Getting into the Habit of Inquiry

I have been driving about as long as I have been teaching. And that’s a long time! I still recall how exhausted I would be at the end of even a short trip in those first few weeks of getting my licence. Everything I did, every move I made in my little 1979 Honda Civic 2-door was conscious, mindful, deliberate- and slightly angst-filled.  Getting from A to B was an exercise in concentration. It took me a while to feel relaxed enough to turn on the radio or have a sustained conversation with a passenger.  Nothing was habit. Both I and my car were in ‘manual’ gear.  Some thirty years on, I enjoy driving (which is just as well as I am so often on the road) and many aspects of driving have become automatic (as has my car’s transmission!).   After years on the road I’ve developed what I hope are some good driving habits. And I don’t think too much about them.  At least not every journey and not all the time.

This analogy seemed an apt way to examine a trend I have noticed in reflective conversations following ‘labsites’ or modelled inquiry lessons.  Giving ‘fishbowl’ lessons – where teachers get to look in on an inquiry based approach in action, is one of my favourite forms of professional learning. The conversations we have after these sessions are often powerful, honest and energising.  Over the past couple of years I have begun to notice how people regularly remark on the same things:

“You position yourself at the same level as the kids – you are on the floor, at the tables, in the circle…you are at their level.”

“You don't ask for hands up – the kids talk to each other instead. ”

“ There is a lot of time to think – the pace feels slower and more relaxed”

“ You don't tell them much, you ask more than you tell”

“You use a lot of very specific language of thinking …”

You say “I wonder…” a lot!

“You let them figure things out…you keep probing”

I am not sharing these observations in a self-congratulatory way. What interests me is that much of the time, these aspects of my pedagogy are things I don't really notice. To be honest, I am not aware that I am doing them as much as I obviously am.  These things have become habit. Not doing them would feel strange and unfamiliar. Micro skills, like waiting after a question is asked or sitting amongst kids rather than in front of the group just feels right.  They are my 'go to' behaviours. If I have a conversation with children where they all put their hands up and answer in turn, I feel uncomfortable.  If I am standing at the front, looming over young children who are seated on the floor, I feel unsettled and out of my skin. Over time, these and other aspects of my pedagogy have become habit.  Having worked hard on building an inquiry-based pedagogy, this stance now feels natural. I guess I am at what some describe as the stage of ‘unconscious competence.’

Which brings me to the point of this blog post!  As I have said numerous times, inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning. It is both a stance and a useful framework to assist in the design of learning experiences.  What teachers do and say- how they behave and interact in the learning space has a huge role in determining the way kids see themselves as learners.  If we want kids to be great inquirers, our teaching habits need to nurture that.  While a lot of great work goes on when teachers project and reflect around the planning table, we strengthen our inquiry muscles through our interactions with students. Every lesson, every day gives us an opportunity to practice some of the key elements of this pedagogy such as the questioning, the pacing, the releasing of responsibility and the language of thinking. Becoming a more inquiry based teacher is, at first, like learning to drive – even harder, it can be like unlearning to drive one way and having to re-learn to drive another.  Perhaps it is a little like learning to drive on the other side of the road … the same basic moves, the same basic context but requiring a different perspective, different choreography and different cues.

And even though I have developed a strong suite of habits that position me and my learners as inquirers, there are some old habits that remain. They are for the most part dormant but can return when I feel pushed for time, when I am uncertain about my purposes, when I am challenged by a student or when I am just plain tired.  I have learned to own these moments, admit to kids and to observing teachers that I’ve made a wrong move.  I try to consciously change gears and resume the journey. Getting into new teaching habits is not easy but it can be exhilarating when we do.

So…some tips for getting into the habit of inquiry- with acknowledgement to this Lifehack blog from whom I have shamelessly stolen some headings! (

Make it daily: ‘Doing inquiry’ twice a week treats inquiry more like a subject than a pedagogical stance. It’s not enough.  If you are starting out, take just one lesson/learning experience each day, in any area, and consider how you could provide kids with more opportunity to investigate, figure out, problem solve and ask questions. 

