What are you noticing?

At the end of a recent workshop, I was approached by a participant wanting to share her reflection with me:

“I used to think that inquiry was all about planning and teaching units that got kids asking questions, investigating and taking action. I still think that but now I think it’s so much more!  I never realized that this is actually about ME as an inquirer. I’ve never seen myself that way - as a researcher in my classroom. I feel like I’m going back to school with a new teacher identity.”

Those are the kinds of reflections that make all the preparation, the jet lag, the homesickness etc. worthwhile…

In an inquiry classroom, the teacher is an inquirer. They see themselves as a participant in the journey itself-figuring out the next move both for and with their learners. They are as fascinated by discoveries as their kids. When, for example, the class is Skyping an expert to help them find out more, the teacher is leaning in, eager to find out more and as curious and hungry to learn as the students.

Secondly - this work includes continuous inquiry into our teaching itself.  Inquiry teachers are often ‘consciously competent’, making intentional moves in the choreography of instruction with a view to continuous improvement. For example, they might notice the impact of their questions on the way students share their thinking. They are often ‘watching themselves’ and making these personal observations explicit to learners:

‘Hmmmm I’m not sure that was the best question to ask you. I think it was too narrow. I’m going to try a different question now and see if that helps open up the conversation’  

This willingness to admit uncertainty, to be transparent and vulnerable can have a profound effect on the balance of power in the classroom and, in turn, nurture greater agency in our learners.  

And finally, inquiry teachers see themselves as researchers as they observe and listen to learners. In conversation with learners, observing learners at play, taking time to look carefully at artefacts of learning such as drawings or written pieces, we ask ourselves the all-important questions: ’ What am I noticing? What is being revealed to me? How might I respond? And when we do this in collaboration with other educators we gain further insight and perspective.  In short, we bring an inquiry stance to our teaching. 

Noticing is one of the key practices in the art of inquiry. I tend to see this practice at its finest in the early years’ context.  Every teacher, regardless of the age group with which they work, should spend some time in a preschool/kinder with a skilled inquiry educator.

Inquiry is so much more than planning and teaching ‘units’, designing more investigative tasks or providing more choice.  True inquiry goes to the core of our identity as teachers. As has been said many times, it’s about the way we see ourselves and the way we see the learners with whom we work. It’s the metaphors we carry about ourselves as teachers.  I find it helpful to see myself to be a researcher as I teach, prompting me to slow down  - and notice.  

© Kath Murdoch ‘Art of Inquiry’ 2019

© Kath Murdoch ‘Art of Inquiry’ 2019

How do you nurture the practice of noticing into your daily interactions with learners?  Are you an inquirer? 

Just wondering.. 

The beautiful art of Inquiry teaching

When I first became interested in inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning (here’s a clue – my hair was permed and my jackets had shoulder pads), the emphasis was almost exclusively on planning/programming. We spent hours diligently planning “units of work” – carefully mapping out ‘hands- on activities’ children would do week to week to learn about the topics we chose for them.  Not only was the focus more on the planning than the teaching…. the planning actually wasn’t all that good.

But that’s another story. 

 The more I taught this way, the more I engaged in research during my years at the University of Melbourne and the more I observed teachers and children in classrooms -  the more curious I became about the what teachers actually did and said(and didn't do and say) with the plans they had made.  I was particularly fascinated by the magic that occurred when teachers successfully empowered children as confident, effective inquirers.  The pedagogy of inquiry remains endlessly intriguing to me. I love the planning/design work we do but I know all too well that no planning is worth the effort if we don’t accompany it with a strong repertoire of practice and a real understanding of WHY we work this way. Knowing the ‘what’ matters - but it is in the why and how that the beauty lies.

 In early 2014, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘What do Inquiry Teachers do?’. It remains one of the most read posts on my site. https://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/blog/2014/02/21/how-do-inquiry-teachers-teach

I followed that post up 3 years later with a refinement of these ideas:


Having worked intensively with the practices in many classrooms (I am so lucky I get to teach kids all over the world) I knew there was some ‘tweaking’ to do. My workshops began to focus more heavily on these ‘ways of being’ as teachers. Hundreds of teachers have helped me further refine my own thinking about what it means to truly bring an inquiry stance to the classroom – regardless of the subject matter or the age group with which we are working.  Suffice to say, these practices have been percolating for a long time!

