question suggests that the lesson will be an act of investigation. Learning becomes an act of exploration rather than passive reception.

Hack #3 Split screen your intention

In addition to the question as an intention, we can add a vital layer to any lesson by raising the status of processes and dispositions alongside the ‘content’.  A PE lesson focussing on designing a sequence of movements for dance/gymnastics might highlight the use of creative thinking or turn taking when working in a team. Make this explicit and have the lesson be as much about inquiring into the HOW as the WHAT. Guy Claxton refers to this as the 'split screen' approach.

Hack #4 Co construct success criteria

Another common ‘move’ in a lesson plan is to tell students what we expect from them in the form of success criteria often prefaced by the phrase:  “What I am looking for…”   When a lesson has a stronger inquiry stance, criteria for ‘success’ is co-constructed. Rather than the teacher announcing criteria at the beginning of a lesson, students gradually figure out and help decide what might constitute evidence of understanding/mastery during the lesson and help build  the criteria over time. This approach allows students far more agency and brings an inquiry stance to the process of determining evidence of success.

Hack #5 Ditch the intentions. (HERESY!!)

Another lesson hack that can yield a stronger inquiry stance is to leave out the ‘learning intention’ altogether.  There are times when simply jumping IN to the experience is far more engaging and thought provoking than announcing the purpose in advance. When your classroom community has a strong, learning centred culture, your learners will trust that the experience is purposeful. Learning intentions  -even as questions– can have the effect of unnecessarily narrowing the focus. As the experience unfolds, the learners themselves can contribute what THEY see is the learning intention behind it. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised. 

Hack #6 Unplan

One of the real skills of using an inquiry based approach to teaching on a day to day basis is to develop the art of being more responsive. While thinking ahead and carefully designing experiences is a critical part of good teaching, there is also value in staying more open to possibility.  When we resist the urge to plan a session in minute detail – we can be more responsive to what is happening (rather than what we want or assume to be happening).  Leave some space. Unplan.

Hack #7 Provoke

Nothing breeds inquiry like mystery, uncertainty – even tension.  Consider beginning a lesson with an unexpected move (related to the content of the lesson).  One of my favourite provocations happened last year when a group of brave teachers at one of my partner schools in Melbourne deliberately provoked thinking by beginning their day eating junk food – telling the kids they had not had time for breakfast!  The students were variously outraged, concerned, envious, puzzled, nonchalant – but in every case, the provocation stirred up amazing conversation, questions s and debate about nutrition and wellbeing. This got an inquiry journey off to a fabulous start.  (The teachers, by the way, did ‘fess up’ to having staged their unusual breakfast choices!)

Hack #8 Hands down

This is hardly a new hack but such an important one to remind ourselves.  Wherever possible, helo your kids learn how to have ‘hands down’ conversations. Instead of hands up – have them turn and talk to each other before (if necessary) inviting some to share with the group.  

Hack #9 THEY choose

This is an easy hack to build into any lesson.  Ask yourself where you could provide more choice in the learning experience. It may be choice about WHAT students will focus on, HOW they might share their thinking, WHERE they might choose to do their learning, WITH WHOM they will sit/work with or even WHEN across a learning engagement they might work on particular tasks. It might be a combination of all of these things.  Choice is a powerful way to help build responsibility and ownership and encouraged the learner to inquire into their own learning needs.

Hack #10 Stand up. Move.

While not particular to inquiry, there is no doubt that being more physically active in a learning experience can bring heightened engagement and even offer the learner new perspectives. If you often end a lesson with a share time  - try standing in circle to share.  Conduct small group brainstorms on vertical surfaces rather than at tables. I LOVE the classrooms I work in that have whole walls covered in whiteboard paint. Get rid of some furniture so it is easy for your kids to MOVE around the room.  Go outside.  

Hack #11. Slow down

Perhaps one of the most challenging ‘hacks’ to pull off.  Inquiry – true, deep, wide inquiry takes time.  Learners need to wander and wonder. We need to be able to have conversations that go beyond the Ask-Answer-Move-On variety.  Slowing down often needs to be a deliberate, intentional act.  Intentionally give your kids more time to discuss something, more time to think, more time to decide where they might do their learning, more time to select resources.  Classrooms are so often drenched in an atmosphere of business.  Disrupt the rush. Slow down. Breathe.

