Inquiry, noticing and the changing seasons… A tribute to the late Frank Ryan.

I have been meaning to post this all year.  I started planning it in January when I was holidaying down my beloved coastal town of Aireys Inlet.   Ironically, as the days have grown shorter, the pile of books I wanted to refer to has grown higher and I’ve scribbled bits and pieces here and there but failed to complete it.  Other posts have come and gone but, strangely, the impetus to write this one has taken time.  Perhaps it needed to wait. 

This post is about the desperate need for children to be encouraged and permitted to notice and inquire into the natural world around them. But now, it is much more than that.  It is written in honour of my beautiful friend of some 30 years and exceptional educator– Frank Ryan.  Frank died on the shortest day of this year, the winter solstice. I was honoured to be with him and some close friends and family as he left this world.  The world is poorer for his passing but in his time on this planet he touched the loves of thousands of children who may otherwise never have encountered the joy that is connecting with nature.

Frank was – literally and figuratively -  a towering figure in the field of Environmental Education. When I was still studying to be a teacher, I was fortunate enough to watch Frank at work at the Zoo Education School in Melbourne and I was hooked. There are a handful of educators I have come into contact with in my career who had a profound impact on me  - and Frank Ryan was one of them.  I watched him with us, I watched him with kids and  I felt him connect us to the environment. I was transformed. Frank helped make me the teacher I am today. 

It was Frank who helped me understand how to use the natural world as my classroom and how to bring nature into the classroom. Partly because of him, I spent many years actively involved in the Environmental Education field. I always had animals in my classrooms and that experience helped me learn how to engage children in inquiry. Kids I taught back then still say that they remember most vividly the learning we did through observing and caring fo turtles, lizards, yabbies, chickens - we even raised quail when I taught a beautiful class of year 3/4 students. The first book I ever published "Integrating Naturally" was all about basing integrative learning on big ideas about the environment. I still think fondly of that 'green book'.    My husband Steve Ray and Frank began an innovative company in the 90s called ‘Vox Bandicoot’.  Some Australian teachers may even remember having ‘Vox’ at their school. Frank and Steve created pop up ‘bush habitats’ In schools and introduced children to tortoises, lizards and snakes and performed theatre about environmental issues. Thousands of children benefitted from the opportunity to connect with nature. His death is a huge loss to the Education world but his legacy is mighty.  

So as I said, I have been working on this post on and off since Frank died a couple of weeks ago. It is longer than it should be but I hope you will give it your time.  And I also hope that you will take time in the coming weeks and months to do something to connect yourself and your kids with the natural world on which we all depend. There can be no greater purpose and no more engaging context for the inquiring mind. When you take kids out into the natural environment, you don't really need to fabricate complicated 'provocations' to lure them into becoming curious. It's all there: 

Inquiring into the changing seasons...

It is the shortest day of the year.  Outside my study window (the window I have looked through most days for 25 years) the Melbourne sky is at its best – clear, brilliant blue. The air is cold and still. It is the kind of morning that ices up your car window and where your breath fogs as you speak.  The walnut tree in our back yard – once a seedling from my grandmother in-law’s tree, acts as a kind of living calendar for me.  One of the last trees to lose its leaves, it is finally acknowledging the cold. It is almost stripped bare apart from a few desperate leaves. In the summer months, the towering manna gum we planted when we moved here is alive with the raucous sound of rainbow lorikeets and bossy magpies but on this clear, cold day all is quiet and still. Later in the year, I will keep a watchful eye out for the sacred kingfishers who occasionally gift us with a rare visit.  Across the road, my neighbour’s front garden proudly hosts a large magnolia tree.  It whispers secrets to me when I walk past. “Winter is coming” it says – when all the other trees are just starting to dress in their beautiful Autumn reds and oranges, the Magnolia has already lost its leaves. I know, one day soon, as the days begin to grow imperceptibly longer, she will tell me “Spring is on its way” and new buds emerge well ahead of any other flowers in an otherwise wintery landscape. 

Despite the fact I live in an inner, urban suburb of Melbourne, nature has its way of nudging me to notice my world on a regular basis. Whether it is the presence or absence of certain birds, a possum scuttling along the powerlines at night, the smell of a jasmine in early spring or the blissful sound of the first cicada that sends us all the message that those long, lazy days of summer are not far away.  in Melbourne, it is hard NOT to notice the changes in weather but it is the subtle, cyclical patterns of change that I find endlessly intriguing and strangely comforting. 

Ever since I began teaching, one of the most common topics in the primary classroom has been ‘the weather’ or ‘seasons’. I even had someone tell me not long ago that they were going to ‘do the seasons’ with their kids next term. That makes me cringe.   Here in Australia, the science curriculum requires children to know that “observable changes occur in the sky and landscape and daily and seasonal changes affect everyday life.”  Too often, this profound truth – that the environment around us is constantly changing – is reduced to a shallow topic or, worse still, we serve up to our kids the view that there are four stereotypical seasons without any acknowledgement of the incredible diversity of seasonal change across our land and indeed across the world. And we ‘do’ seasons without ever stepping outside the classroom!!