 I find myself most often referring to this as teaching as an ‘art’.  This is by no means the first time our work has been described as such but it resonates so strongly with what I see and hear teachers doing as they nurture agency through inquiry.  My personal life is strongly connected to the creative arts - particularly music and dance. I have watched both my children thrive as learners in the context of the arts. For me - there is something essentially human about the way ideas can be expressed through art. Teaching, like dance, music, visual art is an act of creativity. There is skill, choreography and improvisation. What we do is almost magical when it is at its finest.

There is such beauty in this way of being with children. It is intentional yet spontaneous, highly creative, it evolves and redefines itself over time.  The skilled inquiry teacher works with a palette of possibilities  and mindfully draws on this repertoire in response to their learners.  There is indeed an art to inquiry teaching: choreography, composition and improvisation.

 So. With the help of a local artist, Justine Hutchinson, I set about trying to bring these practices to life as a series of art works. This time, I have chosen a different way of sharing ideas – not as a book, but with a set of cards that can act as a provocation, prompt inspiration, reminder or support to the interested teacher. 

And they are FINALLY ready and available on the website. The images have been designed  to symbolise the essence of each practice. On the back of each card is a summary of techniques, a reminder of strategies and some ideas for applying the practice to the classroom. I am so excited they are finally here.

 If you do purchase a set of the ‘Art of Inquiry’ cards – I would love to hear how you use them and how they work for you. There are some suggestions in the pack itself but it would be so interesting to hear about how they contribute to your growth as an inquiry teacher.

 I currently have them sitting on my desk at home – in little perspex stands. The remind me of what it means to teach (and learn) this way and of the beauty in the art of inquiry. 


What practices are on your palette?


Just wondering…

The Art of Inquiry Card Set is now available through kathmurdoch.com.au

The Art of Inquiry Card Set is now available through kathmurdoch.com.au

It's about time we inquired into time....

‘I love the idea of using an inquiry approach, but it takes so much time’

 ‘It’s just been so busy, we are all so pushed for time’

‘We really wanted to give the kids the opportunity to follow up their own questions, but we just ran out of time’

‘The day just goes. It's madness here!’

I’d love to follow this up and go with the kid’s interests but this term we have got the production, NAPLAN testing, interschool sport, the Mothers’ day stall and we are doing this new wellbeing program….we just can’t fit it in.

‘We are required to do x amount of maths/English and we have lots of specialists so….how do we fit it all in?’

‘If only we had more time…’

Sound familiar?

 It’s VERY familiar to me! I regularly hear this kind of talk as I work with teachers. To be honest, the most common response I get when I ask the open question ‘How are you today?’ is…. ‘BUSY!’  And I’ve probably said all this stuff too. I find myself too often complaining about being time poor….so this post is NOT me getting on my high horse and telling you all to manage your time better! I acknowledge that there are some fixed elements in our day/week/year that we have little control over . There are things that do indeed take time we would prefer to use in other ways (*cough*NAPLAN). But this persistent sense that we are too busy and there is too much to do really does get in the way.  It gets in the way of quality planning/dialogue between teachers and it gets in the way of good teaching and learning.  From my perspective as a champion of inquiry, the perception that there is ‘not enough time’ even gets in the way of some people’s willingness to engage in the approach.  Perhaps we simply need to have more conversations about how we can make time our friend rather than our enemy. I have a hunch that both our and our children’s wellbeing depends on it.  

With that in mind,  Late last year, I asked a group of teachers to ponder this very issue. As a provocation, I offered them a challenge:

You have 6 hours. A typical school day. Now imagine that you can decide HOW you will use that time. No set curriculum, no bells, no ‘must dos’. Your only goal is to design the day in a way that you think will provide a really rich, powerful day of learning. What might that day look like? 

On reflection, I wish I had photographed the ‘dream days’ that these teachers created. I wish I had been able to get across the palpable sense of delight and engagement that we felt as we designed our days. Some teachers created something collaboratively, others worked on their day on their own but all teachers took to the task with gusto!  When we were done, we shared our days with each other and noticed some fascinating, common themes right across grade levels and specialists.

 Soft starts: The days tended to start gently. Easing into the day with shared stories, time outside, play, tinkering, games. We valued ‘soft starts’ and a sense of welcome and delight. 

 The outdoors: Almost everyone designed days that included much more time out of the classroom than they currently had. The outdoor environment was a big part of our designs including school grounds, local parks and other places. We valued the role of the outdoors in stimulating curiosity, staying healthy and learning about the world, IN the world. 