Hack #12.  Change your position

Over the years, I have become increasingly uncomfortable when seated on a chair, looking down at a group of students ‘at my feet’.   One simple hack that often immediately changes the atmosphere and quality of conversation is to seat yourself within a circle of learners.. You may all be on chairs, on the floor, on cushions but you are not physically ‘above’ the learners.   When the classroom furniture is designed in a way that easily allows us to sit/stand WITH learners (around tables, in a small group ‘nook’, on bean bags , etc….) it makes for more flexible and responsive teaching. Try changing your position in the space  -  we all become creatures of habit and a disruption to where we usually sit/stand can bring a simple, refreshing change.


Inquiry classrooms (and inquiry teachers)  are constructed day by day, session by session.  Being conscious of the choreography of our teaching and the degree to which it amplifies or diminishes inquiry is a powerful way to build culture over time.  These ‘hacks’ are simple but by making one change, we can gain insights to which we have been previously blind.

Have you recently to promote more inquiry?  What did you notice?

Just wondering…

An ocean of inquiry...

I have been fortunate enough to spend the last three weeks or so living by the sea in a coastal town in which I spent many glorious childhood summers. In fact, like many others, the sea has always been a part of my life. It is palpably restorative and endlessly fascinating. Some of my most creative ideas have come to me while walking the cliff tops of this coastal inlet- I feel indebted to the coast in a way I can't explain. 

So it has been a source of acute sadness this summer to notice how bereft the beaches here seem to be of once abundant shells and other signs of marine life. Sure - there is still lots to see and discover but it seems every one of the favourite places I return to are denuded, pale imitations of what they once were. I am trying to tell myself that this is all part of the cycles of nature...things come and go, tides shift populations, its seasonal, it's because of all the tourists.....but I fear something far more worrying is happening. I am deeply troubled.

For many years, I worked in the environmental education movement and developed curriculum programs for schools. My favourite thing to encourage kids to inquire into remains the natural world. It is one of the very best contexts for true inquiry. This year, I feel the strongest urge I have felt for a long time to use my influence as a teacher to help connect kids with this beautiful, precious planet. And how easy it is to do that. SO many kids tell me they want to learn about animals - about nature, about living things. But it is not just learning ABOUT the natural world that is important - it is learning IN it and FOR it...combining knowledge, feeling, experience and action. 

The best way to encourage people to work together to care for our precious oceans is to help them discover the ocean's beauty and its power - and to help kids understand just how connected to and dependent we are on the sea. 

One of my favourite inquiry questions is just that: "How are we connected to the sea?" This is as important a question for kids living in coastal areas as it is for those that might be in a remote inland town far, far away from the ocean. We are all connected. 

If you are thinking ahead about your year... and the kinds of inquiries you might engage your students in, consider an inquiry into the ocean - and our connection to it - as one of your learning contexts. Resources abound. There is no shortage of experts and organisations and plenty of rock pools still left to gaze upon in wonder.  If you are asking yourself : What's worth inquiring into?  You might find this video clip helps answer that question. How will your teaching contribute to the imperative to care for this precious blue planet in 2018? 

Just wondering...


My favourite inquiry journeys of 2017....

In the final weeks of 2017, I found myself (as I always do in early December) working with my local partner schools to consider possible journeys of inquiry for their students in 2018. Over the years, we have established quite a thorough process to do this ‘projection’ work – drawing not only on curriculum requirements but considering local and global issues/challenges, teacher perspectives on the needs of their community of learners and of course, the students’ own reflections on the year as well as their ‘hopes and dreams’ for the year ahead. It is always an exciting time – a time full of promise and possibility.  In these schools, we don't have a fixed scope and sequence. The curriculum itself provides us with a sequence of achievement standards.  With these standards in mind, we then develop contexts for inquiry on a year by year basis.

The process of projecting for a year of inquiry depends a great deal on our reflections on the year that has passed. We have to ask ourselves: What has worked best? How do we know? What contexts have offered the most productive and engaging opportunities for inquiry?  Identifying the features of the inquiries that have been the most successful helps us make better decisions about contexts in the year to come. 