The changing environment offers an incredible opportunity for inquiry. But why limit that inquiry into one stand alone unit when, in fact, the opportunity to learn about, notice, anticipate, observe and record change is available to us every single day?   Inquiring into the environment is SO much better as an ongoing experience. And I am not just talking about a filling in a weather chart each day!  On a regular basis,  take your kids OUTSIDE to observe and record what they see, hear and smell. Take time to record, to photograph, to draw – and simply to BE in the outdoors.  Have each child find their special spot  - a place they will return to all year and document change.  Find a window in your school through which to see the outside world. Watch the way the view out that window changes over the year. Draw it, write about it, capture it in a diary that will be used again next year to anticipate change. Our kids spend more time indoors than any previous generation and yet this can be the context for some of the most engaging, focussed learning. There are dozens of ways you can use the outdoors as a context for inquiry.  I am only mentioning a few here: 

  • Connect with places around your school in which you and your children can spend time in more natural environments. Build a relationship with your local parks, waterways, beaches, gardens.

  •  Go for walks. Walk slowly and learn to notice the small things. Nature is everywhere…even in the cracks of the footpath of the most urban street. Record what you see on your walks and take the same route each time to notice the subtle and more dramatic changes.

  • Create a timeline in the classroom that depicts what you are noticing each month about the environment around you. Include photos, sketches and observations on the timeline. What birds are in the school yard at different times of the year? Which plants are flowering? Where are the shadows falling in the school yard?

  • Encourage your kids to get to know nature in their neighbourhoods or back yards. Have them keep diaries or journals, take photographs and track the way that places change over a year.

  • Find out what kinds of plants there are in your school yard. Keep track of how they grow and change over time. 
  • Start noticing the birds – what species are in the school grounds? Does it change over the year? Which birds are native? Introduced?  What are their habits? Where do they prefer to hang out? Why? 
  • Connect with kids in other parts of your country or even state. What is their experience of the environment at simultaneous times of the year? 
  • Find out about the ways the indigenous people of your area identify seasonal change. 
  • Talk to your kids about what YOU notice as the days pass over the year.  Model what it means to be fascinated by and connected to your environment. Marvel aloud at the changing seasons. 

Finally, a post about connecting with nature and noticing the changing seasons without reference to at least a few of my favourite resources and books…

This beautiful book depicts the seasonal calendar of the Gundjeihmi-speaking people of Kakadu.

This beautiful book depicts the seasonal calendar of the Gundjeihmi-speaking people of Kakadu.

A book that tracks change from month to month  - a lovely example of noticing small changes over time. 

A book that tracks change from month to month  - a lovely example of noticing small changes over time. 

I adore this book and the simple way it depicts change over time with one word per page. It is a work of art. 

I adore this book and the simple way it depicts change over time with one word per page. It is a work of art. 

A year on our farm is a lovely insight into the impact the changing seasons can have on our daily lives - so much more the case when living on a farm. 

A year on our farm is a lovely insight into the impact the changing seasons can have on our daily lives - so much more the case when living on a farm. 

Such a beautiful book. This says it all really - step out, take time to notice and be delighted by what you discover, if only you take a moment to look. 

Such a beautiful book. This says it all really - step out, take time to notice and be delighted by what you discover, if only you take a moment to look. 

We live in Pinteresting times.....

There are a few eyebrow-raising emails/messages I receive on a fairly regular basis.  One is a request from undergraduate students to help them with assignments (‘just wondering how you would answer this question about inquiry...thanks!’), another is an offer to write a post on my blog...except that the post has nothing to do with education(!) And the third is a request for information about where to purchase ‘the posters’ about the inquiry cycle...  

What posters?

For years, I have been asked to create posters outlining the phases of the inquiry cycle for people to put on their classroom walls.  And for years I have resisted doing so. Here is why:

1.     We should all acknowledge that the cycle itself is a problematic creature. It is useful– but it is so much more complex, messy and nuanced than it appears on paper. I have always shared it tentatively – as a scaffold for thinking, as a prompt for designing and as a way of providing some common but not fixed language. Publishing books, articles and blog posts about it helps me address some of those complexities whereas a poster/sign/worksheet doesn’t. Most of the posters created about the inquiry cycle present it as a simplistic, linear process, as if each phase is dealt with prior to the next. When teachers and kids work together to visually represent their journey they quickly discover that the process is far from the neat, linear process that a poster often (mis)represents. I have seen some better representations of it but they are usually co-constructed with a community to meet their particular context/purpose. 

2.     In what feels like an increasingly pinterest-centric world, the last thing I want to do is add more shiny, glossy STUFF to put on classroom walls. I have no problem with making the language of the cycle visible to learners – in fact, I recommend it.  However there is something troublingly inauthentic about simply downloading, printing and displaying posters without doing the deeper work of sourcing, reading, thinking about, and creating your own (with acknowledgment of course).

3.     How much stronger would it be if we invited our students to inquire into the way a cycle of inquiry might work and then co construct a way of making that process visible in the learning space?  This is a much better way to help them understand what it might mean to journey through an inquiry than simply popping posters on the wall (and rarely referring to them). Who owns the classroom space? 

