Inquiry and all that jazz....

When I am not inhabiting the world of schools (which I must say takes up a good deal of my time!) I love nothing more than to immerse myself in my other passion – music.  I have adored listening to, playing and sharing music since childhood and it remains my go to activity when I have some time away from work.  I recently re-visited Brian Cambourne’s tried and true ‘conditions for learning.’  When I think about it , I can see that all those conditions for learning have been in place my whole life in relation to music.  I have been immersed in it (to the point where my siblings and I had to yell out from our bedrooms….‘can you please turn Ella Fitzgerald down we are trying to sleep!!’) I had a love of music demonstrated to me even though my parents didn’t play instruments themselves, I saw their genuine appreciation and interest every day.  I was engaged IN it by having the opportunity to explore different instruments at different times in my life.  There was an expectation that I could improve. I could experiment and approximate and learn from mistakes. I got to use music – to perform and create and of course, I had response – feedback, encouragement and advice. Without even knowing it, my parents, my school and my friends helped create the perfect recipe for a life-long love affair with all things music related.  If you have not re-visited or come across Cambourne's famous conditions – take a look and consider the degree to which your classroom and school provide them for students.

Last weekend, I took my eldest daughter to see an ensemble comprising four of the best jazz musicians around. She is an accomplished musician but has had less exposure to this genre and despite my father’s love for it,  jazz is something I appreciate but don't often choose to listen to.  I have had so many great responses to the recent blog post on ‘letting go’ I guess that post was in my mind as I watched and listened to them performing:

Peter Johnson (Choice Words, 2004)  describes quality teaching as a kind of ‘conversational jazz’.   I have always loved the metaphor but it really came home to me on Saturday night.  Great jazz musicians , like great teachers, are improvisers.  At one point, it was obvious the pianist was doing something entirely unexpected.  The singer (highly experienced) smiled broadly and said to the audience “ah, you never know what he will do and that’s what makes it so fun”.   Like so many jazz gigs, there was a palpable sense that the musicians were thinking on their feet AND this kind of immediate, playful, ‘go with the flow’ style was what fuelled their joy and the quality of what they did.  A skilled jazz musician knows how to honour the tune AND let the tune go.  They can take a tune in all kinds of pathways and tributaries - every so often, returning to the core melody as a kind of auditory anchor.   When playing in a band, each musician has to remain acutely empathic: listening to each other, following leads, pulling back when necessary taking the spotlight for a moment but never drowning the others out.   And behind all this amazing innovation, improvisation and seemingly free, fluid performance is an incredibly deep understanding.  The melody is known inside and out: so intimately,  it can be let go.  And in letting go and branching out, in innovating and exploring new music is born.   And each performance, each rendering of the piece is unique.  Jazz is such a profound example of the way solid structure, certainty, shared agreements and routine lay the path for innovation, choice, the unexpected and the new.

Inquiry teaching can divide people in much the same way that jazz divides music lovers…I wonder if it is because we can’t cope well if we think we are leaving the familiar safe haven of our curriculum and our ‘knowns’ behind?   Of course the very best inquiry teachers are like the best jazz musicians – they bring deep understanding of their craft to the classroom, they KNOW how to teach like a skilled musician knows their instrument, they know the curriculum well enough to improvise without losing it completely and they know their kids.  They are strongly grounded in the fundamentals of quality teaching practice and so…they can improvise. Teaching becomes a form of highly sophisticated play.

And if we think of a collaborative teaching team in the way we might think of some of the very best music ensembles, each person listens with respect, steps back when needed,  gives others time to ‘solo’,  applauds their colleagues’ innovations.

How strongly do you trust pedagogical expertise?  How free do you feel to improvise and innovate?  

Just wondering…




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.

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Inspiring inquiry through picture books.

"The bridge will only take you halfway there, to those mysterious lands you long to see. Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fair, and moonlit woods where unicorns run free. So come and walk awhile with me and share the twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known. But this bridge will only take you halfway there. The last few steps you have to take alone." 

—    Shel Silverstein

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Tuning in... to tuning in...

‘In pursuit of knowledge, something new is learned in pursuit of wisdom, something old is unlearned. To grow, we need to learn, unlearn and re-learn.’  Med Jones I began this week working with collaborative planning teams at St Bernadette's primary school in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The school is only a few blocks away from my childhood home (in fact I vividly remember the school office calling home on occasion when our adorable Border Collie found his way to the school ground at lunch times!) At the end of the day, I decided to take a small detour and drive past the house in which I grew up. It’s been a while since I have seen it and curiosity got the better of me.

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Inquiry and the art of listening

I’ve been wondering a lot about listening. I am currently in the very rare position of being home for a while – recovering from surgery. My head has been too foggy to do much reading or viewing…so I have turned to podcasts to pass the time. I am a huge fan of the podcast already but have been very grateful to have so many beautiful things to listen to while recuperating. Listening has given be hours of joy and learning. As a teacher and teacher educator I DO spend a lot of time talking so it is both luxurious and enlightening to spend hour after hour not saying a word…but instead listening to the wisdom, humour, music and passions of others. Teachers, in general, are talkers. Older readers of this blog might recall the animated Charlie Brown cartoons where teacher voices were communicated only with a kind incessant trumpeting sound as the children endured the boredom of their classroom. When I interview students about teachers, the most common criticism is simply that they ‘talk too much’ – we do!   But true teaching - especially in the inquiry classroom is surely more as much about listening as it is about talking.

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Curating for inquiry learning...reflections on a learning space.

As many of the readers of this blog will know, I am in the final stages of completing a new book. For several reasons, it has had the longest ‘gestation’ period of any book I have ever written - so seeing it now at the design stage is EXCITING.   Still a few months off but we are nearly there!   It was with this book in mind, that I recently spent the morning at one of my partner schools here in Melbourne.  It was time for me to capture some images to support the text – and I wanted that to happen in a school really ‘walks the talk’ of contemporary learning. I knew that Mother Teresa primary school – in the far outer suburbs of Melbourne would not disappoint. As a relatively new, purpose-built school, it is light-filled, spacious and flexible and we could photograph the children in a relatively unobtrusive way. The images we came away with are beautiful and support the text just as I had hoped.

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