The end of the year is full of ‘best of’ lists. So I thought I would add mine….here are my ‘best inquiry journeys for 2017” …albeit, given it is 2018 now,  a little late! 

Oh…and by the way, this is not in any kind of order!!

1.     How can we design for our wellbeing?

Year 5/6 inquiry students at Newport Lakes Primary School began the year by inquiring into the impact that design can have on people’s wellbeing. This meant that the two big concepts of ‘design’ and ‘wellbeing’ each required investigation. The inquiry worked towards the creation and pitching of design ideas for classroom spaces that would promote wellbeing and, therefore, be beneficial for learning.

2.     What makes a healthy habitat?

The year ¾ students at Ringwood Heights Primary school began their year with a focus on the concept of habitat.  The school is surrounded by bushland and has access to a nearby nature sanctuary.  Linking with local naturalists, they inquired into the plants and animals of the local area and considered how ‘healthy’ the school ground habitat was.  The concept was then transferred to the classroom – as a habitat for learning, what does it need to nurture growth?

3.     How can we teach others about this special place?

Mother Teresa Primary School in Craigeburn, Melbourne has a unique resource in its grounds - an old homestead ‘Olrig’ build in late 1800’s.  Jess, a teacher at the school, worked with a group throughout the year on an inquiry into the history of Olrig and how to communicate what they had learned to others that might visit the homestead. The children collaborated with sign-writers, designers and historians.  The building now has a beautiful display of information for visitors that has been designed by the children themselves – an amazing achievement.

4.     Why do people play?

While Jess worked with her group on designing displays for the Olrig homestead, the younger learners (P-2) at Mother Teresa School were busy inquiring into play – into their own play and into the way people in other cultures played.  The creative thinking required for the task of designing play spaces was marvellous.

5.     Can we create our own restaurant?

Year 5/6 students at Ringwood Heights Primary School have had a long standing tradition of bringing food to share each day in the weeks leading up to the year 6’s graduation. Whilst this daily ‘feast’ was fun – it was largely something done by parents and staff felt it lacked real meaning for the students. Inspired by the success of Kate Haywood and her team at St Clare's Primary School, the team brought the concept of creating a restaurant to the children and it was met with huge enthusiasm.  This inquiry connected with a multitude of key curriculum outcomes.  Students investigated restaurants in their local community and talked with owners and staff to learn more about the systems that are needed to make a restaurant function.  Working with a limited budget, they examined menus and had to consider the economics behind food they wanted to make.  Each class decided to focus on a cuisine connected with a particular culture which meant investigating the culture itself and designing their restaurant in a way that reflected and celebrated that culture. Preparing food also requires a knowledge of hygiene and health regulations.   Committees were formed to oversee bookings, décor, advertising, wait-staff, menu design and food preparation. Online booking systems were set up to manage timing and numbers. I interviewed students about their experience of this inquiry and they were effusive in their belief that they were learning skills that were critical for their learning both now and in the future.  The restaurant experience was a fitting way to farewell the year 6’s and completely student driven.

6.     Bin Chickens: what’s the problem?

If I had to pick a favourite…..I have such a soft spot for this inquiry!  Christie Goeldner at Graceville School in Queensland did a beautiful job of noticing an opportunity for inquiry that was both unexpected and highly relevant to the lives of her year 4 students. When the children started complaining about the way the Ibis were trying to steal their lunches in the school yard, she saw a way to help them understand something about the relationship between humans and animals, about adaptation, animal behavior and habitat loss.  The inquiry into the problem of the ‘Bin Chickens’ was simply wonderful to witness – especially the very natural context it provided for the development of true research skills such as close observation, note taking and data collection.

7.     Let’s get down to business…would you buy that? Why?

At St Fidelis Primary School, the bi-annual fete provided a great opportunity for active student involvement.  The year 5/6 students were challenged (shark tank style) to develop a product or a service that could be sold at the fete. Teams worked together towards an opportunity to pitch their idea to a panel including parents, teachers and others. As part of this process students had to investigate all they could about how people successfully build businesses around products and services – the processes they go through and the various factors that need to be considered. Working within a budget – each team needed to be able to explain how they would create the product, design the stall, market their wares and make a profit. The inquiry – and the fete – were wildly successful.

