Inquiry learning: Pitfalls and perspectives part #2

In my previous post, I shared the importance of staying open-minded to other perspectives on inquiry learning, particularly the conclusions drawn from research that suggests it is ineffective.  I singled out work on cognitive load theory and on episodic and semantic memory in particular but can, of course, add Hattie’s work on the low “ effect size” of inquiry learning. To reiterate, these posts are not about defending inquiry nor critiquing the research itself – there is plenty of that out there! Rather I am sharing the benefits I receive from approaching criticism with curiosity and asking myself: what can I learn here?   

 In this and the next post, I will share some lessons we can learn from those who argue the case against inquiry learning. 

 1.    Engagement does not necessarily mean learning. 

I know this is not a new idea. But it is worth us reminding ourselves that it IS easy to mistake the delight, connection and interest so beautifully generated by inquiry for learning itself. The compelling nature of inquiry is both a strength - and a challenge.  We’ve all been guilty of designing fabulous, hands-on investigative experiences that lead to little more than a fond memory.  The lesson for us is not to forgo the engaging tasks - far from it - but to remain keenly aware of the conceptual understandings and skills the task should be helping the learner develop.  If we are evaluating the merit of tasks simply on whether “the kids loved it” (which I hear all too often) we deserve the criticism!  Inquiry IS engaging and engagement is the first step towards learning, but it is insufficient in itself. 

2.    Beware the trap of style over substance

Related to the issue of engagement, we inquiry teachers are known for our elaborate “provocations” (a term with problematic use) designed to cultivate curiosity, stir up emotions and deliberately raise questions. I have facilitated many myself.  However, such experiences run the risk of being memorable but not for the reason we hoped.  It is argued that our memory of compelling experiences can be more ‘episodic’ than semantic and, therefore, they fail to contribute to deeper, conceptual learning.  We can certainly activate interest in a new inquiry through a provocative experience BUT the relationship between the experience and the conceptual understandings we are working towards can be easily lost or overlooked. Worse still, the experience may be more distracting than helpful. 

 I remember many years ago, beginning an inquiry into how we use the earth’s natural resources with an activity that required children to ‘mine’ chocolate chips from a cookie while trying to keep the cookie itself intact. The children certainly remembered it.  I understood the connection – but did they?  When reflecting on their learning later in the unit, they failed to make any connection with the concept of sustainability that supposedly underpinned the inquiry! They talked a lot about the ‘cool cookie activity’ but made no real links to the focus of the unit (I imagine some of them might to this day refer to it as ‘the cookie unit’).  The way I framed the task meant it was more distracting than helpful. The medium outstripped the message. Launching an inquiry journey this way is well intentioned and can be a powerful way to motivate and activate curiosity (the research on curiosity would suggest it is really important to do so) but the purpose and link to the big ideas being explored needs to be clear. Re-visiting the thinking generated by the experience over the course of an inquiry means it is more likely to shift learning from shallow to deep.

3.    background knowledge helps us inquire into new things. You don’t know what you don’t know.

A persistent theme in the discourse against inquiry is that teachers neglect the importance of background knowledge necessary for successful independent investigation.  As the saying goes “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  Somewhat ironically, this actually informed the development of my cycle of inquiry many years ago. The ‘Finding out and sorting out’ phases of the process are most often collective/shared experiences where  (particularly older) learners are investigating something together in order to then figure out what needs to be more specifically inquired into by individuals or small groups (‘going further’). The point of difference for me is that ‘building background knowledge’ can still be done in a more inquiry based way rather than the often suggested: “teacher tells - then students inquire.”  Before learners construct questions for further investigation, taking time to pause and establish tentative conclusions as result of our shared inquiry ensures a much stronger base from which to move into new investigations.  This also helps explain why we can become frustrated with the quality of learners’ questions – we may simply be inviting them too early in the process, particularly when the inquiry is taking learners into quite new, challenging territory. 

 4.    Prior knowledge has a significant impact on the effectiveness of new learning 

Coupled with the challenge that inquiry fails to acknowledge the importance of background knowledge is the claim that it does not help students gain depth of understanding. This criticism can help us improve a part of the process good inquiry teachers already use. We just need to do it better. 

 One of the staple strategies of the inquiry teacher is, in fact, to deliberately activate prior knowledge in order to facilitate new learning (cue ‘brainstorm’/KWL chart).  Too often, however, strategies designed to activate the ‘known’ are superficial and lack explicit attention by both teachers and learners. Tuning- in or ‘activating prior knowledge’ is seen as a step in a recipe rather than an important way to manage cognitive load. Information in long term memory is stored in ‘schema’ which help us organise and accommodate new information Filling in a ‘KWL’ chart, for example, may do very  little to help integrate new and existing knowledge. And learners are not even aware that this prior knowledge is being activated! Simply asking learners to vaguely list things they know keeps the learning shallow and is only a vague nod to the activation of existing schema.