Start simple: Inquiry is a wonderfully complex, layered approach to teaching and learning. But this can be daunting.  A great place to start is by learning more about questions and questioning. Try focussing on having kids ask questions and teaching them about questions. One step at a time.

Get a buddy: They say you are more likely to stick with a gym program if you go with someone else. Might this be true of new teaching approaches too? Find someone on staff to discuss your plans with. Watch each other teach, talk about your progress. Collaborate.

Accept your imperfections!: Don't be hard on yourself when a lesson doesn't work out or when your fine efforts to provide open ended, differentiated, challenging, authentic, problem based, higher order tasks … are met with confusion or learner indifference! It happens. Tomorrow is another day.

Remove temptation from your path.  Tear up your photo copy card. Burn their text books. Get rid of some of the tables in the room.  Or whatever your teaching equivalent is of ‘don't have chocolate in the house.’

Associate with role models:  stay connected with others trying to work in the same way. If they are not in your school, use a digital PLN. Facebook and twitter abound with enthusiastic inquiry teachers who will happily keep you energised and motivated!

Write it down. Say it out loud: share your intentions with your kids and colleagues.  This way you are not only accountable to yourself - you are accountable to others. For example, you might say to your kids “I really want to get into the habit of giving you more thinking time. I am going to be trying some new ways of asking questions and having conversations with you…”

Know the benefits.  Good habits are formed when we truly believe in the results they will bring us. Read.  Know why you are doing what you are doing and return to those reasons when it becomes challenging or frustrating.

Persist.  Working in new ways as a teacher is not just about changing our own habits. The way we behave has a symbiotic relationship with our students’ behaviour.  Our habits perpetuate theirs and vice versa. If we are in the habit of asking closed, leading, shallow questions – students form the habit of responding with limited, ‘teacher-pleasing’, shallow answers!  Unlearning is uncomfortable – but the new learning and the new way of being is worth it.

We become inquiry teachers by teaching for and through inquiry. Kids develop their skills and dispositions by being given plenty of opportunities to inquire. These opportunities are available to us across the day whether we are running a math workshop, taking a PE lesson outdoors, reading from a class novel or hanging out with kids in a maker space.  I know it is a slightly glib phrase but I can’t help but say it again – inquiry is a way of being. 

And one final note. Unconscious competence is an important state to reach because it allows an ease of being, less energy expenditure and a flow state.  But it also, of course, has its pitfalls. The reflective conversations I have with teachers and kids about my teaching help me return to ‘conscious’ competence – a state we need to be in in order to teach others. Being highly conscious, at times, of the teaching moves we are making can help us sharpen our skill set and remain ever vigilant about self-improvement.

Much like the state I will need to be in when I teach my daughters to drive.

Are you in the habit of inquiry teaching?

Just wondering….









How are we traveling? Reflecting on the 'story so far'

In the part of the world in which I live (Melbourne, Australia), we are enjoying the early days of Autumn. The weather is still warm but the evenings are cooler, the mornings crisper and there is no doubt that summer is gently retreating as each day becomes a fraction shorter. There’s a kind of wistfulness about Autumn that will often find me staring into a soft evening sky and wondering...

 For teachers in Australia, it is also just over  half way through the first term of the school year –or thereabouts. So perhaps it is the combination of the Autumnal skies and this ‘midpoint’ that got me writing some reflections this week.   Six or so weeks into the school year is a good time to take stock. We begin the year with great expectations, plans and goals (see my previous post).  We should ensure we take a moment to stop and acknowledge the journey so far.  Only today,  in planning with some prep teachers, I heard a teacher acknowledge her delight in noticing how readily her students are now ‘sharing their wonderings’ with each other when at the beginning of the year they were reluctant to speak out and always looking to her for approval.  It got us all pausing to look back and acknowledge where we have come to - even at this relatively early stage in the year.

 As I have said and written about many times, inquiry is not a ‘subject’.  It is a way of seeing ourselves as teachers and as learners. It is an approach that comprises a constellation of practices all, ultimately, designed to strengthen students’ sense of agency or, as Guy Claxton puts it – to ‘build learning power’. The pedagogy used within this approach can create a powerful culture of learning- but it also depends on a culture that is not only learner centred but learning centred.  Taking time to intentionally nurture that culture is critical to success.  

