Letting go, shedding skins and teaching as trapeze….

One of the great privileges of my job is bearing witness to the process of ‘reconstruction’ that teachers experience as they transit to more inquiry-based practice.  Becoming an inquiry teacher can mean a significant degree of ‘unlearning’ as beliefs and roles are reconsidered and re-shaped.  In a series of conversations I held with groups of teachers last week,  I asked what they were noticing about themselves and how they were changing as they engaged in a year of learning about and through inquiry.  We discussed the struggles and the joys of working this way and the new questions and goals that were emerging.  Taking time to do this – to press the pause button,  look back over the year and identify new growth makes us better teachers, I am sure of it.

Having worked with teachers in this field now for many years, I am conscious of some of the recurring themes that emerge whenever we engage in deliberately reflective dialogue.  If there is one phrase I hear time and time again – it is “I am learning to let go”.  The art of letting go is, it seems, central to becoming a more effective inquiry-based teacher and yet the words ‘letting go’ are problematic.  In a sense, they play straight into the hands of those who continue criticize inquiry as a laissez-faire, teacher-free, wishy-washy approach in which teachers abandon responsibility.  Indeed – I have seen attempts at inquiry based teaching fail to succeed because too much (or perhaps the wrong things) have been ‘let go’  leaving students to flounder in a confusing sea of aimless activity. 

I am acutely aware of the tensions and paradoxes that an inquiry-based approach often throws up.  On the one hand, this kind of teaching requires us to be much more engaged, more connected, more involved and more intentional as we question, prompt, guide, confer with and assess students in order to plan and guide learning.  Teachers in the contemporary inquiry classroom leave their desk behind (many don't even have desks) and can be found engaged more strongly than ever before WITH the learner.  On the other hand, the inquiry teacher needs to be someone capable of standing back, holding back, listening, observing, allowing the learner to lead, to play, to explore and to struggle. The choreography of inquiry results in a sophisticated dance between learners and teachers with all the timing and skill of a trapeze artist – knowing just when and what to let go.

Letting go is challenging, complex and liberating all at the same time. But what is it that we find ourselves needing to let go of?  How do we ‘let go’; without abandoning responsibility and accountability?  It’s a question I have pondered for years and a theme connected with several recent discussions – including those stimulated by Sam Sharratt’s recent “Breaking Moulds” talk :

So, I thought I would share half a dozen ideas about ‘letting go’ that I have found useful to ponder through professional dialogue...

1.    Let go of TALKING (and do more listening)

It’s pretty simple really – we talk too much.  Kids tell me this over and over again.  For many of us the act of teaching is almost equivalent with talking.  I hear it in myself – saying the same thing three different ways, over explaining, too many examples, long responses to simple questions…I infuriate myself sometimes!  Of course teacher talk is our most powerful tool – our words and how we use them help shape our students’ thinking.  But we need to use them mindfully and sparingly.  Less talk for us means more for students. And less talk means more opportunities to listen:

"In an inquiry classroom there is a “commitment to readjusting the power asymmetry of the classroom by maintaining a modicum of silence…so we can hear children’s native theories and uncover their deeper questions. If we make space… we begin to hear children’s thinking”  (Gallas, K. 1995:100)"

2.    Let go of ‘secret teachers’ business’

We've all done it. Set kids a task only to realize they have no idea what you have asked them to do – or why.  I still see it – the ‘activity’ dominated classroom rather than the purposeful classroom.  When I first began teaching, it never occurred to me to share the objectives of a lesson with my students – that was secret teachers’ business!!  It’s been said before, but we know that for many students, school is like a jigsaw puzzle…only no one has given them the picture on the lid of the box. We know now of course that when we hold on tightly to those secret intentions, when we fail to tell kids why they are learning what they are learning…when we take purpose away from the equation – we reduce motivation, engagement and understanding.  Inquiry teachers let go of the need to own and control purposes by:

•       Sharing and co-constructing learning intentions

•       Inviting learners to co-construct success criteria

•       Allowing room for intentions to grow and change

This means of course we have to actually know what our intentions ARE.  Even better, we can invite our students to help us construct them. 

