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…..




Designing for inquiry learning: What conversations are we having?

As I deal with the frustration of having to, once again, 'rest my voice' to recover from chronic laryngitis (is there a message somewhere in this???!) I have had to forgo a much anticipated day of planning tomorrow with one of my lovely partner schools here in Melbourne. This morning I received a message from their very capable inquiry leader asking if I could jot down some 'tips' as she will be facilitating the conversations without me.  Now, I know she really does not need them because she is such a thoughtful, well informed leader but it got me thinking. 'Hmmmmm What DO I tend to say when I am designing for learning with teachers and sometimes with kids too?'  It was not long before I had a page filled... mostly with questions.

I guess that is how I often see my role as we plan' -  to ask the right questions. My intention (and I don't always achieve it!!) is to try to build the teachers' 'agentive identity' by asking rather than telling - and then, just as in the classroom situation, I try to do the 'explaining' part strategically. This means giving teachers ample opportunities to create and design for themselves and reserving my suggestions and explanations for when they might be useful. As a facilitator this means my role is flipped in much the same way as it is in the classroom.  

So.  Here are the questions  I often find myself asking when we are in the first stages of designing a new journey of inquiry with and for learners.  I don't ask them all each time. What is really interesting for me is that the process is really about framing and clarifying intent, it is NOT about generating activities although we will often identify some routines or strategies that might help implement our initial intentions (thinking routines being key).  The questions here are those we generally use when designing what I think of as a shared inquiry where a big question is being explored by the group (and within this, many individual questions usually emerge).  I hope some of these questions resonate with you - particularly if you have a facilitation role in your school....they are in no particular order. 

Reflecting and evaluating. 

Looking back over our last inquiry, what might we need to address in THIS one?  What did we notice about the children’s skills as inquirers? Are there some areas we need to offer more support in? Is there a way we can address these needs in the next context for inquiry? Have we sought feedback from our learners about the impact of the inquiries we are ‘concluding’ in the coming weeks? Should we invite some kids to come and chat to us about this now? 

Revisiting the WHY

We put this inquiry on the map last year – some time ago. Let’s remind ourselves WHY we included this in our design for the year.  Why is this an inquiry worth pursuing in terms of the curriculum AND the children’s interests and needs?  Why this question? Why now? 

Student voice

Many of us have already canvassed possibilities for this inquiry with our students prior to this meeting. Some of us have invited kids to share their “first thinking” in response to the question. Let’s share that data now – what are they telling us? What does this reveal? How might we respond? How might this initial information help shape this inquiry? What if we invited a few kids in right now – to talk with us about their views of this inquiry and what they envision for their learning?  Let’s bring some kids to the table.

Specialist connections

Let’s consider the role of our specialist teachers. Does this inquiry lend itself to conceptual connections with specialist areas? Can we draw on their expertise? Can we bring the relevant specialists in on this? What collaborations might be possible? 

The big picture- framing up

What conceptualunderstandings does this inquiry potentially allow our kids to develop? What are the big ideas framing this?  Is there anything we feel belongs on a ‘need to know’ list? Can we list the knowledge items as distinct from the understanding goals? 

How does this inquiry allow us to connect to achievement standardsin the curriculum We mapped this last year – but let’s take another look. What elements of the achievement standards might we address?  Let’s take a look ACROSS the curriculum – we can integrate several learning areas. 

What learning assets do we think this inquiry might add value to? Can we identify specific skills and dispositions within those assets that will be particularly relevant as the inquiry unfolds? (this is a question we need to keep coming back to as the design of the inquiry takes shape) 

What compelling questionmight help drive this inquiry? We suggested something when we did our planning last year – does it still hold up? 

Considering our own understandings

How would WE respond to this question? What views do WE bring to this as adult learners? How might this affect the way we interact with kids in this journey. How confident are we with the scope/field being explored?  Do we need to do some further inquiry ourselves? Where is the expertise in the school and wider community we could all tap into?

The real deal

How authentic is the purpose and context of this inquiry. Is there a way we can move it from being an ‘engaging exploration’ to an engaging exploration with a high stakes, real purpose. Let’s think about issues/problems/contexts in the school or community we might be able to harness (several of the inquiries we mapped last year were designed with authentic purpose in mind). Is there a real audience for this learning? 


How might we provoke real curiosity, interest – and a desire to want to find out more? Do we need to or is the need and interest already there?  Do we need to create some kind of invitation or provocation?  What might that look like? 

Tuning in

Given the understand goals we have drafted, how might we get a better insight into where our kids are at now – so they can track their growth?  Given our kids are becoming familiar with the SOLO taxonomy - could we invite them to plot their own position on that scale? How might we further tune into our student’s initial thinking? How might we capture that in some way so they can reflect on and monitor the way their thinking changes? How might we make this initial thinking visible? 