So – as the days shorten (at least on our side of the world) let’s take stock and reflect on the story so far. Here are some questions to help you reflect on your culture-building efforts – and perhaps to help you consider new goals to work on. Suffice to say - none of us can manage to get all of these things happening beautifully all at once!  This is an 'aspirational' check list- I hope it provides the basis for some affirmation as well as for some challenge.

Know your students:  Have you taken time to gather information about each students – their family, their passions, their goals, their cultural heritage, their favorite thing to do, their friends, their strengths, their challenges….do you know their parents? How well do you know each student?

Let them know you: Have you taken time to help your students come to know who YOU are – not just as a teacher but as a learner … as a person!

Create community:  Have you deliberately focused on creating bonds. Are your kids connecting with each other? Are they forming respectful relationships? Do they feel they are part of a ‘family’ of sorts? Is there a sense of ‘groupness’ about the class? Do you include regular activities that are all about creating connections – circle games, singing together, reading a shared novel, and sharing powerful stories.  Is the class developing as a community in which individuals feel safe to explore, take risks and share their thinking?

Learning agreements: Have you worked with students to create an agreement about the kinds of learners you all strive to be?  Is your agreement about learning- not just ‘behavior?’ Have you signed the agreement - do they see you as a learner too?

Ownership: Are you inviting your students to solve problems, make decisions, suggest and take action in relation to how your classroom will ‘work’ this year? Do your students have a voice? Who owns the learning?

Physical environment: Have you spent time with students exploring ways the classroom furniture can be arranged to best support flexibility, movement, collaboration and group conversation. Are materials and resources clearly organized to ensure students can be as independent and resourceful as possible?

Visual environment: Do your ‘walls’ help students learn?  Are displays indicative of what you value as an inquiry teacher?  What do the walls tell the visitor about the learning happening in your room? Do your walls speak of inquiry?

Beauty: Have you (and your students) considered ways to make your space a beautiful space to come to each day? Have you attended to the aesthetic? Lighting, comfortable furniture, art works – is this a space in which you would want to learn?

Questions: Have you encouraged your students to share their wonderings with you? Is there a space where those wonderings are collected/shared? Do students have opportunities to explore their wonderings?

Creating/making/tinkering: Do students get to use their hands as well as their heads in your classroom?  Are there opportunities to design, create and make – whatever the age group you are working with?

Language :Are you conscious of the language you are using? Does your language invite children to theorize, hypothesise, predict, explore, question…are words like ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘possible’, ‘wonder’ part of your discourse?  Do you ask questions that encourage kids to think deep and wide? Are you doing your best to ask, listen, probe, nudge? Have you taught your students how to have ‘hands down’ conversations? Are you employing thinking routines to help scaffold thinking? Do you talk about learning itself with your kids?

Reflection: Are your students reflecting on their learning regularly? Are there routines in place that ensure reflection is an ongoing process woven into the fabric of your day?  Are there some quiet, unhurried spaces in your week? 

Technologies: Are you making use of digital technologies to help students investigate AND create and share learning?  Are you connected with the world beyond your classroom?

Spontaneity: Have you made the most of the unexpected? Have you allowed an inquiry to emerge out of a surprise occurrence? A problem? A world event? Have you allowed yourself to go with something that has captivated your students’ interests? Are you on the look out for authentic opportunities for inquiry?

Routines and rituals:  Do your students know 'how things work' in their classroom. have you (with their input) established some predictable systems and ways of operating that enable them to manage themselves and their learning more efficiently. Do you have some regular rituals that they look forward to and that serve to connect the community (eg: circle time, 'Wondering Wednesday', class meetings, etc.)

Joy: Do you have fun together? Do you enjoy the company of your students? Do you laugh together on a regular basis? Are you enjoying your teaching?

So - how are you traveling? 

Just wondering...


Establishing a culture of inquiry through inquiry.

