Making spaces to create: environments for collaborative planning

Of the many roles I play as a consultant supporting teachers and learners in inquiry. – one of my favourites is the opportunity to engage in collaborative design for learning. Effective planning (although I do prefer the word ‘designing’ these days) is an essential skill for teachers who use an inquiry approach. It requires a deft blend of thinking ahead while being responsive to what is happening in the moment. There needs to be just the right balance between elements agreed to by the team and individual freedom to follow the interests and needs of a groups.  Documentation is important for accountability but an over-emphasis on it can detract from the delight of the process and take far too much time.  Increasingly, we understand the importance of inviting the learner’s voice into the planning process, while  attending to curriculum standards and outcomes. Needless to say, true collaborative planning is a complex, multi-layered process.  It is no longer sufficient to simply tweak ‘what we did last year’ nor are we going to foster true inquiry if we studiously plan out 6-10 weeks of detailed learning tasks! 

 The process takes time and a commitment to regular thoughtful, collaborative conversations.  Participating in these conversations can be an incredibly creative experience. In fact, I believe that designing for inquiry learning is one of the most creative elements of our work!   When we truly commit to this approach, we are working with new ideas, multiple elements and authentic contexts. It feels like a combination of choreography and architecture with a generous helping of improvisation thrown in to the mix. 

 Given the significance and artistry of collaborative planning for inquiry, I find myself wondering why we often pay such scant attention to the environments in which these powerful and important conversations take place.  In recent years, many of us have become much more aware of the role that the physical environment plays in supporting learning in the classroom – but do we show the same care and attention to our meeting spaces? 

 Not all schools have (or even want) dedicated meeting/planning areas. For some, classrooms or staff rooms are sufficient or the only option. But many of the schools I work in do set aside a space for teams to meet, plan and evaluate their work. But there are spaces…and there are spaces!  Too often I find myself in ‘meeting rooms’ devoid of anything that might inspire us as we reflect, explore and create.  We’ve all seen them. Boxes of supplies waiting to be opened, redundant resources that are no longer used or available but well past their use by date.  Yellowing notes on a pinboard, dangling by a single pin, last year’s term overview fading on the whiteboard…or nothing at all on the walls.  A mix of furniture crammed in a space that might be too small to accommodate it. Sound familiar?  

 Now of course, great inquiry teachers can plan anytime, anywhere. No one really NEEDS an inspiring environment to design for powerful learning. BUT I wonder what would happen if we did indeed pay a little more attention to the spaces in which we ask teachers to do this important work?  How might it contribute to our wellbeing? Our creative process? 

 One school in Adelaide. – Hawthordene Primary School – recently took up the challenge of re-designing their planning room so that it provided more resources to support the process, offered an aesthetic that was welcoming and inspiring to be In and cultivated curiosity and wonder  - just as we try to do in inquiry classrooms.  Mother Teresa Primary School in Melbourne has long championed the importance of a beautiful, respectful aesthetic for all the learners in its community – children and teachers alike. There are several schools I have the pleasure of working in where attention is paid to the quality of the physical environment to support teacher planning.  Does it make a difference? Well…from my perspective, yes. It feels like it does. It speaks to the importance of the work, encourages creative thinking, supports the conversation through visible reminders of our purposes and pedagogy.  Some of the things I have seen in these schools include:

  •  Easily accessible resources to support inquiry teaching and learning – having great teacher resources on display (rather than hidden in library shelves) may encourage more staff to engage in professional reading

  • Interesting, relevant articles made available for reading – perhaps an ‘article of the week’ posted on the board

  • Art work/objects/photographs that inspire wonder and imagination

  • Natural light and flowers/plants! 

  • Equipment such as chart paper, markers, post its, index cards , whiteboard etc….while planning may be digitally documented, we find the best conversations actually happen when we record in more fluid, shared way. 

  • Access to a smart TV, IWB etc so that we can check out on line resources together

  • An active ‘wonderwall ‘ for staff! 

  • Visible reminders of some of the elements that are important in our planning – inquiry cycles, school values lists of key concepts, teaching practices, reminders of skills and dispositions (in my partner schools these are the ‘learning assets’). I prefer displays of elements that we always need to refer to when we plan … this can really help keep us focussed and mindful. 