4.     While I have chosen and published particular words and phrases to communicate purposes and processes in a cycle of inquiry, the general concept of a ‘cycle’ is not mine - nor is the idea that inquirers often move through phases as they investigate a question/problem/issue.  I am always at pains to explain to people that there are numerous models and ways of describing the process and each has its own emphases.  It is not ‘THE’ inquiry cycle … it is AN inquiry cycle.  Doing the work of investigating a range of interpretations can help teachers and kids devise one that works best for them. 

5.     The ‘cycle’ is only part of the bigger picture the inquiry classroom. It IS very helpful.  I use it all the time for planning/designing and it offers teachers and kids a shared language to talk about how they might proceed through an investigation.  Inquiry is more than this though. It is a culture, a stance and a way of being. So I worry that slapping a poster on the wall makes us feel like we are ‘doing it’.  When it fact, it can be just that. A poster on a wall. 

So….why am I sharing this?   It has recently come to my attention that while I am busy refusing to commercially publish and sell posters  - others are doing it anyway. 

 Colourful posters of ‘the inquiry cycle’  - even ‘Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry cycle’ - are available not just to share with others but for sale.  And it is not only my work. I notice people selling, for example, worksheets depicting  Ron Ritchhart’s visible thinking routines without any acknowledgement and I suspect, without permission.  That these materials are sold in the company of some truly dreadful items purporting to be ‘inquiry based’ makes it worse.  There is an abundance of awful, low level activities (craptivities) presented as worksheets that should never see the light of day in a classroom - let alone be sold for profit (makes me feel the same as I feel when I walk past 'NAPLAN' preparation books in the supermarket!)   To cap it off, there are several that include a © symbol with the creator's name and no acknowledgment of the original source. Now.  I understand that this has always been the case – well before the online world made it more pervasive but it is easier than ever to cut and paste, lift and loot, read and repost. 

As someone noted on my twitter feed – perhaps this is something we should be talking about as a staff?

OK. Rant over. Don't get me wrong. I embrace the opportunities provided by digital media to share and collaborate. I hope this doesn't come across as precious or mean spirited about people using work I have published.  I willingly and regularly share ideas online. I have seen some beautiful representations of ideas I have shared and loved the interpretation. They always acknowledge the source and it feels delightfully collaborative - ideas sparking other ideas in an atmosphere of open, professional connectedness.    And I should say that I get many considered requests to use/adapt more formally published work.  I almost always grant permission and love sharing in this way.  These requests allow me to, at times, address misinterpretation and misrepresentation so that the sharing has integrity.  That's one of the reason the protocol exists.  

Some people have suggested that the best way to manage this might be to relent and do what I have been avoiding all these years: create the posters and sell them as the ‘official’ versions. I won’t do that…for all the reasons I have shared above. 

But what I am putting up on the website are the pages from my recent book ‘The Power of Inquiry’ that provide information about the way I think about the process – at least at this point in time.  This might be a useful guide to developing your own, with your kids. You can have it and share it  - for free. But hey, just take a moment to let people know where it comes from. That way, if they want to dive deeper - learn more about it or even raise questions about it, they can return to the source. 

In the meantime, I see all of this as a valuable conversation to have as a staff.  I guess two issues have emerged for me – one being the problem of posters/displays etc. and the other about the ethics of what we choose to share (and sell) online. 

How do we model ethical use of materials to our students? How much does this matter to us anyway? How freely should materials be shared without consultation or permission? When is it OK to sell our work? What does 'original' mean? If the words are someone else's but we choose the font, colour and images - does that make it original?  What responsibility do we have as producers AND consumers to acknowledge the work done by others?  Who really owns what? What do we know/believe about the thorny issue of intellectual property? AND…. Why do we prefer a glossy, pretty poster over the children's own documentation on our walls? Do our learners USE the stuff we decorate the walls with?  What should be on our walls anyway? Who is it for? 

 I don't claim to have the answers...and I am still pondering it all myself (this post has been simmering in my draft folder for a while...) but I think it is an important conversation to have, don't you?  

Just wondering....



Looking back to look forward - reflections on learning about 'agency'

It’s 1974.  I am in Grade 5. I know all the words to 'Seasons in the Sun' and I am in love wth David Cassidy. I have very few memories, but I do remember Miss McNab’s shiny, white leather boots, mini skirt and turtle-neck sweater.  I remember a painful week of inexplicable ostracism by my supposed ‘best friends’ andI remember the weekly program, posted each Monday, to help us figure out how to use our time. And when I say ‘posted’ I certainly don't mean in the digital sense.  This was a large, yellow sheet of card with a carefully hand-written menu of a variety of tasks to be completed by the end of the week.  I still remember that feeling of delight and the novelty of having choice and control. We could decide when to do the tasks on the chart. I can’t recall what happened if we finished them ahead of time, or if we didn't finish them…but I remember the essence of it. Choice and ownership.