3. Let go of the ‘boundaried’ classroom

Let’s admit it – today’s kids do not need to be in a classroom to learn. (They never did!)  So when we do bring them into classrooms,  flexibility needs to be the order of the day.  For many if us, the classroom still represents a kind of instrument of control. Where once the beginning of the year was marked by exhaustive (well meaning) preparation of the space before the kids had even entered it –we now know the benefits of inviting the students to help design and curate their learning spaces. And it is not just about flexibility within the physical space –  the classroom itself has extended to the world. With a touch of a button or the swipe of a screen – our students can connect with experts, watch explanations on youtube far superior than anything we could do, create and connect with others.  It’s not ‘my classroom’  - it’s our classroom. The world is our classroom.  I am not their only teacher –  I am one of many, many people with whom learners can engage in order to find out what they need and want to know.  And we do not need purpose-built, hip, digitally connected, beautifully designed open plan settings for this to happen. Mind you - that can help.

4. Let go of the tyranny of the timetable.

Routine, balance and some predictability can be strong, supportive ingredients in an effective classroom.  While some form of timetabling is an inevitability when we bring groups of people together for intentional learning – slavish adherence to it can get in the way.  Effective inquiry teachers recognise the power of an integrative learning flow. If it is supposed to be time for ‘Writers’ workshop’ but your kids are absorbed in the works they are designing for their art show or they have begged you to read the next chapter because the novel has reached a climax – then keep going! Let it go.  Trust your instincts and rearrange things later in the week if you need to. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, spontaneous inquiry- the stuff we did NOT plan to do is so often the learning that is most powerful and memorable. This does not mean discarding plans and timetables – it does mean being prepared to let go and re-route.

5. Let go of the what… (and hold on to the ‘how’)

“But I have to teach them this – they need to know it.”    


 “Well… It’s in the curriculum”

 I am not saying that ‘content’ doesn’t matter.  I am not saying we need to abandon the curriculum (although there are some curricula I have seen around the world that I would happily discard) BUT feverish attempts to fit it all in, to cover it, to tick it off, to jam it all in to a learning plan is anathema to inquiry.  Get to know the curriculum really well. If it is more knowledge based than concept-based then find the concepts in it…and then…let it go.  Let the students’ questions, needs and interests help lead you to it and beyond it.  And embrace the HOW of the learning as strongly, if not more strongly, than the WHAT.  To truly help students grow their capacities as learners we need to let go of our obsession with coverage and embrace the skills, characteristics, dispositions and traits of true learning.   

6.  Let go of certainty

Uncertainty is the new black. Last week alone, I heard three people mention it in three very different contexts – the Australian Prime Minister in talking about innovation, an eminent scholar in talking about science and a deputy principal in talking about the need for teachers to be inquirers.   When we bring a more inquiring stance to our work, we accept that learning is far from a neat, clear, orderly, systematic process.  We accept that what we think we know about something may not be sufficient or still true or relevant. We accept that we cannot possibly know everything our students want to find out about but we CAN help them develop the skills to find out. We accept that it is OK to say ‘I don’t know’ to students – and to colleagues and we remain open to new possibilities and new ways of being. 

Is it time to shed a skin?

For many years, my husband worked with an environmental education organization and – to cut a long story short – this meant we shared our home with several reptiles, including non- venomous snakes (yes, they were caged).  They were beautiful and fascinating to watch most particularly when they shed their skin. They often looked uncomfortable in the lead up- as if the skin was ‘too tight’ and irritable.  Sometimes they would deliberately rub their body against a log to activate the process.  It was always fascinating to see them once the process was over – their shiny new skin gleaming in the sun. ‘Shedding skin’ is necessary for the snake’s growth and they do it all their lives.  Because I quite like snakes, I think they act as a worthy metaphor for us!   Growing means being prepared to let go. To leave something behind and to be prepared to ‘outgrow’ ideas or beliefs we once held dearly.  While it is a struggle – my conversations with teachers this week reminded me that it is also a joy. 

What have you let go?

What do you need to let go?

And what’s worth holding on to?

Just wondering….