Teacher talk in inquiry classrooms

I’m sitting in a café at an airport in New Zealand – scanning through emails while I wait for my flight.  My attention is drawn to a young woman’s voice at the window behind me, “ Wow – isn't it amazing to watch this!  I look at these HUGE planes and it makes me wonder how they fly so high in the sky when they are so heavy…”

Having contemplated the same question many times, I turned around to see who my fellow 'wonderer' was.  She was crouched at the window staring out in awe at the planes taking off and landing . She was not alone. Beside her were about 6 children who looked to be about 4 years old.  Proudly laden with pre-school back packs and bright yellow t-shirts, they too were staring out the window, their little hands splayed like starfish on the glass, their eyes wide with excitement:

 Child: “I can see another moving thing!! Look!”

(Teacher) Oh yes!  I wonder what that’s for?

Child: “It’s for the bags. The bags go in the plane”

Teacher: “Tell us more…”

Child “ They have to put the bags inside for the people”

Oh – I see… I wonder which part carries the bags?

Another child: “It’s joining up!”  See! 

Child “Not for the bags. It is for the people to get out” They go down the stairs

 (The teacher stays silent for a while…the kids take their cue and watch…)

Teacher:  "Wow –  you have some interesting ideas guys.  I’m going to watch for a bit longer and see if I can figure out what it might be for...”

Child: “It IS for the bags”

TEACHER It might be, yes, won't it be interesting to see what happens…you’ve got me thinking about how they get people and bags on. I wonder what else has to go on the plane?

About ten minutes later the group reappears in front of me. Once again, the teacher crouches down so she is ‘eye to eye’ with her students. I strain to listen…noticing how gently spoken she is – none of that nasal, unnecessarily loud teacher tone we can inadvertently develop:

You have noticed so many moving things here.  James mentioned that he wanted to see what is down below us. I wonder how we could get down there?

“Those moving stairs!!”

“Can we go on the moving stairs?”

(Teacher) Sure! That’s one way we can get down.  I noticed there is also a lift over there –

“I want to go in the lift and press the buttons!”

“Me too!”

“I want to go on the stairs thing”

(Teacher) “Hmmm. So some of us want to do one thing and some of us want to do another but remember we agreed that we need to stay together. What could we do?

“Do a vote” (they’ve clearly done this before…)

 (Teacher) “Great idea – OK. So have a think about what you would like to do, Moving stairs or the lift?" 

 The children vote on the escalator. Only one child wants to use the lift. I am intrigued to see what she will do…

(Teacher)" Hey Connor.  Can you see what happened?"

 (Child) Yes – we’ll go on the stairs

( Teacher) That’s right. Most of us seem to want to do that – so thanks for coming along.  OK team – let’s get moving!  I wonder what this will feel like….?’

And off they go – hand in hand, chatting, focused, happy and collaborative.

It so happens, I had been revisiting one of my favourite books earlier that day – Peter Johnston’s “Opening Minds”.  This beautiful book reminds me of the power of words:

 “(The teacher’s) words change the life of the classroom. They change the worlds the children inhabit, and consequently who they can be, what they will feel, what they can know, and what will be ‘normal’ behaviour”

He also offers a powerful metaphor for the language of the inquiry teacher – ‘conversational jazz’.  A great inquiry teacher is a highly skilled improviser, carefully using his/her talk to scaffold thinking, honour the child, model curiosity, respect difference and most of all to ensure the student owns their learning. This conversation happens in response to the moment – through careful listening and on-the-spot decision making.

In this precious ‘airport vignette’ I was privileged to watch a skilled inquiry teacher in action. The words she chose – and indeed the way in which she chose to communicate them – told me a lot about what she believed about how children learn and about what her role was. Her words:

  • valued and ignited curiosity and questioning
  • respected and validated (rather than judged) the children’s theories
  • gently suggested new possibilities without privileging one idea over another
  • activated deeper thinking
  • modeled ways in which we manage difference and negotiate within a community of learners

Her language is tentative and open…’wonder’ ‘might’ ‘could’ …. And her non-verbal language is inviting, respectful and warm.

The words we use (and choose not to use) – and how we use them hold enormous power. Much of what it means to be an inquiry based teacher lies in classroom discourse. Just as classroom furniture arrangements and  wall displays reveal a great deal about what we value and believe – so does our choice of words.

What do your words – and indeed your students’ words – say about you as a teacher? What might  we expect to hear being said (and not said) in an inquiring environment?

Just wondering….