8.     Why are museums important – and can we curate our own?

The year ¾ students at Roberts McCubbin Primary School spent a day at Melbourne museum…not so much to learn about the objects displayed but about the way the museum itself was curated. They examined the exhibits through the lens of designers and eductors. Why? They knew they had the challenge of creating their own museum at the end of the term to which their parents and other children would be visiting in order to learn more about an aspect of science. One of my favourite moments of the year was visiting these young curators as they set their exhibits up  - using the criteria they had constructed during their inquiry.  Their exhibits were eye-catching, instructive and interactive and they had an absolute ball welcoming visitors to their museum.

9.     What’s my story – what’s your story?

Year P-2 students again at Mother Teresa Primary School began their year by inquiring into the life stories of families they formed their community. Increasingly, this school includes families who are refugees or recent arrivals to Australia. This cultural diversity was a great opportunity for story telling and sharing.  The stories the children had gathered were shared back with parents and friends in various forms on an open night.

10.  What’s really on your plate?

At Elsternwick primary School, year ¾ children used food as the basis for investigating the way substances can be changed.  Although chemical science was the focus, this inquiry also required learning how to critically read packaging and advertising of food. A simple packet of dried noodles with flavouring stimulated great curiosity about what we are actually eating when we consume processed food.  Visits to markets and opportunities to analyse food as it is cooked and prepared not only developed scientific inquiry skills but stimulated thinking about nutrition, advertising, packaging design and culture.

11.  What does it mean to adapt?

Also at Elsternwick primary school, the year 5/6 teachers helped students gain a deeper understanding of the concept of adaptation by exploring it through both an historical and scientific lens. As students investigated the challenges of life in colonial Australia they were asked to consider ways in which people adapted (or tried to adapt ) to a very different land. The inquiry then worked its way to the natural adaptation of plants and animals to changing environments. What was impressive about this inquiry was the way in which the teachers used a conceptual umbrella to link quite specific content from the curriculum  - allowing learners to go wide and deep at the same time.

12.  Why is music important?

At St Clare’s Primary School, the year ¾ students spent several weeks explrong the role music plays in our lives. This was a joyous and rich inquiry that allowed for the easy natural integration of the arts, design, intercultural understandings, history and more.  A culturally diverse school, the inquiry easily involved parents as children interviewed them about their favourite music now and in their childhood and about music that had significance in their culture. The role of songs in shaping ideas and the ways people compose music were just some of the avenues of investigation.  This inquiry lent itself very easily to students creating their own music for a range of purposes.

There are so many other journeys I could share with you!  These are simply those that have stuck with me as I sit here, reflecting on the year that was. In amongst these big inquiries were, of course, lots of small, spontaneous inquiries that may have lasted a day, a morning, a lesson. One of these that springs to mind is when 5 year olds at St Peter Chanel Primary School in Deer Park became unexpectedly fascinated by old cameras and were then given opportunity to explore how cameras had changed over time.

Looking back over these wonderful learning journeys, several common features stand out. And there are no surprises here!  For the most part, the inquiries:

  • were authentic! Kids investigating something for a real purpose – with a genuine high-stakes outcome (often known from the outset)
  • were integrative. The journeys described allowed a range of learning areas to be meaningfully connected
  • involved experts from outside the school – this meant kids having to communicate with people in various fields
  • were shared – the learning gained from the inquiries went beyond the classroom and was shared with the wider community in some way
  • were emergent – these inquiries could not be planned in detail. The authentic nature of the journey meant that teachers and learners had to think on their feet and plan as the inquiry unfolded.
  • got kids out of the classroom visiting restaurants, going to the museum, the local nature reserve…many of these inquiries depended on experience beyond the classroom walls.
  • were often ‘design’ focussed.

Using an inquiry based approach to teaching and learning is multi-faceted.  At its heart, inquiry is a stance – it’s about how we talk to kids and how we think about learning. It is also about how we plan and the contexts we both recognise and create in which powerful inquiry can thrive. These contexts can be highly personal (one child’s investigation into their passion) and they can also be shared contexts that bring learners together under a common question. These shared inquiries form a powerful ‘backbone’ of the primary classroom.