It’s 1981. I have just turned 18 and have a penchant for exceptionally large earrings. I play Pat Benatar very loud on my new stereo system.  I am also beginning my teacher training at Melbourne State College. Amongst the many texts I read in that year is A.S. Niell’s Summerhill, published in 1960, 3 years before I was born.  Having experienced (apart from grade 5) typically conservative schooling for the previous 12 years, I am taken into a completely new world and way of thinking about children, learning and teaching. I am unsettled - and insatiably curious: 

‘In our school freedom means doing what you like so long as you do not interfere with the freedom of others. That is the outer meaning, but deeper down we strive to see that children are free internally, free from fear, from hypocrisy, from hate, from intolerance’. (AS Niell Summerhill 1960) 

It’s 1983 and I am on a practice-teaching placement at a school in Melbourne’s Western suburbs. I drive to school in my 2 door Honda civic and listen to Mark Knoffler's theme from 'Local Hero'.  The classrooms have been designed to house larger groups of students and teams of teachers.  There are lamps, couches, nooks for quiet reading or individual learning tasks, plenty of space to sprawl on the floor, cushions and a range of furniture types.  I watch a skilled group of teachers run a writers’ workshop and having devoured Donald Graves’ work, I am thrilled to be seeing in in action.  Kids are signing up for 'clinics' offered to address identified needs. Some kids are in small group conferences, others in the art room working on illustrating their soon to be published books. There is choice, trust, independence, movement and a flexible space in which to do it all. I love the experience and vow to make my future classrooms a place that feels like this. 

It’s 1986 and I am teaching grade 4. My hair is horrifically permed.  My colleague and I (having both moved from prep/kinder teaching) have a hunch that even at grade 4, our kids need to play, to explore, and experience more hands on learning.  We change the structure of our day. Our kids begin each day choosing from a bunch of making-oriented experiences – they paint, they design, they cook, they write, they problem solve.  The energy changes and we all agree  this choosing time is the best time of day. 

It's 1992 and I am back studying again. I'm listening to Frente and laughing condescendingly at Enya.  I discover  - and devour - the work of the late, great Garth Boomer. His work challenges me again: 

We looked closely at so-called ‘child-centred’ progressive teaching techniques, where teachers purport to take a largely facilitative role. Here, teachers who still retain the significant, ultimate powers often pretend to divest themselves of power by giving limited decision-making opportunities to the children. For example, children may be free to choose one of several options without having the option to reject the options. Moreover, many attractive learning packages in schools demand little creative, individual, teacher and learner contributions. A crucial question arises: ‘Are schools dedicated to the promotion of the child’s power to learn, and ultimately to learn independently of instruction and guidance?’ 

I find myself reflecting on the way I provide choice to my students and think more deeply about true ownership and what it means to really partner with students in their learning.  Inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning becomes even more important in my thinking. 

It’s 2004. The only music I seem to listen to is the Wiggles and I've ditched the big earrings. I am introduced to Peter Johnson’s book ‘Choice Words’  - a book I revisit often.   I read his term ‘agency’ and it describes what it is I believe I am trying to cultivate in the children I work with. My thinking takes a much deeper dive and I am more acutely aware of the power of my language in the classroom. This word ‘agency’ begins to mean so much more than freedom or choice or voice.  Agency becomes something I need to nurture every day, every moment in my language and in my very way of being. 

‘Having a sense of agency then, is fundamental.  Our well-being depends on it…Teacher's conversations with children help the children build the bridges between action and consequence that develop their sense of agency.’(Johnston, 2004, p. 30).

It’s 2007 and my music has become my kids' music too. We are singing along to Tegan and Sara and Fiest as I drive them to primary school.  One day, I am in the audience at a conference watching, in awe, as Sugata Mitra shares his bold ‘hole in the wall’ experiment in the Indian slums.  It stays with me for weeks – this powerful reminder of what young learners can do if we give them time, space and belief.  And if we get out of their way.  

‘If children know there is someone standing over them who has all the answers they are less inclined to want to find the answers for themselves’

It’s 2018. And I am in conversation with hundreds of teachers about their efforts to help students own their learning -  only this time, the teachers are from all over the globe and we are communicating in a digital space rather than face to face. Later in the week,  I am sitting with a group of enthusiastic inquiry teachers in Canberra, Australia.  We are viewing a clip of students and teachers at work in the International School of Ho Chi Min City and considering how their work is aligning with ours and what we can learn from their efforts.  We know that, if we need to, we can connect with these teachers and others like them whenever we need to get clarity, share ideas, build understanding and explore new thinking.  While we are many miles away, we are just as committed to rethinking school as a place where students truly own their learning.   

As Sam Sherratt said in a recent post on the powerful work being done in Studio 5 in ISHMC, the quest to promote student agency is far from a new one:

For those of us like myself who (all of a sudden it seems) mostly find themselves the oldest teacher in room, there is a strange sense of déjà vu about the flurry of excitement around agency. The challenge to rethink the way we ‘do’ teaching and learning and the desire to wrench schools from the transmission/factory-inspired model of the past has burned brightly within so many educators for a long time.  It is not a new idea and therefore, not one to be dismissed as a fad or ‘the latest buzz word’. And this is far from another proverbial 'pendulum swing'.   I am eternally grateful to those who have gone before. Those who have believed strongly that learning is not something that gets done TO us - it is something we do for ourselves.  It is so exciting to see a globally respected organisation such as the IBO place learner agency at the centre of its enhanced program. There is something palpably different about the new rise of ‘learner agency ‘ in the contemporary landscape.