  • Some examples of student learning – including photos that showcase some key characteristics of inquiry. 

  • A coffee machine and a bowl of the best Swiss chocolate….OK that might be stretching it!!

  • Now of course, not everyone has the resources to dedicate to this kind of space…but even a few changes to your meeting room might energise and inspire. 

  •  How important is the environment in which you plan/design for learning to you?

 Just wondering…

Wonderings and resources to support planning at Hawthorne PS

Wonderings and resources to support planning at Hawthorne PS

The inquiry cycle with conversation prompts at Mother Teresa PS

The inquiry cycle with conversation prompts at Mother Teresa PS

Keeping it real: inquiry and authenticity

I once spent a year living in the same street as the school in which I was teaching. It was a mixed blessing. One the one hand, I could work late and still be home at a reasonable hour on the other hand I probably worked way too late way too often.  But that’s not the point of this story. 

 Living so close by meant I inevitably bumped into kids from the school over the weekends. At the supermarket, walking my dog, in a café…and the reaction was most often the same - especially from the younger kids:  “Whaaaaat? A teacher? IN THE SUPERMARKET? OUT WITH FRIENDS? etc. I’m sure many of you have had the experience…slightly awkward, a few giggles, the out-of-context encounter that challenged their view of me as ‘the teacher’ whom they assumed probably lived at school (OK - yes, I almost did.)

 Back then, I was ‘Miss Murdoch’.  I referred to the classroom as ‘My Classroom’, the kids had to line up in two straight lines before being allowed to come in to the room after each break. They ate when the bells told them they could, we rarely ventured out of the room unless it was to go to ‘the art room’ or ‘ the gym’ where they would spend 45 minutes learning something that was quite disconnected from anything that happened in the classroom. They sat at little tables in little wooden chairs – occasionally ‘working’ on the floor for a special treat. They did activities that I planned and followed rules I devised for them.  What a strange environment classrooms were (are?) in contrast to the lives lived outside of school.  And what strange beings we teachers were (are?). Is it any wonder they were taken aback to see me doing everyday things that every day people do! 

 Now admittedly, that was a long time ago. Much has changed but I remain curious about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be authentic with our students and why we insist on maintaining some of the routines, rituals and practices that seem so disconnected from life outside of school. I recently heard a teacher in dialogue with her students referring to herself in the third person (‘So what Mrs X wants you to do now is….so Mrs X is showing you how to….’). Strangely inauthentic.  Many of us have a ‘teacher voice’ we put on when we work with children that is quite different to the tone we might use outside of school. We sit on a chair while children sit at our feet (would we ever do that in a non-school context ? We would generally position ourselves alongside others as we talk with them) … there are a myriad of unconscious ways we talk, interact, position ourselves, curate our spaces and organise our days that seem so alien in contrast to the rest of our lives. 

 One of the 10 key practices I advocate for teachers to develop in order to nurture inquiry is the practice I simply call ‘Keep it Real’. It is a plea for authenticity.  

Authenticity is a word we throw around a lot in education and , indeed, has become one of those words that can easily prompt an eye roll due to glib over-use. We talk about ‘authentic inquiry’ and ‘authentic contexts for inquiry’ but what do we really mean?  Some musings on the matter below:


© Kath Murdoch 2019. Keep it Real.

© Kath Murdoch 2019. Keep it Real.

Bridge the divide

There remains a gulf between the lives many children lead outside of school and the lives we have them lead while they are at school. The gulf is much narrower in many early childhood settings and seems to widen as children get older.  What can we do to bridge the strange divide between schools and the wider community? 

BE authentic. You do you. 

If we are going to talk about ‘authentic contexts’ for learning then perhaps we need to think first about how authentic WE are as we engage with learners. Is our ‘teacher identity’ getting in the way of a more powerful, personal connection with our students? How do they see us? How do we see ourselves?  Do we interact with them in the same, respectful, reciprocal way we might with others outside of the school context? How authentic are WE? Don't be afraid to be the vulnerable, imperfect, HUMAN that you are. 