As you think ahead to 2018 and the journeys in which you may help guide your young learners…what is worth inquiring into? What lessons can you learn from journeys of the past year?


Just wondering…  


The art of inquiry: 10 practices for the inquiry teacher


Of all the blog posts I have written,  the one that has been read, reposted and mentioned most often- is “How do inquiry teachers teach?” http://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/blog/2014/02/21/how-do-inquiry-teachers-teach

That was back in 2014. In the intervening years, more and more of my work has centred on the question of how.  Looking back, it strikes me that this work has provided an important balance of emphasis.  I am passionate about designing (planning) for inquiry. In order to understand the demands and possibilities of inquiry, it is vital to build capacity around the planning table -  for teachers to know how to design for inquiry through conceptual, rich, authentic experiences and the use of a cycle or framework that scaffolds thinking from the known to the new. This work is about going beyond ‘planning activities’ and remains an essential element of the expertise necessary to use inquiry effectively.  But without a parallel focus on pedagogy, the application of our plans to the classroom can fall well short of our intentions. In the end, it is the way we teach that makes the most difference to learning.  I have been avidly reading my advance copy of Guy Claxton’s wonderful new book “The Learning Power Approach” and this really resonated with me:

"How we teach slowly shapes the way young people respond to the unknown – to change, challenge, complexity and uncertainty….Our teaching can steer them toward becoming more positive, confident, and capable in the face of difficulty. OR it can steer them toward becoming more timid, dogmatic and insecure."  (Claxton, 2018: 34)

What we teachers  DO, SAY and think matters. More than any program or unit plan.

Over the last few years, I have had the joy of collaborating with hundreds of teachers in a quest to dig deeper into the pedagogy of inquiry.  We have watched each other at work, co-taught and stripped lessons back to the minutiae of instructional practices.  Informed by some of the work of Hattie, Marzano, Johnson, Dweck and others  I have been gradually building up a more cohesive repertoire of key practices to which I return often. 

So a new book is on its way!  This book is based on 3 years of observation, experimentation and research into the essential practices of the inquiry teacher. (Like giving birth, each book I have written has been followed with the words “I am never doing that again.”  But the memory of the pain fades and the urge to write, create, design and share returns!!!)

I am doing something I have not done before.  I am using this post to share the bones of the book - the essential framework of the practices. And I would love feedback.  I’ve been playing around with these words/phrases for nearly 3 years now. I have tweaked, changed, added, removed along the way. My intention is to capture the essence of the practices in a key word or phrase. The detail and the practical ‘how to’ will be in the book -  but this is the essence.

The practices reflect what we have noticed when teaching 4-12 year olds. This is my area of experience and expertise and although my instincts tell me much is transferable, I acknowledge that the source of this work is extensive, long term work in the early-childhood through to primary setting. I don’t have the consistent, lived experience of working with secondary school students (although taught in a University for 10 years)  so I am not going to profess that these practices are the right fit – but it would be interesting to hear....

Ten Practices of the Inquiry Teacher

(not really in order...)

1. Cultivate curiosity

Inquiry teachers provoke, model and value curiosity – and they do this in a myriad of ways. Curiosity is nurtured through the way the learning space is curated, the kinds of questions asked, the extent to which the learners’ questions are valued and through the deliberate, infectious modelling of curiosity by the teacher themselves.  

2. Question

We all agree that questions lie at the heart of true inquiry.  Inquiry teachers elicit learner’s questions and often use these to help drive learning encounters. But the role of the question in the inquiry classroom goes far deeper than displaying a wonderwall. Inquiry teachers know how to ask the right questions. They use questioning to guide the learner to think deeply. They ask more than they tell. Inquiry teachers question what they and others think  - they question their own practice on a regular basis. 

3. Connect

Perhaps the most powerful word in this suite of practices. Inquiry teachers are all about connection. They design journeys of inquiry with and for learners that help them see connections across learning areas and between school learning and the world beyond school. Inquiry teachers value the connections they have with others – students, colleagues and the broader community. They teach kids how to collaborate as they investigate problems, projects and passions.  