When and how will we invite questions? Are we already hearing some? Do we need to deliberately target this or is it likely to emerge? How will we document and use those wonderings? 

Finding out

What resources are we aware of that might assist learners to gather new information in a range of ways. If this is an historical inquiry – how might we help them harness the ‘mantle of expertise’ as historians? Scientists? Geographers? Artists?.....etc.  what people, places and texts might help them explore?  

Making connections

How might this inquiry allow us to make authentic connections across the curriculum.  Are there texts we can use more intensively as readers/writers/viewers? What mathematical inquiry might this journey involve? Let’s think big picture and see what natural links we can harness.

Releasing responsibility

Now – how might we involve our students in designing for their learning. If we have an excursion/field trip in mind, for example – how might we engage students in designing the experience?  How do we ensure we are amplifying agency in this process? 

We all know that questions are critical to engaging quality thinking. And we want quality thinking around 'the planning table' what questions work for you? What do you ask when you are designing for inquiry learning? 

Just wondering...



The blessings of silence - some reflections on talk in the classroom.

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”   Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth.

It strikes almost every year and has since I began teaching over 30 years ago. Winter comes and inevitably…despite all my efforts at warding it off, I get a virus that leads straight to laryngitis. In my line of work,  not being able to use my voice is a major problem!  I fondly recall my class of five year olds many years ago earnestly seeing if they could ‘find’ my voice out in the yard!  

The only way to recover from laryngitis is to stop talking. Completely. No talking, no whispering.  And that has been my great challenge for the last 3 days.  What a strange, frustrating experience it has been – but it has also given me pause to consider the issue of what it means to ‘have a voice’. I’ve been wondering more about the experience of those children who have no voice in the classroom both literally and figuratively and has helped me gain a little more empathy with our quieter learners.

Here are some of the things I noticed during my enforced days of silence:

Not being heard often felt like not being seen too!  I could not use my voice to get anyone’s attention so had to walk right up to people and tap them on the shoulder to initiate communication. After a while, I noticed I stopped bothering and became less connected with others - even in my own home.  It made me think about those quiet kids who we stop seeing…because we rarely hear them and the sense they might have that they are not really part of the group. 

I needed people to be incredibly patient with me.  Whether I was writing them a message, mouthing words or using extravagant hand gestures it took much longer to get my message across. It made me think about those kids who, for whatever reason have trouble communicating verbally and the subtle messages we might give them to ‘hurry up’ or our temptation to finish their sentences/interpret too early  - and how disempowering that is.

On the upside, not being able to be part of conversations meant I was incredibly selective about the moments I chose to try to ‘say’ something.  Because it took an effort to write/mime/mouth something, it had to be important. I listened more. I stopped needing to comment on everything and was amazed at how often my impulse to say something arose. I did think ‘my goodness, I talk a lot!’   It made me think about the teachers (myself included) who don't listen carefully, who feel they need to weigh in on everything or respond to every comment their kids/team members make. It reminded me of the power of listening and how our impulse to talk needs to be consciously managed. 

Not talking to people had the strange effect of making it FEEL like we were upset with each other for some reason.  I drove my youngest daughter to her various commitments in complete silence where we usually use time in the car to chat.  It felt strained and strange and I found myself giving her lots of reassuring hugs and smiles to make sure my silence was not misinterpreted!   It made me think about those really quiet kids/teachers and how we can misinterpret silence for sullenness or reluctance?  In our culture at least, talk is valuable currency.  We view talk positively -  as involvement, engagement and connection  - and silence can be met with suspicion.  How do we help our kids understand the many reasons someone might choose not to speak -  and that it does not necessarily mean there is anything ‘wrong?’  

One night during my enforced vow of silence, I slid into my (musician) eldest daughter’s opening night performance at a big, noisy pub in Melbourne.   Ordinarily, I would be there with friends and family, joining in some of the songs, joyously whooping my approval, talking to others in between songs, commenting on the performance as it unfolded,  but this time I was alone and silent. It was a completely different experience.  Watching something knowing I didn't have to talk about it was actually quite liberating. I was simply in the moment, completely engaged in the performance and in this rather lovely ‘bubble’ of quiet, solitary listening and appreciation. It made me think about how quickly we ask kids to respond to powerful experiences (a story, a clip, a provocation….) how often I say ‘Now turn to your partner and….’  How often do I give them opportunities to be with their own thoughts or to NOT share- at least not straight away.  In our zeal to make learning interactive, collaborative and active can we overlook the need for quiet contemplation? 

