Teaching to learn: lessons from a day of observation and collaboration.

 I have just spent the day teaching through inquiry with students at the International School of Prague.  After “work-shopping” with teachers and spending focused time collaboratively planning, reflecting and conversing about inquiry it was time for us to work alongside each other in the classroom and take our own thinking and learning deeper.  As always, this approach to our shared, professional learning leaves me with so much to think about.

I’ve made many connections across the day but the most significant reminder has been how powerful our teaching can be when we commit to teaching as an act of inquiry in itself.  As groups of teachers shared classroom spaces today, it was their deliberate intention to examine the “pedagogy” of inquiry.  As I am asking children to wonder, to reflect, to evaluate, to collaborate and to set new goals , so are their teachers.   As teachers observe teaching, confer with children, take in the ‘working walls’ in each classroom – they are inquiring into inquiry.  THEY are wondering, reflecting, collaborating and goal setting. 

 After decades of working in the field of inquiry and professional development,  I would hesitate to say that there is one “best” approach to teacher learning.   Effective PD often ends up being a hybrid of approaches from listening to presentations, reading and viewing, planning/sharing and networking with colleagues.  But there can be no doubt about the power of the classroom,-based, real time learning that happens when we reflect IN practice.  We are inquiring as we teach and there is nothing quite as invigorating.   As we spend time observing another teacher at work, there are questions that can help sharpen our reflections, these include:

  • What is the nature of the discourse between teacher and students and amongst? How are conversations conducted and what are the conversations about?
  • How is student thinking supported and challenged? What is done to get the students thinking more for themselves?
  •  How is questioning used to encourage inquiry,  participation and higher order thinking?
  •  What elements are made explicit and when?
  •  What do you notice about the students’ responses? What intrigues you?
  •  What do you notice about the kind of language that is used by “the teacher” … how are questions formed? How are questions responded to?
  •  What would you do differently? What doesn’t work? Why?
  •  What would you do next?
  • What questions does this raise for you?

 Although I was leading the teaching today, the very act of being “observed” inevitably helps ME be more mindful as I teach.  So, as an inquirer, what was affirmed for me today?  What did I notice? How has my thinking been sharpened or shifted through my interaction with children and teachers? 

 Reflections and affirmations…

Young students are more than capable of understanding and using the often complex language of thinking.  Throughout the day, students were inquiring into the nature of synthesis, reflection, transfer and evaluation. When we build shared language – we can engage in some extraordinary conversations.

 “Now I am thinking that synthesis is like a tree because thinking starts small and then it grows and grows. And then the leaves on the tree are NEW thoughts. Sometimes those leaves drift off somewhere and sometimes you don’t need them anymore so they just fall to the ground but new thinking is always growing”  (8 yr old)

 Honoring student voice requires a willingness to let go of preconceived responses and to step toward the student. It’s my job to tune in to THEIR thinking.  As teachers we need to keep recalibrating as we listen to our students – to probe and question until we reach understanding.

 Questioning is to the inquiry teacher what water is to a garden.  Our questions – and the use of student questions -  help grow the thinking where didactic statements and commands stunt it.  Framing a lesson’s learning intention as a question as opposed to a fixed outcome positions us all as inquirers.

 We do a lot of thinking that students can do for themselves.   Giving choice and honoring voice can feel messy and unstructured but, in fact, it is the moment when learning is personalized and the child has agency.   Trust and patience (and good humour!) are critical dispositions in an inquiry classroom. 

 When we position children as researchers and allow them to investigate those things that they find compelling and fascinating – we build a sense of authority and expertise as a learner that is extraordinarily empowering.  A group of 6 year olds today, taught me SO much about a breed of crayfish native to this part of the world. They have observed their resident crayfish, interviewed a scientist and continued to ask amazing questions.  Their expertise is now being passed on to children in Melbourne, Australia through photographs, images, art work and video footage they have prepared to share their understanding.  This has actually been an inquiry into team work – but in order to reflect on and learn about working together – they needed something worth collaborating about!   

 Purpose is powerful.   How often do we ask students to complete tasks – even highly engaging and inquiry-based tasks – without a shared understanding of WHY this might be a useful and worthwhile thing to be doing?   The students in this year 1 class in Prague will now be waiting anxiously for a response from the year 1 students in Australia.  An authentic audience lifts the learning bar.

What students are inquiring into matters – learning about the world should be awe-inspiring.  Across the day, I heard students discussing big ideas about how scientists work, about living things and lifecycles and about the power of a good story.  But alongside these investigations MUST be a simultaneous focus on what it means to learn.  As we explore the world around us – we can explore the world ‘within’. For the year three students, inquiring into their changing thinking became as fascinating as the beautiful story they viewed  on vimeo  -“The Way Back Home.”

 It is with such gratitude that I leave these children to continue my conversations with their teachers.  The privilege of watching and listening to learning nurtures us as we inquire – our follow up discussions  have us sharing our reflections, observations, our questions and our connections.  

When was the last time you deliberately teamed up to observe or share your teaching? How often do we invite each other into our classrooms as we teach?   How often do we take the time to inquire more closely and carefully into the work we do everyday – into our shared, core business.  As an inquiry teacher, I know that observing teaching and indeed being observed makes me  more mindful of what I do and why I do it.   It is within the act of teaching itself that I make my deepest connections.

How can we create more opportunities and more time for collaborative teacher inquiry in classrooms?

Just wondering….