 Reflection and connection: Almost everyone included a moment in the day when learners would gather together to talk, reflect, share. We clearly valued shared reflection, time to ‘press the pause button’ and process experiences

 Flow and integration: A key feature of many ‘dream days’ was the integration of learning areas. Opportunities for writing emerged from direct experiences, mathematical learning was connected with real problems and contexts. People wanted flow …. No-one designed a day with neat, short, separate periods of disconnected learning. We valued connections.

 Learner choice and co construction: So many of our dream days featured the involvement of learners in determining aspects of their learning for the day. Wonderings were gathered, choices were offered, personal goals were set. We valued choice. 

 Links to the community: Many days included connections with experts or people from the community. There was a sense that the ideal day would not be so disconnected from the wider community 

 Taking breaks: Interestingly, several people extended the time currently set aside for a lunch break and made it more of a shared meal – teachers and children eating and talking together. A few people got so excited about their day they realised they had forgotten to give themselves a break at all! Other teachers dispensed with the idea of a ‘set break’ and created a day in which breaks would be taken as needed. 

 Relationships and sharing: Music, circle games, powerful literature all featured heavily. Almost every teacher included a time to connect with each other through a shared text or experience. 

 The whole experience got us wondering. 

  • Why is there often such a gulf between the way we would love to work with our students and the way we DO work?

  •  How can we bring the reality and the ‘fantasy’ (if you can call it that) closer together? 

  • How can we use our time in ways that we feel are most powerful and productive AND maintain accountability to the things that are expected of us? 

  • And what really IS expected of us and what have we invented or convinced ourselves we ‘have to do’ when, in fact, no one has ever said we have to do it! 

  • Why do we so willingly let go of what we value and know about effective learning to do things that are unnecessary and unproductive? Why don't we challenge ourselves more? 

  • How can we help ourselves unlearn old ways of carving up the day into fragmented pieces and see our ‘scheduling’ in fresh ways? 

 Perhaps the first step in rethinking the way we use time is to address it head-on through an open, collaborative conversation. This is a very worthwhile professional inquiry to undertake as a staff.  Late last year, I posed the question via twitter and received around 80 responses from educators about ways to better manage time. Advice ranged from ways of thinking about time itself to practical strategies for prioritizing and ‘culling’ programs to allow for more space and depth.  You can read this excellent thread of advice here:


When it comes to an inquiry oriented stance, the way we perceive and manage time is critical. Fragmented, rushed, over-crowded and regimented timetables work against deep learning. Pondering questions, considering ways to investigate, navigating a range of sources, carefully analysing information you have gathered, considering ways to apply new learning and regularly pausing to reflect, review and rethink does indeed take time. But it is time so well spent. When engaged in deep inquiry, learners are building their ‘learning muscles’, growing their learning assets, strengthening their capacity to ‘figure things out’ and exercising their agency. These are precious, highly valuable outcome that deserve the time they need!  And here’s the interesting twist. When we do this well – when we design learning opportunities that allow learners to dive deep into questions of significance to them, they use their time more productively and make multiple connectionsacross the curriculum – two vital keys to managing time. 

 As has been observed by many, being ‘too busy’ seems to be worn as a badge of honour these days. These are speedy times. Our lives (mine included) and the lives of many our children are full and fast paced. The danger, of course, is that we bring an unwelcome and unhelpful sense of urgency into our teaching. Our kids sense the panic as we rush to ‘get it all done’, we forgo the game we thought we would play ‘if we have time’, we ignore the sudden interest in the lightening storm out the window because they have to finish the maths task, we resort to too much ‘telling’ rather than allow time  figure things out.  The hurried classroom leaves little space for true inquiry and indeed for deep, satisfying learning 

 So.  What do we do? Well – check out the twitter thread and all the pearls of wisdom that have been shared there.  But I’ll leave you with a few key things I try to remind myself, not always successfully - but I try…

  •  Practice being mindful.  I know it is almost a cliché but it REALLY helps me teach better! Be fully present. Keep your mind on the learning that is happening right now. Not all the things to come.  Just be in the now. 

  • Be consciously calm as you teach. Slow down. Allow space for quiet. Teach with intention. Amazingly, slowing down can actually result in getting more ‘done’.