My voice is returning now.  Slowly.  Which is just as well because I need it these next few days here in India.   In caring for my voice though, I hope will be more mindful of when I choose to speak and why. This can only be a good thing. Like other teachers, I am constantly working on my ‘talk less, listen more’ mantra and this is forcing me to do it. 

Many of us would equate the notion of ‘having a voice’ with learner agency. And indeed, the right to be heard is vital in the inquiry classroom. I will continue to champion the need for kids to engage in productive dialogue in the classroom and for a high level of active, interactive engaged learning.  But I am wondering a little more now about the right to be (and benefits of) quiet, both literally and figuratively.  Silence can be frustrating and limiting – but it can also be very illuminating. 

How do you balance noise and quiet in your classroom? How do you encourage those children who may take time or are even less inclined to speak to feel both reassured and encouraged? How might we be more accepting and understanding of children who choose not to speak even when we ask them to?  How might we give the ‘talkers’ opportunities to experience the benefits of not talking?  How do we help kids see that ‘having a voice’ does not always mean talking?  How well do we value the multiple ways in which we can express ourselves? 


Just wondering…

Inquiry, noticing and the changing seasons… A tribute to the late Frank Ryan.

I have been meaning to post this all year.  I started planning it in January when I was holidaying down my beloved coastal town of Aireys Inlet.   Ironically, as the days have grown shorter, the pile of books I wanted to refer to has grown higher and I’ve scribbled bits and pieces here and there but failed to complete it.  Other posts have come and gone but, strangely, the impetus to write this one has taken time.  Perhaps it needed to wait. 

This post is about the desperate need for children to be encouraged and permitted to notice and inquire into the natural world around them. But now, it is much more than that.  It is written in honour of my beautiful friend of some 30 years and exceptional educator– Frank Ryan.  Frank died on the shortest day of this year, the winter solstice. I was honoured to be with him and some close friends and family as he left this world.  The world is poorer for his passing but in his time on this planet he touched the loves of thousands of children who may otherwise never have encountered the joy that is connecting with nature.

Frank was – literally and figuratively -  a towering figure in the field of Environmental Education. When I was still studying to be a teacher, I was fortunate enough to watch Frank at work at the Zoo Education School in Melbourne and I was hooked. There are a handful of educators I have come into contact with in my career who had a profound impact on me  - and Frank Ryan was one of them.  I watched him with us, I watched him with kids and  I felt him connect us to the environment. I was transformed. Frank helped make me the teacher I am today. 

It was Frank who helped me understand how to use the natural world as my classroom and how to bring nature into the classroom. Partly because of him, I spent many years actively involved in the Environmental Education field. I always had animals in my classrooms and that experience helped me learn how to engage children in inquiry. Kids I taught back then still say that they remember most vividly the learning we did through observing and caring fo turtles, lizards, yabbies, chickens - we even raised quail when I taught a beautiful class of year 3/4 students. The first book I ever published "Integrating Naturally" was all about basing integrative learning on big ideas about the environment. I still think fondly of that 'green book'.    My husband Steve Ray and Frank began an innovative company in the 90s called ‘Vox Bandicoot’.  Some Australian teachers may even remember having ‘Vox’ at their school. Frank and Steve created pop up ‘bush habitats’ In schools and introduced children to tortoises, lizards and snakes and performed theatre about environmental issues. Thousands of children benefitted from the opportunity to connect with nature. His death is a huge loss to the Education world but his legacy is mighty.  

So as I said, I have been working on this post on and off since Frank died a couple of weeks ago. It is longer than it should be but I hope you will give it your time.  And I also hope that you will take time in the coming weeks and months to do something to connect yourself and your kids with the natural world on which we all depend. There can be no greater purpose and no more engaging context for the inquiring mind. When you take kids out into the natural environment, you don't really need to fabricate complicated 'provocations' to lure them into becoming curious. It's all there: 

Inquiring into the changing seasons...

It is the shortest day of the year.  Outside my study window (the window I have looked through most days for 25 years) the Melbourne sky is at its best – clear, brilliant blue. The air is cold and still. It is the kind of morning that ices up your car window and where your breath fogs as you speak.  The walnut tree in our back yard – once a seedling from my grandmother in-law’s tree, acts as a kind of living calendar for me.  One of the last trees to lose its leaves, it is finally acknowledging the cold. It is almost stripped bare apart from a few desperate leaves. In the summer months, the towering manna gum we planted when we moved here is alive with the raucous sound of rainbow lorikeets and bossy magpies but on this clear, cold day all is quiet and still. Later in the year, I will keep a watchful eye out for the sacred kingfishers who occasionally gift us with a rare visit.  Across the road, my neighbour’s front garden proudly hosts a large magnolia tree.  It whispers secrets to me when I walk past. “Winter is coming” it says – when all the other trees are just starting to dress in their beautiful Autumn reds and oranges, the Magnolia has already lost its leaves. I know, one day soon, as the days begin to grow imperceptibly longer, she will tell me “Spring is on its way” and new buds emerge well ahead of any other flowers in an otherwise wintery landscape. 

