Tuning in... to tuning in...

‘In pursuit of knowledge, something new is learned in pursuit of wisdom, something old is unlearned. To grow, we need to learn, unlearn and re-learn.’  Med Jones I began this week working with collaborative planning teams at St Bernadette's primary school in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The school is only a few blocks away from my childhood home (in fact I vividly remember the school office calling home on occasion when our adorable Border Collie found his way to the school ground at lunch times!) At the end of the day, I decided to take a small detour and drive past the house in which I grew up. It’s been a while since I have seen it and curiosity got the better of me.

It's always such a strange feeling to revisit something from the past and to look at it anew. While there are a few changes that have occurred to our old house and the other houses in the street - there is much that remains the same. And yet – I was seeing it all so differently. I was struck by the way the passage of time affected my view: indeed my understanding of what I was looking at in my neighborhood was fundamentally different.   It was not just the neighborhood that had changed…I myself  had changed and this ‘new me’ had a different perspective and indeed a different way of thinking and feeling about what was before me. The thinking routine ‘I used to think…but now I think…’ would have been apt as I drove away: “I used to think that the concrete statues at the front of my neighbor’s house were ostentatious and out of place but now I think that this helped the family connect to the culture they left behind before coming to Australia. ”

As I drove home across town, I found myself reflecting on the wonderfully rich conversations I had had with the teachers around the planning table throughout the day. There was such a strong connection with my brief experience of visiting my old house.

Readers of this blog will know that I like to scaffold my own, teachers’ and students’ inquiry with a simple framework. This framework includes several elements or phases that are generally employed in most journeys of inquiry – although they are neither fixed nor linear. (see http://justwonderingblog.com/2013/03/25/busting-some-myths-about-the-inquiry-cycle/)  One element in that framework is something I call “tuning in” and it is often where a journey of inquiry begins.   And – as I say time and time again… it is not about “tuning in to the topic” it’s about tuning in to students’ thinking.

The early phase of a journey of inquiry is a time of reconnaissance. We are looking at the cognitive ‘lay of the land’: What do we already think about this? How do we see this? What examples of this idea are already in our lives? What are we uncertain about? What are we in conflict about? It is time for careful listening and acute observation.

Too often, genuine ‘tuning in’ gets overlooked in the rush to ‘get on with the learning’. But this reconnaissance – amongst other things – acts as a kind of time capsule. It IS learning! As the inquirer delves deeper and further into the unknown, they regularly pause and return to that first thinking and see it differently. We often use the phrase ‘on second thoughts’ in our every day discourse – the inquiry teacher encourages students to do just that kind of thinking. ‘What are your second thoughts? How do you see this differently now? What’s changed? What are you noticing? Like the shades on a paint chart – our conceptual understanding deepens (and widens) over the arc of the inquiry.

Each team I worked with during my day at St Bernadette’s, brought artifacts of student learning with them. They are a few weeks into their current inquiries – so it was the perfect time for us to look back at their early learning and consider what the children are revealing. The teachers were able to share the evidence they gathered about the children’s first ideas – and how this had informed the plans that were then made for the next part of the learning journey.   We sifted and sorted through drawings, questions, diagrams, video clips and photos asking ourselves a range of key questions that informed the next phase of our planning.

We are now so much more conscious of the need to really ‘tune in’ to children’s thinking and to have them make their thinking visible and audible as they inquire. We also need to ensure that the students themselves are noticing their thinking as it changes and deepens. This is a time for students to ‘tune in’ to their OWN thinking – to notice what they feel, see and think in relation to the concepts they will be exploring further.   Importantly, taking time to really tune in to students’ thinking - and to make it visible – tells students we value what they have to say. Inquiry teachers take time to honour what the child brings to an inquiry. What was particularly gratifying to hear around the planning table on Monday, was the teachers actually USING the data revealed to them to plan for the needs and interests of their students. Too often ‘prior knowledge’ tasks are completed simply because they are on the planner. While activating prior learning IS useful in itself – we fail to make the most of these tasks if we don't ask “what is this revealing to us?” and “where to now?”

Tuning in may involve a simple, powerful provocation to ‘hook’ engagement – but then the emphasis needs to be on exploring the known. Simplistic strategies such as “KWL” charts (which focus on ‘knowing’ rather than thinking - see http://justwonderingblog.com/2013/06/08/moving-on-from-the-kwl-chart-student-questions-and-inquiry/) are often much less useful than giving students a range of options for sharing their early thinking with us – drawings, models, symbols, images, conversations, mind maps all allow the student to express something about what they bring to this journey of inquiry. What they bring may be full of uncertainty, stereotypes and misconceptions - but sharing these in a climate of trust and safety allows for the possibility of change and for new experiences to help us ‘unlearn’ as needed.

When tuning in – the teacher is an active inquirer: inquiring into students’ current ways of seeing. The artifacts of student learning provide important reference points for assessment of growth.   How powerful it is for the learner to revisit their old thinking and see it differently and how deeply satisfying it is to be conscious of one’s own growth! How liberating to be prepared to unlearn – and learn anew.  So as you plan journeys of inquiry with and for your students, ask yourself:

  • How might students share their current thinking about this?
  • How will we tune in to that thinking?
  • What are the students’ revealing to us?
  • What implications does this have on what we should be doing next?
  • How might we help students review and reflect on this as they move through the inquiry?
  • How is OUR thinking changing?
  • What are we ‘unlearning’ and learning?

Do you take time to really tune in to your students?

Just wondering...