4. Release

I offer this word cautiously.  I prefer it to let go, it is more like letting out as one does a kite string. Sometimes this is gradual, sometimes this is immediate but for learners to take a true inquiry stance to their learning, teachers need to release power and allow them to explore, figure out and make meaning. Not by themselves, but for themselves.  Inquiry teachers take risks. While they plan thoroughly, they are prepared to release themselves from the plan and take a different path. Inquiry teachers design tasks that allow the learners to do the heavy lifting.

5. Keep it real

When I talk to kids in schools about the learning experiences that they remember most fondly, it is always the real ones. Learners crave authenticity and purpose. Inquiry teachers know how to use the school, local and global community as contexts for investigation. Whether it is inquiring into how to design and grow a sustainable garden, what to do about the car parking issue at pick up time, or collaborating with a scientists on the other side of the world, learners value opportunities to inquire into things that matter to them and their community.

6. Notice

Inquiry teachers observe, notice, reflect and respond.  They bring an inquiry stance to their observations of and conversations with learners. They take time to notice whats going on  and to reflect on what they see and hear. And they notice themselves. They deliberately slow down instruction to notice the way students are responding.  Inquiry teachers are intentional, observant and responsive.

7. Grow Learning Assets

Taking an inquiry approach to learning means drawing on ones capacity as a researcher, a thinker, a self-manager, a communicator and a collaborator.  Teachers who use an inquiry based approach understand that the power lies in the process. They work hard to privilege the process of learning. They invite learners to inquire into learning itself and know that it is ultimately the skills and dispositions of the learner that dissolve the boundaries between school and life beyond school.

8. Play

Inquiry teachers understand the power of purposeful play. They know that all senses are involved in learning.  And they know that play is not just for young learners. Time to play – to experiment, to tinker, to play with ideas benefits all learners. Inquiry teachers are not afraid to ‘play with ideas’ – to go outside…literally and figuratively.

9. Think Big

Inquiry teachers keep their eye on the bigger picture. They avoid ‘activities’ or ‘topics’ for their own sake – inquiry journeys are ultimately about working towards conceptual understanding.

10. Get Personal

Inquiry teachers inquire into the lives and passions of their learners. They provide opportunities for learners to follow some paths that matter to them and encourage each learner to set personal goals. Time is made for learners to explore questions of significance to them and an effort is made to help learners regularly inquire into themselves as learners. 

So...there they are. The 10 practices as of Nov 25th, 2017!  Would love your thoughts as I continue to write the book. What do inquiry teachers...do?

Just wondering .... 

The gift of presence: inquiry and being 'in the moment'

One of the most powerful opportunities for teacher inquiry into inquiry is to locate at least some of our professional learning in the classroom itself. I am fortunate to have many opportunities to regularly teach alongside teachers who observe, question and reflect both during and after the session. These conversations are almost always rich, challenging and satisfying. Locating our professional inquiry in the classroom brings us to the heart of what (and why) we do what we do.   I am used to being observed as I teach and I think it has a positive effect on my teaching.  I am more conscious of the 'moves' I am making and more intentional overall.  

Over the years of ‘modelling’ inquiry-based teaching, I have noticed recurring themes arising in our debriefs. I don't always get it right- far from it, but one of the most pervasive themes relates to pace and timing. I often hear:

“The kids seemed to have a lot of time to think and talk”

“It felt relaxed”

“Even though the kids were challenged, they did not seem stressed…”

“There was an atmosphere of calm”

“The strategy was actually quite simple but so much came out of it…”

“ Everything just feels slower and more considered”

As teachers committed to a more inquiry based approach, we all know how important it is to be truly present as we teach.  Inquiry is a stance - so we need to have a mindset that permits us to observe and listen.  When I am working with a group of children in this ‘lab site’ context, I feel incredibly present. I can activate my inquiry stance with relative ease asking myself continually ‘what am I seeing/hearing? What am I noticing? What should we do next?” I don't always get there - sometimes the pressure of being observed can have a negative effect or I fail to respond to my inner voice telling me the strategy I have chosen won't work and I should try another -but most of the time.....