As the school year commences here in the southern hemisphere, I am reminded of one of the great paradoxes of inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning. On the one hand, helping students inquire requires such forethought and curriculum knowledge - teachers need to be highly intentional and conscious as they support students through the process. On the other hand, inquiry learners need to be given opportunity and space to find the questions that matter to them and to feel that delicious sense of possibility from teachers who expect the unexpected and are willing to follow paths that might not have appeared on the 'maps' they have drawnSo, as inquiry teachers, we need to expect the unexpected,  create a map and then be prepared to veer from it.  For more on a culture of permission and possibility see Sam Sherratt's great post here:

In my first few years of teaching, I diligently spent many days over the final week of the summer break preparing my classroom for my new group of students. I arranged furniture, put up colourful displays, drew fun pictures in the chalk board (yep, I’m that old), set up the roster system for classroom helpers, displayed the school rules, brought in plants, organized the classroom library - and I planned.  I planned the first weeks thoroughly. My work program was a thing of beauty. Neatly written, detailed daily schedules with activities planned from 9-3.30 for several weeks. I was a paragon of organization.  

When the children walked into their new classroom, they were generally excited and happy to be there.  But, when I look back now, I see that they entered a space that was already much more MY space than theirs.   Imagine buying a house then walking into it on day one to find that not only had it been decorated by someone else (without asking for your opinion) but that your breakfasts, lunch and dinners for the next 5 weeks were ALSO already planned in addition to almost all of your daily activities.   Perhaps that is a rather extreme analogy (and perhaps there are some of us that would rather like not to have to make these decisions)  but most of us would feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction and an awful loss of control.  We need to have agency in our daily lives. We need a sense of control over what we do and how we do it. We need to have a role in creating the space around us. So do our students.

The first few weeks of the year provide a wonderful, authentic context for student and teacher inquiry.  Together, we are venturing into the unknown and most of us begin the year with many questions rolling around in our heads.   I think one of the very best questions we can ask a new class of children is: “What are you wondering?”   Simply gathering the questions that children bring to us at the beginning of the year (or at the end of the previous year) can help inform the plans we make for their learning and give them a real sense of ownership and voice.  Inquiry is a natural process we use to make sense of the world. In the first few weeks of the year,  our kids are trying to make sense of their new class, their new teacher and their new environment.  By using a more inquiry based approach to establishing the classroom and helping kids get to know each other, the routines, and their teachers a culture is born.  From the first weeks of the school year, students come to understand that this is a space in which they will have voice and in which they are expected to actively investigate rather than passively receive.

Younger children or children moving to a new section of the school often bring countless questions – both big and small – as they enter a new learning space.  At the start of the last school year, several of the prep teachers I worked with decided to use the children’s wonderings as the impetus for their first explorations together.  Simple investigations emerged around the playground, the names of the teachers in the school, what the principal did, the mysteries of announcements ….  (how does the office lady get into the speaker?), where the bins were emptied, why some areas were out of bounds, what the ‘big kids’ did in their classrooms, what the trophies in the display cabinets in the foyer were all about, what food was in the canteen, etc.  Rather than the teachers painstakingly planning activities to introduce the children to school, a few provocations (even a simple walk around the school) led to questions that then offered opportunities for all kinds of short term inquiries.  The intention of familiarizing beginners with the school environment and community was still met – but it was driven by the students themselves. And in the process of exploring the more surface questions about the school and its environs, perhaps the deeper, unasked questions be answered…’Will I belong here?’  “Will I have a voice?’  Will I feel connected and safe?

Most of us begin the year by designing tasks/activities that facilitate community building. We want to get to know our kids – and we want them to get to know and relate to each other. Again – rather than over-planning the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of this – try inviting the students to design questions and investigations:

  • How can we build a great community in this classroom?
  • What do we need we find out about each other?  How could we go about this?
  • What do we need to know about each other in order to start to build a great community?
  • How might we design this learning space to help us do the best learning possible?
  • What do you need/want to know about me as your teacher?
  • What would you love to learn about/learn to do this year? How might we make that happen?
  • What should I (as your teacher) learn about you?
  • What are you wondering about yourself as a learner this year?
  • What are you most curious about when you think about the year ahead?

