In praise of 'AND'....

Suffice to say, the gap between this and the last post is a tad embarrassing.  Miniposts in Facebook don’t quite do it but at least there is some excuse there!

This particular post has been a while in the making. And it still doesn’t feel quite right. But, uncharacteristically, I have decided simply to put it out there in all it’s not-quite-there-yet glory. I have made so many attempts to write posts about inquiry and evidence of effectiveness or about the troubling characterization of inquiry as a kind of ‘teacher-free;’ approach.  I find the process of writing about this enervating. I am not sure why.  Anyway…..would love your thoughts….

I did my initial teacher training in the early eighties (yep – I’m THAT old!).  At the time, the work of Donald Graves was beginning to have a strong influence on our thinking about the teaching of writing.  I was so inspired by the prospect of working with children as genuine authors.  I learned about the importance of rigorous drafting, conferring and reflecting in the writing process. I knew the importance of conducting what we called ‘clinics’ - small group, targeted, instructional sessions to address specific needs and issues we noticed as analysed children’s writing. In these clinics, we focussed on aspects of punctuation and grammar needed to strengthen the writing.  Along with Donald Graves, I was introduced to the work of Lorraine Wilson (here in Australia) who championed the power of language experience in growing the young reader and writer.  I learned about listening. And I learned about documenting the language children generated through experience and how to ‘harvest’ that language to stretch and build vocabulary and phonemic awareness. I learned that language instruction worked best when children had ownership over what they were reading and writing and when there was true purpose and authenticity in my approach.  I also took it for granted that explicit teaching of phonics, punctuation and grammar were part and parcel of what it meant to be a whole language teacher. It was a no brainer. Or so I thought.

I still remember the bewilderment I felt when, early into my career, I started hearing people identify ‘whole language’ teachers as different (in fact, in opposition) to those who ‘believed in phonics’.  Huh? I was baffled by the ‘or’ in this debate  - you either taught phonics OR you were a whole language teacher. All I had ever known was AND.  When it came to helping build children’s capacity as writers I had a holistic, integrative, learner-centred view but it included careful, strategic, explicit instruction.  This was my first experience of what I still believe to be a ‘false dichotomy’ and, as the years went by, I noticed it happening again and again.   It was either X OR Y, either black OR white. It either worked or it didn’t. It was effective or ineffective. Us or them.  I came to see that teaching was riddled with false dichotomies and unhelpful, divisive labels.  

It’s now over 30 years since I was that earnest, wide-eyed, early-career teacher but I still find myself baffled by the discourse that emphasises OR rather than AND.  I have never let go of my commitment to teaching in ways that value the experience and voice of the learner.  I agree with Kathy Short when I say that inquiry, in its most simple iteration, is a stance.  For me, inquiry is about giving the learner opportunities to question, to play and experiment, to explore, wrestle with and clarify ideas, to figure things out, to problem solve, to make connections, to reflect on and change thinking, to share and test out theories in the pursuit of making-meaning.   Does this happen in a teacher-free zone? Of course not! Do inquiry teachers simply … ‘let kids learn by themselves? Well, sometimes that is exactly what they do - but, the vast majority of the time, inquiry teachers are right there: questioning, nudging, prompting, observing, stepping in and knowing when to step out. And inquiry teachers are instructing. Rarely does a lesson goes by without a careful moment of explaining something to a student or a small group, perhaps modelling a process or demonstrating a technique. But we to do this when (and if) we assess the moment is right.  I am regularly amazed by what learners DO figure out for themselves (and how deeply satisfying that is for them)  when given the right conditions, opportunity and challenge AND I have in my repertoire, the technique of timely, direct explanations or demonstrations when required.  

So when I read statements like:   “The idea that children learn best when they discover things on their own is believed by many educators -  but it is a myth” (Visible Learning) or hear pronouncements like “evidence shows inquiry learning doesn’t work” I feel like I am back in the world of “or”.  Firstly – who are these ‘many educators’?  If a teacher truly sees inquiry learning this way, then they have much to learn about the approach!!   I work with hundreds of teachers all over the world who use inquiry based approaches in their classrooms. They would be the first to say the students are far from ‘on their own’ and they would rarely expect them to learn this way.  Like the simplistic characterization of ‘whole language’,  inquiry is too often described in somewhat monochromatic terms, eg:  kids ask questions and are then left to research their questions.  If ‘learning on their own’ means a teacher-free, entirely student-led and always-interest based approach then I would agree the impact would most often be low (that being said, let’s consider the countless things that kids learn on their own, before coming to school and outside of school!... hmmmmmm)

Can we start thinking less about the OR and more about the AND? Can we agree that it is entirely possible for classrooms to be places in which students own their learning, make choices, are deeply engaged and care about what they are learning AND interact with teachers who know when to step in and instruct, explain, demonstrate, model? Can we agree that inquiry is a teaching stance that emphasises questioning and listening AND requires some demonstration and explaining?  

A cautionary note.... I am well aware that embracing the ‘and’ can be seen as a bit of a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ position,  Make no mistake. I am not saying ‘anything goes’. The underpinnings of inquiry remain steadfastly true to a constructivist view of learning.  What I am trying to do here is, perhaps, dispel a myth about a myth. Inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning depends on thoughtful, strategic, nuanced,  and highly intentional teachers. 



Just wondering...