Minding our language: teaching in the inquiry classroom

 I’ve been re-reading some of John Hattie’s work – coincidentally during a period when I have been spending a great deal of time teaching in various classrooms and working with teachers on our day to day “instructional practices” in inquiry based learning.  It has been great to return to Hattie’s mantra – that, in the end, it is the teacher that makes the most difference.  It is what the teacher says and does that impacts most on student learning.  

Steven Covey once said “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”.  In our efforts to create a quality whole-school approach to inquiry,  the focus can too often dwell endlessly on documentation, mapping curriculum,  filling in planners, programming to attend to standards through inquiry, resourcing through technology, making displays of inquiry cycles; appropriate timetabling, getting the wording of the central idea just right, skills and strategies checklists and so on.  While all these elements are undoubtedly important  (and can help us do our job more effectively)….do we sometimes lose sight of the “main thing?“   

Re-visiting Hattie’s work reminds me of the importance of approaching all my teaching as an evaluator - indeed as a researcher.   As students engage in inquiry learning, it is MY role to inquire into their thinking.  Like an archeologist at work, I need to use questions as probes. Teaching becomes the art of helping students make their learning ‘visible’ and this, in turn, allows me to plan, adjust and of course give more constructive and useful feedback.   One of the key challenges for the inquiry teacher is to speak less and listen more.  And when we DO speak, to choose our language carefully.  Peter Johnson’s book “Choice Words” reminds us of the power of even single words to impact on students’ thinking and participation:

“I wonder…” represents a class of linguistic lubricants. It marks the offering of a possible hypothesis, or a tentative idea with an invitation, (but not an insistence) to pick it up and improve it or take it further.  For group discussions to take place such lubricants are necessary.  Other examples include “maybe”, “seems like”, “perhaps” or “I think”…this kind of “exploratory talk” brings multiple minds together to work on the same problem in powerful ways.”

 I am more and more aware of the power of the words I DO choose. Words can shut down or open up the inquiring mind.  Lately, I have been trying to document the questions and prompts that help students reveal their thinking to me and each other as I teach.  Here are some favourites:

  • What are you noticing?
  • That’s interesting, keep going/tell us more…
  • What makes you say that?
  • How is what your thinking connected to…..’s thinking?
  • Can you make a connection?
  • What else is like this?
  • What puzzles you about this?
  • Might there be another way of thinking about this?
  • What did you notice about yourself/your thinking when you said/did/heard that?
  • So what has helped you decide that? What evidence do you have for that idea?
  • Which part is making sense?
  • Which part is still confusing?
  • What are you wondering?
  • What are you planning to do?/do next?
  • Is there something else you would like to tell us about this?
  • Is your thinking changing?  How?  (I used to think…now I think)
  • How could you use this again?
  • Where/when have you done this kind of thinking/learning before?
  • What’s the most important part of this?

 A skilled inquiry teacher is constantly ‘tuning in’ to student’s thinking – not just in the early stages of a learning journey but throughout the process. To do this well, we need a repertoire of questions and strategies that help students to reveal those to us.  And then – like an excited archeologist sharing his or her discoveries – we share the artifacts of student learning with our colleagues and ask “how can I challenge this student further? What does this say about my teaching? What next?”  When we do this – we keep our focus on the “main thing” – the quality of our teaching.

Inquiry approaches to teaching set the scene beautifully for visible learning.  Inquiry pedagogy requires the teacher to  probe, listen and to observe; to provide open ended tasks, to explore rather than assume ‘the known’; to treat the understanding as a process of construction and reconstruction over time and to help students learn to reflect both on the process of learning as well as the content.   The mindful use of inquiry based strategies positions the teacher as evaluator and encourages more strategic, emergent teaching.  

 Do you inquire as you teach?  Do you mind your language?

Just wondering….