The power of social media to connect like-minded educators around the world has given this current wave of interest in agency a real opportunity to get traction.  Reading the abundance of posts on the excellent site: created after the  conference in Singapore last month has warmed my heart. Rather than isolated pockets of teachers or schools attempting to make significant change in the way we do things, here is a veritable army of educators sharing, connecting, inspiring and creating from all around the world.  The support for each other and the preparedness to share what works and what is challenging and the inquiring disposition brought to the conversation is an inspiration in itself.

Imagine if Miss McNab, as she challenged us to manage our weeks more independently way back in 1974, had been given the chance to share her efforts with hundreds of other educators daring to do the same thing?  

Perhaps year 5 would not have been the only year in my entire schooling where I recall being given a voice. 

How are you nurturing agency in your setting? Are you using the power of a digital, professional learning network to strengthen your efforts?  

Just wondering…

12 'Lesson Hacks' to Nurture Inquiry


Using a more inquiry based approach to teaching and learning can be an overwhelming challenge. There is a lot to it. For some of us, inquiry challenges our very identity as a teacher and throws into question our approaches to classroom design, planning, assessment, curriculum ‘coverage’ to name a few. One way to manage the feeling of being ‘swamped by expectation’ as you journey toward inquiry can be to focus your attention on individual teaching-learning engagements.  Cliched as it sounds, taking one step at a time or changing just one thing makes a lot of sense.  

So here are some of my favourite ‘lesson hacks’ for inquiry. I use the term ‘lesson’ very loosely.  Not all learning engagements work this way. Throughout the week, kids and teachers are often in the flow of great, self-directed routines that need little change. The ‘hacks’ I am referring to here might come in handy when facilitating small or whole group workshop/clinic/introductory sessions. 

Hack #1 Flip it

One of the most powerful lesson hacks I know is to subvert the standard sequence of ‘I do it (modelling, explaining) ‘we do it (practicing examples together) you do it (independent application).  This reflects the important model ‘gradual release of responsibility’ model but it can mean that opportunities for learners to actually get on with it are limited.  By the time we have explained and modelled, there may be much less time than desirable for the learner to figure things out for themselves.   So try it in reverse: YOU do it, we do it…then, if necessary, I’ll do it.  This flipped lesson means we are releasing responsibility more quickly to students. This is usually in the form of a challenge or problem. Time is spent individually or in groups grappling with the problem before coming together (we do it) and sharing possible solutions and processes.  As students are working with the challenge, teachers are listening, prompting, observing, nudging – stepping in where necessary. The direct, instructional work tends to happen towards the end of a session and is based on the teachers’ analysis of what has and has not been uncovered by the learners.  In this kind of lesson, the learner is doing the heavy lifting.  There is a stronger focus on investigation and generation of questions. Some great examples of the flipped lesson can be found in the collection of ‘3 act Maths lessons’ here:

Hack #2  Turn your intention into a question

I have written about this in more detail previously.  We know that it is important for kids to understand the ‘why’ of a lesson and one way to do this is to share a learning intention with them. A simple hack to reflect a stronger inquiry stance is to turn that intention into a question. So instead of  ‘We will learn about the factors that influence people’s opinions about places’  we might pose the question “How do we form our opinions about places?” or ‘Why do people feel the way they do about places?”   As soon as we pose the intention as a question, we invite speculation, first ideas and prior knowledge. The question suggests that the lesson will be an act of investigation. Learning becomes an act of exploration rather than passive reception.

Hack #3 Split screen your intention

In addition to the question as an intention, we can add a vital layer to any lesson by raising the status of processes and dispositions alongside the ‘content’.  A PE lesson focussing on designing a sequence of movements for dance/gymnastics might highlight the use of creative thinking or turn taking when working in a team. Make this explicit and have the lesson be as much about inquiring into the HOW as the WHAT. Guy Claxton refers to this as the 'split screen' approach.

Hack #4 Co construct success criteria

Another common ‘move’ in a lesson plan is to tell students what we expect from them in the form of success criteria often prefaced by the phrase:  “What I am looking for…”   When a lesson has a stronger inquiry stance, criteria for ‘success’ is co-constructed. Rather than the teacher announcing criteria at the beginning of a lesson, students gradually figure out and help decide what might constitute evidence of understanding/mastery during the lesson and help build  the criteria over time. This approach allows students far more agency and brings an inquiry stance to the process of determining evidence of success.

Hack #5 Ditch the intentions. (HERESY!!)

Another lesson hack that can yield a stronger inquiry stance is to leave out the ‘learning intention’ altogether.  There are times when simply jumping IN to the experience is far more engaging and thought provoking than announcing the purpose in advance. When your classroom community has a strong, learning centred culture, your learners will trust that the experience is purposeful. Learning intentions  -even as questions– can have the effect of unnecessarily narrowing the focus. As the experience unfolds, the learners themselves can contribute what THEY see is the learning intention behind it. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised. 