  •  Remember - we all have the same 24 hours each day. We have a lot more choice over how we use them than we think. Take a good look at what you and your kids spend time doing over the week. Make it a shared inquiry! Cull your program in the same way you might regularly cull your wardrobe.  Why DO you have the routines that you do? Are they worthwhile? Do they align with your beliefs about teaching and learning?

  • And keep resisting the urge to plan too much too soon. If you commit to being more responsive your to learner’s needs and interests, you will be teaching ‘just in time’ rather than doing a whole lot of unnecessary stuff’ just in case’!

  • Know your curriculum! Know it so well that you can easily make connections between learning areas. Deep, authentic integration is such a powerful way to use time more productively. 

There is so much more I could say….but I’ll leave it there. I know you’re busy and may not have the time to read much more…

How do you give yourself and your students the time that true inquiry deserves…?  

 Just wondering. 



Mapping journeys of inquiry through the year: emergent, flexible and connected.

I was recently rummaging through some old papers and came across a program I had helped a school create many (MANY) years ago. It was an impressive document in its day. A carefully organised sequence of units under ‘topic’ headings. Each topic was linked to detailed curriculum outcomes and positioned in sequence over a two-year cycle. Inevitably, these units would be tackled term by term – beginning as the term started and ending before the term break.   It was a neat, organised, detailed, safe, dependable two-year cycle of…. topics. Developed by teachers. For teachers.

This blast from the past prompted me to reflect on how much my thinking has changed about the way we can design for inquiry with and for learners. The end of the school year is only a couple of weeks away here in Australia so the process of ‘big picture’ designing for inquiry is in full swing. But, in some schools, it is looking very different from the old, fixed scope and sequence of standard topics. The predictability of a scope and sequence means inquiries became less driven by the learners’ questions, needs and interests and current resources or authentic connections are often overlooked. Children come to expect they will ‘do’ certain topics at certain year levels, and teachers new to teams feel little ownership over plans that have been made by previous teams.  

In Australia at least, the curriculum already provides us with a scope and sequence. The achievement standards lay out expectations for both content and processes students should be engaging with as they move through school. The CONTEXTS in which these achievement standards can be met can, by contrast, be dynamic and varied. Opening up the way we design our maps for inquiry means we can be much more responsive and attuned to the community of learners with which we work. The key, ironically, is knowing your curriculum really well.

There are four significant changes I often make to the process of ‘curriculum mapping for inquiry’ (although this depends on the readiness of the school) 

1.    Inquiries are designed on a year by year basis. The program is flexible – not fixed. There is plenty of room for new inquiries to emerge through the year as well.

2.    Where we can, we find authentic contexts for inquiry using issues relevant to the school, the local and global community.  

3.    We consider the big questions to potentially arc across a year rather than allocating a rigid time frame. We can then dip in and out of them over the year and make connections between them.

4.    While the curriculum informs our thinking, it is not the only source of information assisting us in the design of the map – the students themselves contribute to the decisions we make about these contexts for inquiry.  It is their learning, after all.

 Ditching the reliance on a two-year cycle of units and treating each year as a fresh start, means we can use the children’s interests and needs as well as global, local and school-based issues and events to offer more authenticity  and purpose for inquiry.  One of the best things we can do is to take a look around our immediate environment – the school, its surrounds and our community. ‘Problem finding’ is a key element of design thinking and can offer up amazing opportunities for authentic inquiry. Are you renovating or building new classrooms?  Does the canteen need an overhaul? How safe is the car park at drop off and pick up time? How sustainable is the garden? Does the playground need a re-think?  Are you planning a performance/production? Is there a camp that might lend itself as a centrepiece for inquiry?  Some of the best contexts for inquiry are right under our noses – and they will vary from year to year.  Liberating ourselves from a fixed scope and sequence allows the both teachers and learners to really own the inquiry as it is designed.  Similarly, taking time to ask kids what they would love to explore – what things excite and challenge them can provide us with wonderful ideas for contextualising inquiry in engaging contexts. Contexts such as the ones I have described are often used as ‘case studies’ to helped children explore broader, compelling inquiry questions.  It is these compelling questions we generate as we start to map the year ahead. 

 The big questions we intend to inquire into can be shared with (and indeed developed with) students from the beginning of the year.  The best questions deserve to be revisited throughout the year as events, texts, interests emerge that connect to them. The world is not neatly organised into discrete boxes, so treating the questions in a more fluid, flexible way also helps students make important conceptual connections between them.  Each question, of course, will have its ‘moment in the sun’ but rather than packing that inquiry away (we’ve done ‘adaptation’ what are we doing next?) it remains visible and available to return to.  

