Establishing a culture of inquiry through inquiry.

As the school year commences here in the southern hemisphere, I am reminded of one of the great paradoxes of inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning. On the one hand, helping students inquire requires such forethought and curriculum knowledge - teachers need to be highly intentional and conscious as they support students through the process. On the other hand, inquiry learners need to be given opportunity and space to find the questions that matter to them and to feel that delicious sense of possibility from teachers who expect the unexpected and are willing to follow paths that might not have appeared on the 'maps' they have drawnSo, as inquiry teachers, we need to expect the unexpected,  create a map and then be prepared to veer from it.  For more on a culture of permission and possibility see Sam Sherratt's great post here:

In my first few years of teaching, I diligently spent many days over the final week of the summer break preparing my classroom for my new group of students. I arranged furniture, put up colourful displays, drew fun pictures in the chalk board (yep, I’m that old), set up the roster system for classroom helpers, displayed the school rules, brought in plants, organized the classroom library - and I planned.  I planned the first weeks thoroughly. My work program was a thing of beauty. Neatly written, detailed daily schedules with activities planned from 9-3.30 for several weeks. I was a paragon of organization.  

When the children walked into their new classroom, they were generally excited and happy to be there.  But, when I look back now, I see that they entered a space that was already much more MY space than theirs.   Imagine buying a house then walking into it on day one to find that not only had it been decorated by someone else (without asking for your opinion) but that your breakfasts, lunch and dinners for the next 5 weeks were ALSO already planned in addition to almost all of your daily activities.   Perhaps that is a rather extreme analogy (and perhaps there are some of us that would rather like not to have to make these decisions)  but most of us would feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction and an awful loss of control.  We need to have agency in our daily lives. We need a sense of control over what we do and how we do it. We need to have a role in creating the space around us. So do our students.

The first few weeks of the year provide a wonderful, authentic context for student and teacher inquiry.  Together, we are venturing into the unknown and most of us begin the year with many questions rolling around in our heads.   I think one of the very best questions we can ask a new class of children is: “What are you wondering?”   Simply gathering the questions that children bring to us at the beginning of the year (or at the end of the previous year) can help inform the plans we make for their learning and give them a real sense of ownership and voice.  Inquiry is a natural process we use to make sense of the world. In the first few weeks of the year,  our kids are trying to make sense of their new class, their new teacher and their new environment.  By using a more inquiry based approach to establishing the classroom and helping kids get to know each other, the routines, and their teachers a culture is born.  From the first weeks of the school year, students come to understand that this is a space in which they will have voice and in which they are expected to actively investigate rather than passively receive.

Younger children or children moving to a new section of the school often bring countless questions – both big and small – as they enter a new learning space.  At the start of the last school year, several of the prep teachers I worked with decided to use the children’s wonderings as the impetus for their first explorations together.  Simple investigations emerged around the playground, the names of the teachers in the school, what the principal did, the mysteries of announcements ….  (how does the office lady get into the speaker?), where the bins were emptied, why some areas were out of bounds, what the ‘big kids’ did in their classrooms, what the trophies in the display cabinets in the foyer were all about, what food was in the canteen, etc.  Rather than the teachers painstakingly planning activities to introduce the children to school, a few provocations (even a simple walk around the school) led to questions that then offered opportunities for all kinds of short term inquiries.  The intention of familiarizing beginners with the school environment and community was still met – but it was driven by the students themselves. And in the process of exploring the more surface questions about the school and its environs, perhaps the deeper, unasked questions be answered…’Will I belong here?’  “Will I have a voice?’  Will I feel connected and safe?

Most of us begin the year by designing tasks/activities that facilitate community building. We want to get to know our kids – and we want them to get to know and relate to each other. Again – rather than over-planning the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of this – try inviting the students to design questions and investigations:

  • How can we build a great community in this classroom?
  • What do we need we find out about each other?  How could we go about this?
  • What do we need to know about each other in order to start to build a great community?
  • How might we design this learning space to help us do the best learning possible?
  • What do you need/want to know about me as your teacher?
  • What would you love to learn about/learn to do this year? How might we make that happen?
  • What should I (as your teacher) learn about you?
  • What are you wondering about yourself as a learner this year?
  • What are you most curious about when you think about the year ahead?

This approach is still highly intentional – our purposes are still to get the year off to a productive and positive start and to build routines. A more inquiry-based approach sees students as collaborators in the design of those routines and, as a result, engages them in a more rigorous, accountable and fascinating process of culture building.

How will you bring an inquiry stance to the beginning of your school year?

Just wondering…