Hack #6 Unplan

One of the real skills of using an inquiry based approach to teaching on a day to day basis is to develop the art of being more responsive. While thinking ahead and carefully designing experiences is a critical part of good teaching, there is also value in staying more open to possibility.  When we resist the urge to plan a session in minute detail – we can be more responsive to what is happening (rather than what we want or assume to be happening).  Leave some space. Unplan.

Hack #7 Provoke

Nothing breeds inquiry like mystery, uncertainty – even tension.  Consider beginning a lesson with an unexpected move (related to the content of the lesson).  One of my favourite provocations happened last year when a group of brave teachers at one of my partner schools in Melbourne deliberately provoked thinking by beginning their day eating junk food – telling the kids they had not had time for breakfast!  The students were variously outraged, concerned, envious, puzzled, nonchalant – but in every case, the provocation stirred up amazing conversation, questions s and debate about nutrition and wellbeing. This got an inquiry journey off to a fabulous start.  (The teachers, by the way, did ‘fess up’ to having staged their unusual breakfast choices!)

Hack #8 Hands down

This is hardly a new hack but such an important one to remind ourselves.  Wherever possible, helo your kids learn how to have ‘hands down’ conversations. Instead of hands up – have them turn and talk to each other before (if necessary) inviting some to share with the group.  

Hack #9 THEY choose

This is an easy hack to build into any lesson.  Ask yourself where you could provide more choice in the learning experience. It may be choice about WHAT students will focus on, HOW they might share their thinking, WHERE they might choose to do their learning, WITH WHOM they will sit/work with or even WHEN across a learning engagement they might work on particular tasks. It might be a combination of all of these things.  Choice is a powerful way to help build responsibility and ownership and encouraged the learner to inquire into their own learning needs.

Hack #10 Stand up. Move.

While not particular to inquiry, there is no doubt that being more physically active in a learning experience can bring heightened engagement and even offer the learner new perspectives. If you often end a lesson with a share time  - try standing in circle to share.  Conduct small group brainstorms on vertical surfaces rather than at tables. I LOVE the classrooms I work in that have whole walls covered in whiteboard paint. Get rid of some furniture so it is easy for your kids to MOVE around the room.  Go outside.  

Hack #11. Slow down

Perhaps one of the most challenging ‘hacks’ to pull off.  Inquiry – true, deep, wide inquiry takes time.  Learners need to wander and wonder. We need to be able to have conversations that go beyond the Ask-Answer-Move-On variety.  Slowing down often needs to be a deliberate, intentional act.  Intentionally give your kids more time to discuss something, more time to think, more time to decide where they might do their learning, more time to select resources.  Classrooms are so often drenched in an atmosphere of business.  Disrupt the rush. Slow down. Breathe.

Hack #12.  Change your position

Over the years, I have become increasingly uncomfortable when seated on a chair, looking down at a group of students ‘at my feet’.   One simple hack that often immediately changes the atmosphere and quality of conversation is to seat yourself within a circle of learners.. You may all be on chairs, on the floor, on cushions but you are not physically ‘above’ the learners.   When the classroom furniture is designed in a way that easily allows us to sit/stand WITH learners (around tables, in a small group ‘nook’, on bean bags , etc….) it makes for more flexible and responsive teaching. Try changing your position in the space  -  we all become creatures of habit and a disruption to where we usually sit/stand can bring a simple, refreshing change.


Inquiry classrooms (and inquiry teachers)  are constructed day by day, session by session.  Being conscious of the choreography of our teaching and the degree to which it amplifies or diminishes inquiry is a powerful way to build culture over time.  These ‘hacks’ are simple but by making one change, we can gain insights to which we have been previously blind.

Have you recently to promote more inquiry?  What did you notice?

Just wondering…

An ocean of inquiry...

I have been fortunate enough to spend the last three weeks or so living by the sea in a coastal town in which I spent many glorious childhood summers. In fact, like many others, the sea has always been a part of my life. It is palpably restorative and endlessly fascinating. Some of my most creative ideas have come to me while walking the cliff tops of this coastal inlet- I feel indebted to the coast in a way I can't explain. 

So it has been a source of acute sadness this summer to notice how bereft the beaches here seem to be of once abundant shells and other signs of marine life. Sure - there is still lots to see and discover but it seems every one of the favourite places I return to are denuded, pale imitations of what they once were. I am trying to tell myself that this is all part of the cycles of nature...things come and go, tides shift populations, its seasonal, it's because of all the tourists.....but I fear something far more worrying is happening. I am deeply troubled.

For many years, I worked in the environmental education movement and developed curriculum programs for schools. My favourite thing to encourage kids to inquire into remains the natural world. It is one of the very best contexts for true inquiry. This year, I feel the strongest urge I have felt for a long time to use my influence as a teacher to help connect kids with this beautiful, precious planet. And how easy it is to do that. SO many kids tell me they want to learn about animals - about nature, about living things. But it is not just learning ABOUT the natural world that is important - it is learning IN it and FOR it...combining knowledge, feeling, experience and action. 