I can recall days of teaching when I was far from truly present.  I was so often thinking about the next thing or about whether we were going to ‘get it done’ in time for the next thing! And, as a younger teacher I was worried about management. I needed things to feel controlled and orderly and then often meant pushing through and ignoring the small voice that questioned my motives.   Although this is still a struggle (I can feel that sense of urgency creeping in when I am running teacher workshops and the clock is ticking!) I am so much less bothered by the clock these days.   Maybe it is one of the benefits of experience (read - getting old) but I know the sky won’t fall in if we don’t finish. I know less is more. I know it is more about the journey than the destination. I understand more keenly now, the gift of presence.

So, what gets in the way of simply being in the here and now?  What stops us from being truly present as teachers – to be right there, in the moment with our learners?

This issue came up with a group of teachers I had the pleasure of working with at Mulgrave School in Vancouver, Canada.   We wondered whether, to engage kids – we can sometimes lapse into ‘edutainment’, creating a kind of frenetic energy (albeit fun!) that gets in the way of reflection and processing. Our kids become dependent on US to motivate and energise so we become even more panicked about not dropping the (juggling?) ball!

We all acknowledged that if the daily timetable is fragmented and overcrowded, we easily become driven by the clock rather than our learners. When we feel pressured for time, we literally speed up. We speak faster, we hurry students and give less time for thinking.  Distracted by the thought of ‘the next thing’ we lose the opportunity to be present in THIS moment.

The wonderful conversation got me thinking. Why is it so hard to slow down and be in the moment? Like the ‘slow food’ movement that pushes against the unhealthy impact of the ubiquitous fast food industry, The ‘slow schools’ movement is in direct response to our need to take time to really listen and observe as we teach. To be an inquirer.  

What else stops us from stopping?

We over plan. Perhaps we get excited by a bunch of creative ideas, perhaps because we worry we won’t have enough for kids to ‘do’.  But the reality is that less really IS more.

And we plan too far ahead.  Detailed, long range planning can sometimes be useful but it can also mean we are far less responsive than we should be.  When we discipline ourselves to plan in response to our learners, we use our time to notice, document and analyse what we see and hear.

We make the mistake of thinking collaborative planning is about all ‘doing’ the same activities all of the time. So, we panic when we have not kept up with everyone else. The activities drive us – not the students or the learning.

We sometimes focus more on the ‘doing’ than the learning. We can be too product-oriented meaning our lessons can pressure kids to get things finished.  We speed things up and forget to notice what’s happening NOW.

We forget to give ourselves time to reflect, to decompress and to slow down.  Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do to be more present in our teaching is to practice the kind of self-talk we might tell our students to employ.  Ironically - as a self-confessed 'busy' person, this is something I need to work on.  

I recognise that it is far easier for me to be truly ‘present’ when I am in the rarefied context of modelling a lesson.  It is a true gift to be able to focus on so intently on what is happening as a lesson unfolds which, in turn, activates a stronger inquiry stance.  

How do we help ourselves be truly present as we teach? To slow down, to notice and to respond? As it says in a popular meme doing the rounds at the moment...how do we be less mind-full and be more mindful? 

Just wondering…

In praise of 'AND'....

Suffice to say, the gap between this and the last post is a tad embarrassing.  Miniposts in Facebook don’t quite do it but at least there is some excuse there!

This particular post has been a while in the making. And it still doesn’t feel quite right. But, uncharacteristically, I have decided simply to put it out there in all it’s not-quite-there-yet glory. I have made so many attempts to write posts about inquiry and evidence of effectiveness or about the troubling characterization of inquiry as a kind of ‘teacher-free;’ approach.  I find the process of writing about this enervating. I am not sure why.  Anyway…..would love your thoughts….

I did my initial teacher training in the early eighties (yep – I’m THAT old!).  At the time, the work of Donald Graves was beginning to have a strong influence on our thinking about the teaching of writing.  I was so inspired by the prospect of working with children as genuine authors.  I learned about the importance of rigorous drafting, conferring and reflecting in the writing process. I knew the importance of conducting what we called ‘clinics’ - small group, targeted, instructional sessions to address specific needs and issues we noticed as analysed children’s writing. In these clinics, we focussed on aspects of punctuation and grammar needed to strengthen the writing.  Along with Donald Graves, I was introduced to the work of Lorraine Wilson (here in Australia) who championed the power of language experience in growing the young reader and writer.  I learned about listening. And I learned about documenting the language children generated through experience and how to ‘harvest’ that language to stretch and build vocabulary and phonemic awareness. I learned that language instruction worked best when children had ownership over what they were reading and writing and when there was true purpose and authenticity in my approach.  I also took it for granted that explicit teaching of phonics, punctuation and grammar were part and parcel of what it meant to be a whole language teacher. It was a no brainer. Or so I thought.

