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?