The best way to encourage people to work together to care for our precious oceans is to help them discover the ocean's beauty and its power - and to help kids understand just how connected to and dependent we are on the sea. 

One of my favourite inquiry questions is just that: "How are we connected to the sea?" This is as important a question for kids living in coastal areas as it is for those that might be in a remote inland town far, far away from the ocean. We are all connected. 

If you are thinking ahead about your year... and the kinds of inquiries you might engage your students in, consider an inquiry into the ocean - and our connection to it - as one of your learning contexts. Resources abound. There is no shortage of experts and organisations and plenty of rock pools still left to gaze upon in wonder.  If you are asking yourself : What's worth inquiring into?  You might find this video clip helps answer that question. How will your teaching contribute to the imperative to care for this precious blue planet in 2018? 

Just wondering...


My favourite inquiry journeys of 2017....

In the final weeks of 2017, I found myself (as I always do in early December) working with my local partner schools to consider possible journeys of inquiry for their students in 2018. Over the years, we have established quite a thorough process to do this ‘projection’ work – drawing not only on curriculum requirements but considering local and global issues/challenges, teacher perspectives on the needs of their community of learners and of course, the students’ own reflections on the year as well as their ‘hopes and dreams’ for the year ahead. It is always an exciting time – a time full of promise and possibility.  In these schools, we don't have a fixed scope and sequence. The curriculum itself provides us with a sequence of achievement standards.  With these standards in mind, we then develop contexts for inquiry on a year by year basis.

The process of projecting for a year of inquiry depends a great deal on our reflections on the year that has passed. We have to ask ourselves: What has worked best? How do we know? What contexts have offered the most productive and engaging opportunities for inquiry?  Identifying the features of the inquiries that have been the most successful helps us make better decisions about contexts in the year to come. 

The end of the year is full of ‘best of’ lists. So I thought I would add mine….here are my ‘best inquiry journeys for 2017” …albeit, given it is 2018 now,  a little late! 

Oh…and by the way, this is not in any kind of order!!

1.     How can we design for our wellbeing?

Year 5/6 inquiry students at Newport Lakes Primary School began the year by inquiring into the impact that design can have on people’s wellbeing. This meant that the two big concepts of ‘design’ and ‘wellbeing’ each required investigation. The inquiry worked towards the creation and pitching of design ideas for classroom spaces that would promote wellbeing and, therefore, be beneficial for learning.

2.     What makes a healthy habitat?

The year ¾ students at Ringwood Heights Primary school began their year with a focus on the concept of habitat.  The school is surrounded by bushland and has access to a nearby nature sanctuary.  Linking with local naturalists, they inquired into the plants and animals of the local area and considered how ‘healthy’ the school ground habitat was.  The concept was then transferred to the classroom – as a habitat for learning, what does it need to nurture growth?

3.     How can we teach others about this special place?

Mother Teresa Primary School in Craigeburn, Melbourne has a unique resource in its grounds - an old homestead ‘Olrig’ build in late 1800’s.  Jess, a teacher at the school, worked with a group throughout the year on an inquiry into the history of Olrig and how to communicate what they had learned to others that might visit the homestead. The children collaborated with sign-writers, designers and historians.  The building now has a beautiful display of information for visitors that has been designed by the children themselves – an amazing achievement.

4.     Why do people play?

While Jess worked with her group on designing displays for the Olrig homestead, the younger learners (P-2) at Mother Teresa School were busy inquiring into play – into their own play and into the way people in other cultures played.  The creative thinking required for the task of designing play spaces was marvellous.

5.     Can we create our own restaurant?

Year 5/6 students at Ringwood Heights Primary School have had a long standing tradition of bringing food to share each day in the weeks leading up to the year 6’s graduation. Whilst this daily ‘feast’ was fun – it was largely something done by parents and staff felt it lacked real meaning for the students. Inspired by the success of Kate Haywood and her team at St Clare's Primary School, the team brought the concept of creating a restaurant to the children and it was met with huge enthusiasm.  This inquiry connected with a multitude of key curriculum outcomes.  Students investigated restaurants in their local community and talked with owners and staff to learn more about the systems that are needed to make a restaurant function.  Working with a limited budget, they examined menus and had to consider the economics behind food they wanted to make.  Each class decided to focus on a cuisine connected with a particular culture which meant investigating the culture itself and designing their restaurant in a way that reflected and celebrated that culture. Preparing food also requires a knowledge of hygiene and health regulations.   Committees were formed to oversee bookings, décor, advertising, wait-staff, menu design and food preparation. Online booking systems were set up to manage timing and numbers. I interviewed students about their experience of this inquiry and they were effusive in their belief that they were learning skills that were critical for their learning both now and in the future.  The restaurant experience was a fitting way to farewell the year 6’s and completely student driven.

6.     Bin Chickens: what’s the problem?

If I had to pick a favourite…..I have such a soft spot for this inquiry!  Christie Goeldner at Graceville School in Queensland did a beautiful job of noticing an opportunity for inquiry that was both unexpected and highly relevant to the lives of her year 4 students. When the children started complaining about the way the Ibis were trying to steal their lunches in the school yard, she saw a way to help them understand something about the relationship between humans and animals, about adaptation, animal behavior and habitat loss.  The inquiry into the problem of the ‘Bin Chickens’ was simply wonderful to witness – especially the very natural context it provided for the development of true research skills such as close observation, note taking and data collection.

