I have been driving about as long as I have been teaching. And that’s a long time! I still recall how exhausted I would be at the end of even a short trip in those first few weeks of getting my licence. Everything I did, every move I made in my little 1979 Honda Civic 2-door was conscious, mindful, deliberate- and slightly angst-filled. Getting from A to B was an exercise in concentration. It took me a while to feel relaxed enough to turn on the radio or have a sustained conversation with a passenger. Nothing was habit. Both I and my car were in ‘manual’ gear. Some thirty years on, I enjoy driving (which is just as well as I am so often on the road) and many aspects of driving have become automatic (as has my car’s transmission!). After years on the road I’ve developed what I hope are some good driving habits. And I don’t think too much about them. At least not every journey and not all the time.
This analogy seemed an apt way to examine a trend I have noticed in reflective conversations following ‘labsites’ or modelled inquiry lessons. Giving ‘fishbowl’ lessons – where teachers get to look in on an inquiry based approach in action, is one of my favourite forms of professional learning. The conversations we have after these sessions are often powerful, honest and energising. Over the past couple of years I have begun to notice how people regularly remark on the same things:
“You position yourself at the same level as the kids – you are on the floor, at the tables, in the circle…you are at their level.”
“You don't ask for hands up – the kids talk to each other instead. ”
“ There is a lot of time to think – the pace feels slower and more relaxed”
“ You don't tell them much, you ask more than you tell”
“You use a lot of very specific language of thinking …”
You say “I wonder…” a lot!
“You let them figure things out…you keep probing”
I am not sharing these observations in a self-congratulatory way. What interests me is that much of the time, these aspects of my pedagogy are things I don't really notice. To be honest, I am not aware that I am doing them as much as I obviously am. These things have become habit. Not doing them would feel strange and unfamiliar. Micro skills, like waiting after a question is asked or sitting amongst kids rather than in front of the group just feels right. They are my 'go to' behaviours. If I have a conversation with children where they all put their hands up and answer in turn, I feel uncomfortable. If I am standing at the front, looming over young children who are seated on the floor, I feel unsettled and out of my skin. Over time, these and other aspects of my pedagogy have become habit. Having worked hard on building an inquiry-based pedagogy, this stance now feels natural. I guess I am at what some describe as the stage of ‘unconscious competence.’
Which brings me to the point of this blog post! As I have said numerous times, inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning. It is both a stance and a useful framework to assist in the design of learning experiences. What teachers do and say- how they behave and interact in the learning space has a huge role in determining the way kids see themselves as learners. If we want kids to be great inquirers, our teaching habits need to nurture that. While a lot of great work goes on when teachers project and reflect around the planning table, we strengthen our inquiry muscles through our interactions with students. Every lesson, every day gives us an opportunity to practice some of the key elements of this pedagogy such as the questioning, the pacing, the releasing of responsibility and the language of thinking. Becoming a more inquiry based teacher is, at first, like learning to drive – even harder, it can be like unlearning to drive one way and having to re-learn to drive another. Perhaps it is a little like learning to drive on the other side of the road … the same basic moves, the same basic context but requiring a different perspective, different choreography and different cues.
And even though I have developed a strong suite of habits that position me and my learners as inquirers, there are some old habits that remain. They are for the most part dormant but can return when I feel pushed for time, when I am uncertain about my purposes, when I am challenged by a student or when I am just plain tired. I have learned to own these moments, admit to kids and to observing teachers that I’ve made a wrong move. I try to consciously change gears and resume the journey. Getting into new teaching habits is not easy but it can be exhilarating when we do.
So…some tips for getting into the habit of inquiry- with acknowledgement to this Lifehack blog from whom I have shamelessly stolen some headings! (http://www.lifehack.org/articles/featured/18-tricks-to-make-new-habits-stick.html)
Make it daily: ‘Doing inquiry’ twice a week treats inquiry more like a subject than a pedagogical stance. It’s not enough. If you are starting out, take just one lesson/learning experience each day, in any area, and consider how you could provide kids with more opportunity to investigate, figure out, problem solve and ask questions.
Start simple: Inquiry is a wonderfully complex, layered approach to teaching and learning. But this can be daunting. A great place to start is by learning more about questions and questioning. Try focussing on having kids ask questions and teaching them about questions. One step at a time.
Get a buddy: They say you are more likely to stick with a gym program if you go with someone else. Might this be true of new teaching approaches too? Find someone on staff to discuss your plans with. Watch each other teach, talk about your progress. Collaborate.
Accept your imperfections!: Don't be hard on yourself when a lesson doesn't work out or when your fine efforts to provide open ended, differentiated, challenging, authentic, problem based, higher order tasks … are met with confusion or learner indifference! It happens. Tomorrow is another day.
Remove temptation from your path. Tear up your photo copy card. Burn their text books. Get rid of some of the tables in the room. Or whatever your teaching equivalent is of ‘don't have chocolate in the house.’
Associate with role models: stay connected with others trying to work in the same way. If they are not in your school, use a digital PLN. Facebook and twitter abound with enthusiastic inquiry teachers who will happily keep you energised and motivated!
Write it down. Say it out loud: share your intentions with your kids and colleagues. This way you are not only accountable to yourself - you are accountable to others. For example, you might say to your kids “I really want to get into the habit of giving you more thinking time. I am going to be trying some new ways of asking questions and having conversations with you…”
Know the benefits. Good habits are formed when we truly believe in the results they will bring us. Read. Know why you are doing what you are doing and return to those reasons when it becomes challenging or frustrating.
Persist. Working in new ways as a teacher is not just about changing our own habits. The way we behave has a symbiotic relationship with our students’ behaviour. Our habits perpetuate theirs and vice versa. If we are in the habit of asking closed, leading, shallow questions – students form the habit of responding with limited, ‘teacher-pleasing’, shallow answers! Unlearning is uncomfortable – but the new learning and the new way of being is worth it.
We become inquiry teachers by teaching for and through inquiry. Kids develop their skills and dispositions by being given plenty of opportunities to inquire. These opportunities are available to us across the day whether we are running a math workshop, taking a PE lesson outdoors, reading from a class novel or hanging out with kids in a maker space. I know it is a slightly glib phrase but I can’t help but say it again – inquiry is a way of being.
And one final note. Unconscious competence is an important state to reach because it allows an ease of being, less energy expenditure and a flow state. But it also, of course, has its pitfalls. The reflective conversations I have with teachers and kids about my teaching help me return to ‘conscious’ competence – a state we need to be in in order to teach others. Being highly conscious, at times, of the teaching moves we are making can help us sharpen our skill set and remain ever vigilant about self-improvement.
Much like the state I will need to be in when I teach my daughters to drive.
Are you in the habit of inquiry teaching?