This approach is still highly intentional – our purposes are still to get the year off to a productive and positive start and to build routines. A more inquiry-based approach sees students as collaborators in the design of those routines and, as a result, engages them in a more rigorous, accountable and fascinating process of culture building.

How will you bring an inquiry stance to the beginning of your school year?

Just wondering…


13 years of schooling: a reflection

I wrote this post several weeks ago as I watched my daughter and her friends navigate their way through the strange demands of the year 12 exam period. It was a moment of acute reflection for me on a system I have spent my lifetime working for, studying, researching and contributing to.  It was a reflection born of some frustration about the chasm that remains between what we know about learning and so much of what still happens in schools- and I stand by that sentiment.  What is was not, in any way, meant to be was a criticism of any particular teachers themselves although it may have read that way ... and that was clumsy of me. Teachers, too, are frustrated with systemic expectations that go against what their heart tells them is right. My intention with it was never to misrepresent the great work that most teachers do tirelessly, every day and to the absolute best of their abilities.  As I said in the post- my children have actually been lucky to have encountered many great teachers - as was I.   This is a post about the bigger picture- and a personal perspective on that picture.  Thank you again to those of you who have contributed to the discussion both publicly and privately. Feedback is the very best thing for learning and I hope I will always be able to receive it openly and thoughtfully.  


This post is somewhat different to my usual focus on inquiry and more personal than most. Forgive my indulgence ...

I vividly remember my eldest daughter’s first day of school.  As I watched her make her way into the group gathered on the carpet, I remember holding back the sudden urge to rush in, pick my daughter up and run! I know I wasn’t the first parent to experience those emotions and no doubt many parents felt the same when they dropped their 5 year olds into my care as a prep teacher many years ago.  I wept in the car on my way to work and felt terribly conflicted.  My life’s work was and continues to be all about schools and here I was wanting my child to be anywhere but in one!

That was 13 years ago.  I have just returned from dropping that same child at school for her final English exam. While I write this post (which I will draft, leave, reflect on, re-draft…) she is currently sitting for three solid hours to write (handwrite) three essays in a row with prompts she will read for the first time today about texts she did not choose.  In complete silence. No drafting, no conversation, no notes, no breaks, no music, no food, …who writes under those conditions in the real world??  Exams remain a ludicrous, archaic way to ‘measure’ young people’s learning.

 And as I watched her walk into school today -   I had the same feelings I had all those years ago – a strange desire to spring out of the car, grab her and run!

As any parent out there knows,  the end of schooling for one’s child is inevitably a time of reflection.  For me as an educator, this reflection is loaded and complex.  I have been thinking about the lessons I have learned from the experience of this daughter’s schooling.  Watching my own children ‘do school’ has taught me a lot as a teacher and as a parent.   So today – while my daughter writes her English exam, I ponder on my own lessons. What have I learned….?  

1.     Not much has changed.   I know this is rather negative but I have to say that, overall, and despite the amazing efforts of so many fine educators – schools really have not changed all that much since was a student. And that was a long time ago!  I have spent the last 6 years in particular quietly despairing at so many futile tasks given in the name of ‘learning’  that show little real understanding of contemporary practice.  Assignments heavy on fact-finding and light on thinking,  Minimal or no choice in how to present ideas,  Few opportunities to co construct or engage in deep self-assessment and few truly collaborative, real-world contexts for learning. Of course there have been some exceptions … but why ARE we so slow to truly revolutionize schools given all we now know about learning?

2.     It’s all about the teacher.   We know the research bears this out but there is nothing like experiencing the phenomenon first hand!   13 years of hearing young people sitting around our kitchen table, talking about their teachers has continually reminded me just how much the quality of the teacher – and the relationship they choose to develop with their students - matters. It can literally make or break the child’s love of and commitment to a subject and indeed their view of learning itself.  I have seen the damage one - and yep, I'm going to say it, BAD teacher can do to a child's interest in a subject.  I have been intrigued at best - and horrified at worst - as to why such teachers continue to do the job when they obviously despise what they do, spend most of their time berating students and would rather be somewhere else. 