 A few of the questions teams have generated so far in our mapping work over the last couple of weeks include:

 What can art teach us about history? (history, the arts, design technologies, ethics, intercultural understanding)

What makes a connected community? (Civics and citizenship, geography, history)

How does design influence wellbeing? (design technologies, health, science)

How do stereo types influence our relationships with others? (health, intercultural understanding)

How can I be an ethical consumer? (economics, ethics, geography)

How do living things (including humans) adapt to changing environments? (science, health, geography)

What influences the choices we make? (health, civics and citizenship)

 (These are all examples linked to the Victorian curriculum)

Working this way -  in and out of compelling inquiry questions  - requires big picture, synergistic thinking and is not for the faint-hearted (or inexperienced). It requires strong curriculum knowledge and the capacity to spot an opportunity for connection between events and interests that emerge over the year and the questions themselves.  Returning to questions over the course of the year allows learners to deepen their understandings and gain new perspectives over time.  Inquiry teachers are highly attuned to the opportunities to help learners make connections to the big questions. Take, for example, the rather unwelcome appearance of a large cockroach in a kindergarten classroom early this year.  The children were both terrified and fascinated in equal measure – with many, many questions.  The resulting investigation connected beautifully with the big question ‘What living things do we share our world with?’ and ‘How do living things survive in changing environments?’- building conceptual understandings around structure and function, classification and connection.   In a year 2 class, the opportunity to investigate the design of a new playground was too good to resist!  This inquiry connected strongly with the big question ‘What is it made of and why?’  -  the perfect vehicle for looking at design, materials and their properties.  Lost teeth, new babies, holidays overseas, big weather events, a political issue everyone is talking about, community celebrations, a novel that has everyone in its spell….these moments can trigger small inquiries amongst the ‘bigger’ investigations we design more intentionally. All connect back to those compelling big questions – weaving a connected tapestry of inquiry across the year. 

Have you escaped the tyranny of a repetitive, predictable program?

Just wondering…

Getting personal: conferring with learners as they inquire

For several years now, it has been a joy to help educators and learners explore the power of ‘personal inquiry’ as part of the broader spectrum of inquiry learning in their schools. Simply put, I define personal inquiry as an opportunity for learners to pursue questions/interests/passions/challenges that they determine. Individual learners design inquiries that allow them to travel on a learning path of their choosing. They might be inquiring into how to design and make something, how to improve a skill or inquiring into a question they find fascinating.

The way this is implemented in schools varies from school to school, classroom to classroom. In many of the schools I partner with, we have established a regular routine called “iTime” (and often “Discovery time”in the early years) which is offered on a weekly basis. More often than not, the inquiries learners are engaged in are not connected with the shared inquiry (their whole class “big Question”) although it may be that learners will use iTime to continue to delve into the same area that is being explored by the class as a whole. For me, one of the most critical aspects of personal inquiry is the focus on investing and growing the learning assets - skills and dispositions for life long learning. When learners identify the focus for their personal inquiry, they also establish a a goal or intention that commits them to developing their skills as a learner. So an investigation into the problem of palm oil production is simultaneously an investigation into, for example, effective time management. Personal inquiry beautifully nurtures learner agency in that there is a great deal of choice for the learner and it also explicitly focusses on strengthening the child’s identify as a capable, skilled, independent inquirer.

Critical to the success of our experience with personal inquiry is the role of the teacher in conferring with learners. Far from being a routine that allows learners to simply “go off on their own” , teachers are working the room as coaches, guides, observers and co-researchers. Scheduled and spontaneous conferences are the mainstay of the teachers’ role during iTime. Conversations can be brief but they serve powerful purposes:

  • To contribute to formative assessment of the student’s learning (and therefore to plans for improving  learning)

  • Get to know your learners more deeply as learners and people

  • To build trust and connect with individuals through dialogue

  • Provide personalized, specific feedback 

  •  Help learners think and talk about their learning and about themselves as learners

  •  Help learners stay focussed and on task

  •  Monitor progress towards their personal goals

  • To offer ‘just in time’ explanations/demonstrations if required

  •  To help learners clarify what they need to do next

    Conferring during personal inquiry time can be inspiring and joyful but also requires an agile and responsive teacher - moving across topics, documenting and balancing time to observe as well as time to engage. Here are some tips we have found helpful:

Tips for success

·      For more formal, scheduled conferences, give learners time to prepare for the conference and ask them bring evidence/artefacts to the conversation

 ·      Bring an inquiry stance to the conference. Remain open and curious about what and how the child is learning.  It is often simply through listening that we most effectively assist the learner. As they explain their process to us, they come to clarify it for themselves

·      Ask questions more than offer suggestions. Through your questions, students will often come up with their own solutions

·      With younger learners, ‘conferring’ will often feel more like listening, observing and ‘nudging’ ideas as they play/explore. 