I still remember the bewilderment I felt when, early into my career, I started hearing people identify ‘whole language’ teachers as different (in fact, in opposition) to those who ‘believed in phonics’.  Huh? I was baffled by the ‘or’ in this debate  - you either taught phonics OR you were a whole language teacher. All I had ever known was AND.  When it came to helping build children’s capacity as writers I had a holistic, integrative, learner-centred view but it included careful, strategic, explicit instruction.  This was my first experience of what I still believe to be a ‘false dichotomy’ and, as the years went by, I noticed it happening again and again.   It was either X OR Y, either black OR white. It either worked or it didn’t. It was effective or ineffective. Us or them.  I came to see that teaching was riddled with false dichotomies and unhelpful, divisive labels.  

It’s now over 30 years since I was that earnest, wide-eyed, early-career teacher but I still find myself baffled by the discourse that emphasises OR rather than AND.  I have never let go of my commitment to teaching in ways that value the experience and voice of the learner.  I agree with Kathy Short when I say that inquiry, in its most simple iteration, is a stance.  For me, inquiry is about giving the learner opportunities to question, to play and experiment, to explore, wrestle with and clarify ideas, to figure things out, to problem solve, to make connections, to reflect on and change thinking, to share and test out theories in the pursuit of making-meaning.   Does this happen in a teacher-free zone? Of course not! Do inquiry teachers simply … ‘let kids learn by themselves? Well, sometimes that is exactly what they do - but, the vast majority of the time, inquiry teachers are right there: questioning, nudging, prompting, observing, stepping in and knowing when to step out. And inquiry teachers are instructing. Rarely does a lesson goes by without a careful moment of explaining something to a student or a small group, perhaps modelling a process or demonstrating a technique. But we to do this when (and if) we assess the moment is right.  I am regularly amazed by what learners DO figure out for themselves (and how deeply satisfying that is for them)  when given the right conditions, opportunity and challenge AND I have in my repertoire, the technique of timely, direct explanations or demonstrations when required.  

So when I read statements like:   “The idea that children learn best when they discover things on their own is believed by many educators -  but it is a myth” (Visible Learning) or hear pronouncements like “evidence shows inquiry learning doesn’t work” I feel like I am back in the world of “or”.  Firstly – who are these ‘many educators’?  If a teacher truly sees inquiry learning this way, then they have much to learn about the approach!!   I work with hundreds of teachers all over the world who use inquiry based approaches in their classrooms. They would be the first to say the students are far from ‘on their own’ and they would rarely expect them to learn this way.  Like the simplistic characterization of ‘whole language’,  inquiry is too often described in somewhat monochromatic terms, eg:  kids ask questions and are then left to research their questions.  If ‘learning on their own’ means a teacher-free, entirely student-led and always-interest based approach then I would agree the impact would most often be low (that being said, let’s consider the countless things that kids learn on their own, before coming to school and outside of school!... hmmmmmm)

Can we start thinking less about the OR and more about the AND? Can we agree that it is entirely possible for classrooms to be places in which students own their learning, make choices, are deeply engaged and care about what they are learning AND interact with teachers who know when to step in and instruct, explain, demonstrate, model? Can we agree that inquiry is a teaching stance that emphasises questioning and listening AND requires some demonstration and explaining?  

A cautionary note.... I am well aware that embracing the ‘and’ can be seen as a bit of a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ position,  Make no mistake. I am not saying ‘anything goes’. The underpinnings of inquiry remain steadfastly true to a constructivist view of learning.  What I am trying to do here is, perhaps, dispel a myth about a myth. Inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning depends on thoughtful, strategic, nuanced,  and highly intentional teachers. 



Just wondering...