3.     Every kid needs a champion.  Rita Piersan’s words are ringing in my ears.  As I reflect over the last 13 years, I feel such overwhelming gratitude to those who have championed my child. Two teachers stand out. The English teacher in year 7 who nurtured my daughter as a writer and showed such passion and commitment to her craft and to her students.  And her music/singing teacher who believed so profoundly in the role of the arts in education and provided every opportunity for a girl with a musical interest to be supported.  My daughter’s learning life at school has been made richer as a direct result of these champions.  These were teachers who took time to see their students as people as well as learners.  This is the best gift any teacher can give a student. When you champion a student - when you see their light - you can literally change their life.

4.     The ‘playground’ can be the greatest teacher.  While we teachers immerse ourselves in the demands of curriculum planning and classroom instruction we can forget that our kids’ heads and hearts are so often somewhere else.  The time my daughter has spent with friends – in the school yard and beyond has taught her as much if not more than any ‘formal’ lessons in the classroom.   In the last few weeks of concerts, graduations and other year 12 rituals, I have watched and listened to these young people interacting with each other and have been so moved by the maturity of their relationships, their support of each other, the absence of competition and the spirit of collaboration.  Some of the bestschool-related learning moments over the last 13 years have had nothing to do with the curriculum or the painstaking work we do as teachers to cover outcomes and tick boxes.  They have everything to do with the relationships grown, challenged, lost and found in the playground.  This is the learning that will endure.

5.     Learners need time to be in their element.  ‘We need to create environments (in schools) where every person is inspired to grow creatively. We need to make sure that all people have the chance to do what they should be doing. To discover the Element in themselves and in their own way’ (Ken Robinson:2009).  Our daughter has been writing and performing music since she was 7.  We chose a local state school that is known for valuing the arts and this proved to be the best decision. Gretta once said that ‘singing was like breathing’ for her – she needed to do it every day.   Being given ample opportunity to be in her element at school has kept her happy, focused and generally motivated. It has sustained her through the tedium of some other classes that were not her thing.  She has been lucky. I know many of her friends have had to wait until the school day is over to do what helps them feel they are ‘in their element’ .  Surely we know enough about the role of personal interest and passion in learning to allow more opportunities for these to flourish as part of school life. 

6.     We give kids mixed messages.  ‘Your final score does not define you’  ‘Success in high school does not necessarily determine success in life’.  ‘It’s who you are as a person – your character – that matters most.'   In the final years of schooling, these slogans are regularly trumpeted at assemblies and information nights.  At the same time the reality is that schools (and the system they are part of) do ultimately define success in terms of academic achievement.  This is what gets you the ‘grades’  - and if you happen to do well in maths and science - even better!

Since that first day, 13 years ago, I have often had to ‘harden my heart’ as an educator and as a parent.  As someone with a profile in the education sphere, I have opted to keep more of a distance than many parents do and have tried to remainpositive and supportive of our schools throughout.  And there has been much to be positive about. My child is one of the lucky ones. She is happy, well adjusted and ready to fly into the world with a passion that has been nurtured by a few extraordinary teachers.  But the journey has not been without disappointment and frustration.  We now know so much about what constitutes great learning environments. We know what really matters in the learning lives of our young people. We know what should change.  We know the importance of student voice, choice, integrative and inquiry based approaches andthe importance of 21C skills and dispositions…..And yet so much remains, it seems, stuck in a time warp. 

Perhaps this reflection has been a kind of reminder to me about why I do what I do. I want to continue working with kids and their teachers to rethink classrooms as habitats for creativity and wonder. I want every 5 year old to walk into school - and explore!  I want schools to be places in which all kids have opportunity to find and be in their element.  I want teachers to have the time and permission to know their kids as well as they know their curriculum.

I am so proud of my daughter as a learner and as a person. I am proud of what she has learned because of – and despite -  her schooling.  

And if she has children, will they be sitting for three long hours in an exam hall at the end of their journey in order to determine their success?

Just wondering…..




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 (  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…