·      When making suggestions  - provide more than one and then  invite the learner to select what they believe will be the best way forward.  

·      Keep the learner in the driver’s seat – ask them what they think is important to achieve through the conference

·      This is a conversation not an interview. For this reason, it canbe helpful to avoid note taking during the conversation if it takes away from the quality of your communication.  You and the learner may spend a couple of minutes making jottings once the conversation has ended. 

 ·      Notice and name what you are noticing. “So I can see you have….”

 ·      Record the essence of the conversation – and/or have the learner record what was discussed

·      Consider small group conferences – so children learn the questions and prompts you use, enabling them to confer with each other

 ·      Articulate what the child is teaching you as they share their inquiry. (‘I didn't know that - how fascinating, I can see why you are so interested in this…) 

Sample questions/prompts for a ‘personal inquiry’ conference 

Finally, over the years, I have found myself noticing the kinds of questions/prompts that seem to be more effective. Here are some that I personally find useful:

·      Can you tell/remind me what you are inquiring into? (often followed by, ‘Can you tell me more about that?)

·      Tell me about what you are doing/working on…

·      Why is this important to you? 

·      How is your investigation going? (can you tell me more about that? What makes you say that?  What have you found out/discovered/learned to do so far 

·      (Begin with the ‘content’ of the inquiry as this is generally the more motivating element for the learner) 

·      What skill/behaviour are you trying to strengthen during this inquiry?  (eventually some simple continua of skills and behaviours will be available for the child to refer to as part of this conversation) 

·      How is it going? (here, success criteria that has been developed with the class can be a useful reference) 

·      So what’s challenging you? What might you need help with? 

·      Can I share some things I have noticed? (target something the child is doing well and something they need to work on) 

·      Something I have noticed is….

·      I’m going to suggest 2 things you could do about that…What do you think might be most helpful? 

 ·      Someone that could show you how to do that is….

 ·      Would it be helpful if I showed you how to….?

·      Given what we have discussed, what do you think you might need to do next? 

 ·      You might consider…

 ·      I’m going to make a couple of suggestions that will help you with ….. then you can decide which one seems the best suggestion for you

 ·      Someone in the class who has got expertise/maybe able to show you how to… is….

And finally, a few reminders on ‘choice words’ for conferring….

  • Refer to “learning” rather than “work”.

  • Remember the power of ‘yet’  (so you haven’t found the information you are looking for YET) 

  • (use might/could…) How might you? How could you? What might be..

  • ‘I’m wondering if you…. I’m wondering about the way you… 

  • What are you noticing about yourself as you do this? 

  • Use the language of the relevant discipline where possible (so as a scientist, is there a way you could test this hypothesis? As a writer, how do you feel about this lead sentence?..)

What do you find helpful in managing personal inquiry in your context? What questions work best for you? How do you and your learners document these conversations? How do you keep the learner in the driver’s seat?

Just wondering…

Getting the mix right: Teacher guidance and inquiry learning.

Open inquiry, free inquiry, guided inquiry, structured inquiry…I’ve even recently heard someone remark they use ‘the controlled inquiry method (???)’.  Over the last few years it seems there has been a proliferation of descriptors qualifying the kindof inquiry that can happen in the classroom. Lately, as I hear these terms being bandied about in workshops I have become intrigued by what people actually mean when they use them and I have begun to wonder how helpful it all is.

 I recently asked a group of teachers to define what they meant when they talked about the use of ‘guided’ vs what they called ‘free’ inquiry.   In the end, it came down to whether or not the students chose what they were inquiring into. If the teacher chose, it was guided. If the kids chose, it was free. The puzzling thing for me about this response is that most successful inquiry journeys are a result of both teacher AND student choice. It’s not either/or – it is AND.   I have also heard some declare they use a ‘guided inquiry’ approach which in reality meant they executed meticulously pre-planned , step by step units that invited no student questions and ended up in cookie-cutter activities across the team (not inquiry at all and not what most would consider guided inquiry to be). When it comes to open or free inquiry, the view can be similarly extreme. The descriptions of free inuquiry I have heard at times sound pretty close to simply being ‘free time’ or ‘choosing time’ - involving very little inquiry.  

