Designing for inquiry learning: What conversations are we having?

As I deal with the frustration of having to, once again, 'rest my voice' to recover from chronic laryngitis (is there a message somewhere in this???!) I have had to forgo a much anticipated day of planning tomorrow with one of my lovely partner schools here in Melbourne. This morning I received a message from their very capable inquiry leader asking if I could jot down some 'tips' as she will be facilitating the conversations without me.  Now, I know she really does not need them because she is such a thoughtful, well informed leader but it got me thinking. 'Hmmmmm What DO I tend to say when I am designing for learning with teachers and sometimes with kids too?'  It was not long before I had a page filled... mostly with questions.

I guess that is how I often see my role as we plan' -  to ask the right questions. My intention (and I don't always achieve it!!) is to try to build the teachers' 'agentive identity' by asking rather than telling - and then, just as in the classroom situation, I try to do the 'explaining' part strategically. This means giving teachers ample opportunities to create and design for themselves and reserving my suggestions and explanations for when they might be useful. As a facilitator this means my role is flipped in much the same way as it is in the classroom.  

So.  Here are the questions  I often find myself asking when we are in the first stages of designing a new journey of inquiry with and for learners.  I don't ask them all each time. What is really interesting for me is that the process is really about framing and clarifying intent, it is NOT about generating activities although we will often identify some routines or strategies that might help implement our initial intentions (thinking routines being key).  The questions here are those we generally use when designing what I think of as a shared inquiry where a big question is being explored by the group (and within this, many individual questions usually emerge).  I hope some of these questions resonate with you - particularly if you have a facilitation role in your school....they are in no particular order. 

Reflecting and evaluating. 

Looking back over our last inquiry, what might we need to address in THIS one?  What did we notice about the children’s skills as inquirers? Are there some areas we need to offer more support in? Is there a way we can address these needs in the next context for inquiry? Have we sought feedback from our learners about the impact of the inquiries we are ‘concluding’ in the coming weeks? Should we invite some kids to come and chat to us about this now? 

Revisiting the WHY

We put this inquiry on the map last year – some time ago. Let’s remind ourselves WHY we included this in our design for the year.  Why is this an inquiry worth pursuing in terms of the curriculum AND the children’s interests and needs?  Why this question? Why now? 

Student voice

Many of us have already canvassed possibilities for this inquiry with our students prior to this meeting. Some of us have invited kids to share their “first thinking” in response to the question. Let’s share that data now – what are they telling us? What does this reveal? How might we respond? How might this initial information help shape this inquiry? What if we invited a few kids in right now – to talk with us about their views of this inquiry and what they envision for their learning?  Let’s bring some kids to the table.

Specialist connections

Let’s consider the role of our specialist teachers. Does this inquiry lend itself to conceptual connections with specialist areas? Can we draw on their expertise? Can we bring the relevant specialists in on this? What collaborations might be possible? 

The big picture- framing up

What conceptualunderstandings does this inquiry potentially allow our kids to develop? What are the big ideas framing this?  Is there anything we feel belongs on a ‘need to know’ list? Can we list the knowledge items as distinct from the understanding goals? 

How does this inquiry allow us to connect to achievement standardsin the curriculum We mapped this last year – but let’s take another look. What elements of the achievement standards might we address?  Let’s take a look ACROSS the curriculum – we can integrate several learning areas. 

What learning assets do we think this inquiry might add value to? Can we identify specific skills and dispositions within those assets that will be particularly relevant as the inquiry unfolds? (this is a question we need to keep coming back to as the design of the inquiry takes shape) 

What compelling questionmight help drive this inquiry? We suggested something when we did our planning last year – does it still hold up? 

Considering our own understandings

How would WE respond to this question? What views do WE bring to this as adult learners? How might this affect the way we interact with kids in this journey. How confident are we with the scope/field being explored?  Do we need to do some further inquiry ourselves? Where is the expertise in the school and wider community we could all tap into?

The real deal

How authentic is the purpose and context of this inquiry. Is there a way we can move it from being an ‘engaging exploration’ to an engaging exploration with a high stakes, real purpose. Let’s think about issues/problems/contexts in the school or community we might be able to harness (several of the inquiries we mapped last year were designed with authentic purpose in mind). Is there a real audience for this learning? 


How might we provoke real curiosity, interest – and a desire to want to find out more? Do we need to or is the need and interest already there?  Do we need to create some kind of invitation or provocation?  What might that look like? 

Tuning in

Given the understand goals we have drafted, how might we get a better insight into where our kids are at now – so they can track their growth?  Given our kids are becoming familiar with the SOLO taxonomy - could we invite them to plot their own position on that scale? How might we further tune into our student’s initial thinking? How might we capture that in some way so they can reflect on and monitor the way their thinking changes? How might we make this initial thinking visible? 


When and how will we invite questions? Are we already hearing some? Do we need to deliberately target this or is it likely to emerge? How will we document and use those wonderings? 

Finding out

What resources are we aware of that might assist learners to gather new information in a range of ways. If this is an historical inquiry – how might we help them harness the ‘mantle of expertise’ as historians? Scientists? Geographers? Artists?.....etc.  what people, places and texts might help them explore?  

Making connections

How might this inquiry allow us to make authentic connections across the curriculum.  Are there texts we can use more intensively as readers/writers/viewers? What mathematical inquiry might this journey involve? Let’s think big picture and see what natural links we can harness.

Releasing responsibility

Now – how might we involve our students in designing for their learning. If we have an excursion/field trip in mind, for example – how might we engage students in designing the experience?  How do we ensure we are amplifying agency in this process? 

We all know that questions are critical to engaging quality thinking. And we want quality thinking around 'the planning table' what questions work for you? What do you ask when you are designing for inquiry learning? 

Just wondering...