7.     Let’s get down to business…would you buy that? Why?

At St Fidelis Primary School, the bi-annual fete provided a great opportunity for active student involvement.  The year 5/6 students were challenged (shark tank style) to develop a product or a service that could be sold at the fete. Teams worked together towards an opportunity to pitch their idea to a panel including parents, teachers and others. As part of this process students had to investigate all they could about how people successfully build businesses around products and services – the processes they go through and the various factors that need to be considered. Working within a budget – each team needed to be able to explain how they would create the product, design the stall, market their wares and make a profit. The inquiry – and the fete – were wildly successful.

8.     Why are museums important – and can we curate our own?

The year ¾ students at Roberts McCubbin Primary School spent a day at Melbourne museum…not so much to learn about the objects displayed but about the way the museum itself was curated. They examined the exhibits through the lens of designers and eductors. Why? They knew they had the challenge of creating their own museum at the end of the term to which their parents and other children would be visiting in order to learn more about an aspect of science. One of my favourite moments of the year was visiting these young curators as they set their exhibits up  - using the criteria they had constructed during their inquiry.  Their exhibits were eye-catching, instructive and interactive and they had an absolute ball welcoming visitors to their museum.

9.     What’s my story – what’s your story?

Year P-2 students again at Mother Teresa Primary School began their year by inquiring into the life stories of families they formed their community. Increasingly, this school includes families who are refugees or recent arrivals to Australia. This cultural diversity was a great opportunity for story telling and sharing.  The stories the children had gathered were shared back with parents and friends in various forms on an open night.

10.  What’s really on your plate?

At Elsternwick primary School, year ¾ children used food as the basis for investigating the way substances can be changed.  Although chemical science was the focus, this inquiry also required learning how to critically read packaging and advertising of food. A simple packet of dried noodles with flavouring stimulated great curiosity about what we are actually eating when we consume processed food.  Visits to markets and opportunities to analyse food as it is cooked and prepared not only developed scientific inquiry skills but stimulated thinking about nutrition, advertising, packaging design and culture.

11.  What does it mean to adapt?

Also at Elsternwick primary school, the year 5/6 teachers helped students gain a deeper understanding of the concept of adaptation by exploring it through both an historical and scientific lens. As students investigated the challenges of life in colonial Australia they were asked to consider ways in which people adapted (or tried to adapt ) to a very different land. The inquiry then worked its way to the natural adaptation of plants and animals to changing environments. What was impressive about this inquiry was the way in which the teachers used a conceptual umbrella to link quite specific content from the curriculum  - allowing learners to go wide and deep at the same time.

12.  Why is music important?

At St Clare’s Primary School, the year ¾ students spent several weeks explrong the role music plays in our lives. This was a joyous and rich inquiry that allowed for the easy natural integration of the arts, design, intercultural understandings, history and more.  A culturally diverse school, the inquiry easily involved parents as children interviewed them about their favourite music now and in their childhood and about music that had significance in their culture. The role of songs in shaping ideas and the ways people compose music were just some of the avenues of investigation.  This inquiry lent itself very easily to students creating their own music for a range of purposes.

There are so many other journeys I could share with you!  These are simply those that have stuck with me as I sit here, reflecting on the year that was. In amongst these big inquiries were, of course, lots of small, spontaneous inquiries that may have lasted a day, a morning, a lesson. One of these that springs to mind is when 5 year olds at St Peter Chanel Primary School in Deer Park became unexpectedly fascinated by old cameras and were then given opportunity to explore how cameras had changed over time.

Looking back over these wonderful learning journeys, several common features stand out. And there are no surprises here!  For the most part, the inquiries:

  • were authentic! Kids investigating something for a real purpose – with a genuine high-stakes outcome (often known from the outset)
  • were integrative. The journeys described allowed a range of learning areas to be meaningfully connected
  • involved experts from outside the school – this meant kids having to communicate with people in various fields
  • were shared – the learning gained from the inquiries went beyond the classroom and was shared with the wider community in some way
  • were emergent – these inquiries could not be planned in detail. The authentic nature of the journey meant that teachers and learners had to think on their feet and plan as the inquiry unfolded.
  • got kids out of the classroom visiting restaurants, going to the museum, the local nature reserve…many of these inquiries depended on experience beyond the classroom walls.
  • were often ‘design’ focussed.

Using an inquiry based approach to teaching and learning is multi-faceted.  At its heart, inquiry is a stance – it’s about how we talk to kids and how we think about learning. It is also about how we plan and the contexts we both recognise and create in which powerful inquiry can thrive. These contexts can be highly personal (one child’s investigation into their passion) and they can also be shared contexts that bring learners together under a common question. These shared inquiries form a powerful ‘backbone’ of the primary classroom.

As you think ahead to 2018 and the journeys in which you may help guide your young learners…what is worth inquiring into? What lessons can you learn from journeys of the past year?


Just wondering…