Sowing the seeds for a great year of inquiry: 10 tips for term 1.

The school year has just begun here in Australia. It’s a time of great anticipation, resolution and excitement – I love the sense of possibility that accompanies this time. For many of us – having had a break – it is also a time of adjustment. In a sense, we return to our ‘teacher selves’ and with that, is an opportunity to think about that identity: how DO we see ourselves as teachers and how does this impact on the way we teach? I remember hearing Ken Robinson (in a lesser known talk) once describe teachers as gardeners. This is always a metaphor that has appealed to me. I like the nurturing connotation, the link to nature, the need to tend and care, the combination of planned and unexpected and, of course, the symbol of growth.

Over the last few days, I have been working with teachers in various schools, as they prepare to meet their students and begin a new year. The gardening metaphor has come to mind many times. When it comes to inquiry – there is so much we can do (and indeed should do) to ‘prepare the soil’ and plant the seeds for a healthy, rich, vibrant year of investigation. When we meet our students at the beginning of the year, we are in a unique position to establish the culture that will best nurture our inquiry-learning garden.   So I have been reflecting on some of the key things to attend to in order to prepare the way for inquiry. Here are 10 tips for term 1...

  1. Make relationship building your priority. Inquiry works best in classrooms where students feel safe to take risks, share thinking, wonder aloud and challenge themselves. Inquiry teachers also need to KNOW their students – as people and as learners, in order to guide them most effectively. Respectful, warm and connected relationships are the key to a strong inquiry classroom. Collaborative games and simply having some fun together go a long way to creating the kind of atmosphere in which intellectual risk taking can thrive!

How will you foster strong relationships in your classroom from day one?

  1. Find out what your students are interested in, passionate about and ‘good at’. Whether they are 5 years old or in the final year of school – your students come to you with experience, expertise, passions and wonderings. An inquiry classroom makes the most of the individual strengths and interests each student brings. Begin a wonderwall, inquiry diary, wonder journal......Ask students to write you a letter/blog post or tweet about why you are so lucky to have them in your class this year!

How will you find out about your students’ interests?

The layout f Ben's 5/6 classroom at Richardson Primary School awaits the input of his students.
The layout f Ben's 5/6 classroom at Richardson Primary School awaits the input of his students.
  1. Involve students in setting up the physical learning space. Ask them: ‘how can we use this space so we can do our best learning? This will tell you a lot about the students’ ideas about learning itself and may prompt some useful inquiry into the relationships between the environment and how we learn.

How will you ensure the classroom is ‘owned’ by the students? How will you involve them in creating the learning space?

  1. Work on nurturing a culture of curiosity. Bring in fascinating objects, start a ‘cabinet of curiosity’, institute a quirky ‘question of the day’, share some awe-inspiring youtube clips. Commit to sharing your own ‘awe and wonderment’ about the world. Be a model of curiosity.

How will you ensure that curiosity thrives in your classroom?

  1. Consider ways in which you can re-structure some of your ‘beginning of the year’ events or activities so they are inquiries in themselves. For example – instead of planning all the activities that help young children get to know their school…make it an inquiry. “How can we learn about our school?”. Invite children to suggest WHAT they want to know about the school –and how they could find out! The same can be done with getting to know each other. Avoid the usual gimmicky activities and set this as an inquiry challenge: How could we find out more about each other? What do we want to know? How could we gather this information? How could we share it? Why is it important? Have students design their own ‘getting to know you tasks’. The class agreement can also be created through a process of inquiry.

How can you make some of your beginning of the year ‘activities’ more inquiry-based?

  1. Share learning intentions as questions. As I have written about previously on this blog, when we frame learning intentions as questions we open up more scope for investigation and discovery. Try this technique early in the year. Creating an inquiry culture is all about using, valuing and reflecting on questions.

How will you use questions to drive learning?

  1. Start speaking ‘learnish’ . This is one of my favourite terms used by Guy Claxton. The beginning of the year is the perfect time to find out what your students think about learning and how they see themselves as learners. Ask them to share their thinking about learning with you. Commit to being more conscious of your own language. Grow a classroom discourse that is learning-centred.

How will you help students learn and use the language of learning?

  1. Yield to an unexpected moment.  When I interviewed children at the end of 2014 about their learning as inquirers, many of them remembered the inquiries that had emerged unexpectedly more than they remembered the inquiries that were more planned ahead!  Teachers, too, regularly tell me that some of their strongest, most authentic teaching happens in response to an unexpected moment, problem, event or challenge. School programming is tighter than it has ever been. I am not suggesting we abandon plans and frameworks – far from it -  BUT I am suggesting we make a conscious decision to remain open to the unexpected moments that await us in 2015. Ironically, the more you know your curriculum and the clearer you are about where you are headed….the more comfortable you are about taking the road less travelled!

How will you make room for the unexpected?

  1. Get connected!!!  Inquiry teachers and learners are connected – to each other, to the community and to the world beyond their local community. When we set up mechanisms through which we can connect students to the world, we offer SO much more scope for research, collaborative investigations, access to expertise, authentic learning and real communication skills. Class twitter accounts, blogs and connecting with other schools via Skype or FaceTime are highly engaging and allow the classroom to no longer be defined by four walls. If you, as a teacher, have not yet, for example, subscribed to a blog, opened a twitter account, explored some educational apps…it’s time!

How will you get connected?

  1. Commit to being an inquirer.  Be the inquirer you want to see. Make sure YOU are experiencing some kind of inquiry this year – it may be professional or personal. Share your learning experiences with your students. Use language that shows them you are a learner too – you wonder, speculate, investigate, re-think, reflect and remain ardently curious. For many of us, our identity as a teacher is tightly bound to control and authority. Becoming an inquiry teacher – and nurturing inquiry learners – challenges us to re-think our ways of seeing and being. Your own inquiry disposition can be a powerful ‘fertilizer’ as you sow the seeds for a wonder-full year of learning with your students.

How will you prepare the way for inquiry to grow in your classroom this year?  Just wondering....

How will you nurture your own inquiring mind?