Despite the fact I live in an inner, urban suburb of Melbourne, nature has its way of nudging me to notice my world on a regular basis. Whether it is the presence or absence of certain birds, a possum scuttling along the powerlines at night, the smell of a jasmine in early spring or the blissful sound of the first cicada that sends us all the message that those long, lazy days of summer are not far away.  in Melbourne, it is hard NOT to notice the changes in weather but it is the subtle, cyclical patterns of change that I find endlessly intriguing and strangely comforting. 

Ever since I began teaching, one of the most common topics in the primary classroom has been ‘the weather’ or ‘seasons’. I even had someone tell me not long ago that they were going to ‘do the seasons’ with their kids next term. That makes me cringe.   Here in Australia, the science curriculum requires children to know that “observable changes occur in the sky and landscape and daily and seasonal changes affect everyday life.”  Too often, this profound truth – that the environment around us is constantly changing – is reduced to a shallow topic or, worse still, we serve up to our kids the view that there are four stereotypical seasons without any acknowledgement of the incredible diversity of seasonal change across our land and indeed across the world. And we ‘do’ seasons without ever stepping outside the classroom!!

The changing environment offers an incredible opportunity for inquiry. But why limit that inquiry into one stand alone unit when, in fact, the opportunity to learn about, notice, anticipate, observe and record change is available to us every single day?   Inquiring into the environment is SO much better as an ongoing experience. And I am not just talking about a filling in a weather chart each day!  On a regular basis,  take your kids OUTSIDE to observe and record what they see, hear and smell. Take time to record, to photograph, to draw – and simply to BE in the outdoors.  Have each child find their special spot  - a place they will return to all year and document change.  Find a window in your school through which to see the outside world. Watch the way the view out that window changes over the year. Draw it, write about it, capture it in a diary that will be used again next year to anticipate change. Our kids spend more time indoors than any previous generation and yet this can be the context for some of the most engaging, focussed learning. There are dozens of ways you can use the outdoors as a context for inquiry.  I am only mentioning a few here: 

  • Connect with places around your school in which you and your children can spend time in more natural environments. Build a relationship with your local parks, waterways, beaches, gardens.

  •  Go for walks. Walk slowly and learn to notice the small things. Nature is everywhere…even in the cracks of the footpath of the most urban street. Record what you see on your walks and take the same route each time to notice the subtle and more dramatic changes.

  • Create a timeline in the classroom that depicts what you are noticing each month about the environment around you. Include photos, sketches and observations on the timeline. What birds are in the school yard at different times of the year? Which plants are flowering? Where are the shadows falling in the school yard?

  • Encourage your kids to get to know nature in their neighbourhoods or back yards. Have them keep diaries or journals, take photographs and track the way that places change over a year.

  • Find out what kinds of plants there are in your school yard. Keep track of how they grow and change over time. 
  • Start noticing the birds – what species are in the school grounds? Does it change over the year? Which birds are native? Introduced?  What are their habits? Where do they prefer to hang out? Why? 
  • Connect with kids in other parts of your country or even state. What is their experience of the environment at simultaneous times of the year? 
  • Find out about the ways the indigenous people of your area identify seasonal change. 
  • Talk to your kids about what YOU notice as the days pass over the year.  Model what it means to be fascinated by and connected to your environment. Marvel aloud at the changing seasons. 

Finally, a post about connecting with nature and noticing the changing seasons without reference to at least a few of my favourite resources and books…

 This beautiful book depicts the seasonal calendar of the Gundjeihmi-speaking people of Kakadu.

This beautiful book depicts the seasonal calendar of the Gundjeihmi-speaking people of Kakadu.

 A book that tracks change from month to month  - a lovely example of noticing small changes over time. 

A book that tracks change from month to month  - a lovely example of noticing small changes over time. 

 I adore this book and the simple way it depicts change over time with one word per page. It is a work of art. 

I adore this book and the simple way it depicts change over time with one word per page. It is a work of art. 

 A year on our farm is a lovely insight into the impact the changing seasons can have on our daily lives - so much more the case when living on a farm. 

A year on our farm is a lovely insight into the impact the changing seasons can have on our daily lives - so much more the case when living on a farm. 

 Such a beautiful book. This says it all really - step out, take time to notice and be delighted by what you discover, if only you take a moment to look. 

Such a beautiful book. This says it all really - step out, take time to notice and be delighted by what you discover, if only you take a moment to look.