Make the classroom a place that feels good to be in.

Is the environment in which we and students gather each day one that feels ‘authentic’? Does it allow for movement and flexibility? Is it comfortable? Are there places to retreat to as well as interact with others? Can learners choose where they will learn? Have you engaged learners in co-constructing expectations? Is this a room/space that you feel proud of? Like your home, do you enjoy walking into it in the morning because you have taken time to consider the aesthetic of the space? Like a family (ideally!) do you all share the responsibility for caring for this environment? 

Recognise that inquiry opportunities are all around us.

And what about the learning itself? When we talk about ‘authentic contexts’ have we discussed with each other what we actually mean by that? When I think about ‘getting real’ with inquiry, I most often think of the power of purpose.   As communities, schools abound with problems, challenges and opportunities for us to inquire. What can we do about the congestion at pick up time?  How healthy is the food in the canteen? Should our uniforms be gender-neutral? Should we have uniforms? How can we better manage the waste we produce at school? How can we redesign some of the outdoor spaces so we can use them for learning? How can we integrate the art studio/gym/library/music room in a more meaningful/flexible way? Is the design of our learning spaces compatible with what we know about wellbeing?  How might the playground be redesigned to cater for all age groups? The list is endless….By engaging kids in inquiring into real issues/challenges within the school, we immediately enhance the authenticity. The purpose is obvious, the stakes are higher, the audience is real. The challenge is to then see the conceptual connections within that context. (It becomes more than, for example, simply building the playground…it is about design, function, properties, etc) 

Stay awake to possibilities

It seems to me that authenticity is also about our preparedness to ‘let go’ of a plan when a REAL opportunity to investigate something emerges unexpectedly. We have recently had a federal election here in Australia. The perfect context, it would seem, to explore concepts of democracy, power and decision making yet I encountered more than a few teachers who felt pressured to focus on other things that and been planned rather than go with this very natural avenue for inquiry. 

Be the inquirer you are

 The ‘process of inquiry’ is not some discrete, rarefied experience limited to school – we constantly inquire as we live our day to day lives. Whether it is choosing a paint colour, buying a car, wrestling with an ethical dilemma, teaching ourselves to play an instrument, learning a language or planning a holiday, we routinely ask questions, gather information from various sources, sort out and come to some conclusions. Share these authentic inquiries with students so they can see a greater fit between the processes they use to inquire in the classrooms and the ways we inquire every day. 

 Know your why

I know this phrase is becoming somewhat ubiquitous but bear with me. If authenticity is about a sense of purpose, then it really does pay to keep asking WHY.  Powerful learning happens when we ‘know the why’ of what we are learning. Keep asking WHY at the planning table, encourage students to identify the why as they construct their own inquiries. And the ‘why’ must be more than addressing the curriculum – the why needs to connect with our lives beyond school, now and in the future.

No secret teachers’ business

More and more, we are coming to understand the power of inviting the learner in to the decisions we make about and for theirlearning. Sharing intentions (co constructing them), building criteria for assessment together, inviting learners to help design the pathway of inquiry, having the learner curate their portfolios, providing options that allow them to choose workshops/clinics to attend, making the learning as visible as possible in the learning space, student led conferences …these things recognise the learner at the centre and the reality that is this – it is their learning!  Our failure to involve learners in the process of designing for their learning leads to ‘sham’ inquiry.  It can look like inquiry, even sound like inquiry but lacks the authenticity experienced when the learner is in the driver’s seat.   Inquiry - as an approach, IS already authentic. Just watch a young learner trying to figure out how something works or how to fix something they care about. They inquire. Linked to this is, of course the more authentic experience that emerges when we stop trying to map everything out to within an inch of its life and, instead, we are guided by what we notice in and discuss with learners regarding the 'next step’. Being authentic means accepting uncertainty and becoming more responsive to what is needed.

We talk a lot about authenticity - but to what extent do we allow ourselves to ‘get real’ in the classroom. And how ‘real’ can we be when we our schools exist in systems that retain structures and expectations that fly in the face of authenticity? What do you do to keep it real?

Just wondering…














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.

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

The Art of Inquiry Card Set is now available through

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…