At its very heart, inquiry is about investigation. It occurs when the learner seeks to discover/resolve/create/uncover/understand something. Inquirers are most often driven by questions. In the classroom – these questions may be devised by teachers or by students or both. They may be personal questions or questions develop with, for or by a group. As the young learner pursues these questions (Why? What if? Why might? How could? Why should? What makes…?) they inevitably require some form of guidance. In fact I am tempted to say that ALL inquiry journeys I witness or support in the classroom are guided.  But the level and nature of guidance varies according to the needs and prior knowledge of the learner and the context within which the inquiry is taking place. Perhaps it is more straightforward to consider guidance (from teachers, peers and other mentors) as a givenin inquiry but to understand that that the nature and level of guidance is necessarily dynamic.  And what do I mean by guidance?  The things we do and say to support students as they inquire – listening, observing, strategic questioning, timely feedback, demonstration, explanation, noticing and naming, suggesting and connecting them with resources/others who may be helpful. 

 As many readers of this blog know, I have long advocated for learners of all ages to have regular opportunity to inquire into questions or needs they have determined are important to them (iTime/discovery time for example). This usually sits alongside a shared/class inquiry into a compelling question and is most often explored over several weeks. Seeing these personal inquiries as ‘free’ can be very misleading. I have seen many cases where the very fact that the student chose something highly personal meant they required even more careful conferring and guidance. These moments can feel less ‘free’ than shared inquiry where collaboration might offer a firmer platform for voice and choice.   Like the oft used metaphor of the swan gliding across the water  - underneath those independent and self-driven learners engaged in personal inquiries is a strong set of structures, scaffolds a repertoire of strategies and agreements. Teachers are busy conferring, running small clinic groups, giving targeted feedback, noticing, naming and ‘nudging’ – they are being the active guides they should be. 

 A central goal of the contemporary teacher is to nurture learner agency.  When understood deeply, Inquiry based learning has alwaysbeen about agency. It requires learners to make choices and take responsibility for designing ways to investigate problems, questions, challenges and passions. But the role of the teacher remains critical in this approach. Far from being an arms-length facilitator ‘on the side’, the inquiry teacher is continually weighing up if, when and how to ‘step in’. They actively work besidethe learner observing, listening, questioning, prompting, suggesting, explaining, demonstrating, refining or redirecting as required. This is guidance. When we position students as inquirers, we offer them opportunities to make decisions about their learning every day. The extent to which we guide those decisions varies but good teachers know how to adjust the level of guidance for optimal learning.  Seeing teacher guidance as a single, linear trajectory (from more to less guidance over time) can be similarly misleading. The level of guidance required is much less linear and much more determined by context, purpose and the needs of the learner.  

So I have been playing around with this image – as a way to illustrate the nature of teacher guidance in inquiry – and our quest to nurture agency through it. I see it a little like a sound engineer’s mixing desk. For most of us, the tendency can be to raise our level of guidance too high and too soon and for too long. Practising the techniques of releasing responsibility, allowing some struggle, observing and listening, slowing down, waiting and explaining at the point of need means we learn to step in less frequently and with less ‘volume’ than we may have thought necessary.  

Looking at the diagram below imagine allthe ‘buttons’ are at the lower end (minimal guidance). One would need to ensure there was sufficient justification for such low level teacher involvement.   It is certainly possible for some learners but unlikely to be the case for everyone at any given time. Conversely, when teachers make all the decisions for students, when each of the buttons are at or near maximum level, we would have to question whether we can really call this ‘inquiry learning’ at all!!  In reality,  inquiry teaching usually requires an ever-changing mix of guidance levels. 

Guidance is important - but the level and nature of it will vary according to the needs to the learner.

Guidance is important - but the level and nature of it will vary according to the needs to the learner.

 It is nuanced and sophisticated work but being conscious of the decisions we make, and developing the habit of ‘turning down’ the volume to enhance learner agency can help us become more intentional and informed teachers as we guide learning through personal or group investigations. 

What does guidance in inquiry look like for you? How do you ‘adjust the controls’ to maximise learner agency?

Just wondering…..