To support the learner in moving from shallow to deep understanding, take time to really tune in (indeed to inquire into) the learners’ current ways of seeing the concept/s you plan to explore more fully.  And make the purpose of this tuning in time explicit to students. Slowing down and spending time on our current ‘working theories’ around a concept prepares the way for new learning.  It lightens the cognitive load by retrieving stored information to allow new connections.  This work also offers important base line data for assessment of progress over time. By taking time to engage with learner’s ways of seeing something (listening and observing, analysing evidence of thinking)  we honour a core principle of inquiry learning which is about truly valuing the learner’s perspective. And to strengthen this even further – we need to keep doing it throughout an inquiry journey.  Routines such as Ritchhart’s ‘I use to think but now I think’ are ideal for this purpose.  

5.     ‘If you don't know where you're going, you might wind up someplace else’ (Williams, 2016) 

There remains a common misconception that ‘knowing where we are headed’ is anathema to inquiry and this leads to understandable criticism.  Any teacher who has planned with me will attest to my obsession with clarifying ‘conceptual understanding goals’ - the overarching conceptual understandings we want students to deepen as a through the inquiry. Understanding goals act as vital anchors for teacher decision making about resources, task design and assessment.  When big ideas are shared and indeed constructed with learners (at some point – not always straight away) we also ease unnecessary cognitive load andstrengthen learner agency. Lack of clarity about the big ideas underpinning learning, it is like giving learners a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the lid of the box. Clear conceptual understandings allow for connections to be made across learning areas and lift the quality of questions/prompts teachers use as they work with learners.  Explicitly sharing these big ideas with the learners as an inquiry unfolds further aids robust, long term memory. The clearer we are about where we are headed, the more successfully we can use children’s interests and questions to help forge the learning path. 

6.    Being asked to learn about too many things at once can mean we learn very little at all

A couple of months ago a spent some time in a senior primary classroom in which children were working on individual inquiries into things they were interested in. The teachers were, of course, extremely well intentioned. Students had choice and their interests were being valued and this was working well for some.  I noticed, however, several of the children were seemed lost and overwhelmed by the opportunity. One boy, for example, was inquiring into in ‘black holes’ and had planned to make an animation to explain what they were and how they worked.  As I talked with him it became obvious that he had spent a long, long time jumping from one random website to another, watching youtube clips and copying down a list of facts – none of which he could really explain to me.   When I asked him about his plans for the animation he was vague: “I haven’t actually done one before but they are so cool.”  Put simply, the choice and autonomy offered to this student were compromising rather than enhancing his learning.  The demand was too great – a challenging topic about which he had no prior knowledge, limited skills in determining relevant information and a means of sharing his ‘learning’ that he had not yet mastered.   He was sent off with too many plates spinning at once – and they were all simultaneously crashing! This student needed more support and feedback early in the negotiating phase.  As inquiry teachers we understand  the importance of choice however, choice without sufficient support can be counter-productive. 

As an inquiry teacher I am as concerned about the how of learning as I am about the what. BUT I need to keep this manageable and accessible to avoid unnecessary split attention and cognitive overload. For me, this means using Guy Claxton’s technique of clear, split screen intentions and keeping those intentions specific, manageable and integrated. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of learning are equal players in the inquiry classroom. If we expect learners to focus on a disposition like ‘resourcefulness’(for example)  then we need to make sure we have designed learning experiences  in a way that do, indeed, require resourcefulness. We also need to be mindful that if the content is unfamiliar to the learner then the processes they might use to access or share their learning should be more familiar.  The learning should stretch across the how and the what – but not to the point where it snaps. 

 7.    Finding things out does not mean we understand Them.

 This one is simple. A reminder that engaging learners in ‘finding out’ is insufficient.  Effective inquiry teachers know that the reading, listening to experts, experimenting, interviewing, viewing, testing…all the ways we go about gathering new information are only a part of the process.  It is the analysis, reflection and transfer that leads to deeper understanding.  This is a common pitfall. It can feel like we are learning when we are encountering new information (especially when it is through a direct experience) but we need to ensure there are ample opportunities for processing these experiences in multiple ways.

Phew!

Ironically, the length of this post may well have made it difficult for you to manage your own cognitive load – so I’ll stop there!!  Suffice to say, there are at least a dozen more thoughts whirling around my inquiring mind - so I may well come back to this theme in a future post. 

It’s easy (and lazy) to quickly dismiss ideas that conflict with our own - and doing so diminishes us. The central learning for me as an educator remains this..

Stay open. Stay curious. Be comfortable with the tensions and the tangles in all the ‘research’ out there.   If I am truly an inquiry teacher, I can do no less than BE an inquirer and continue to seek understanding as I learn and teach. 

 What have you learned about inquiry from those who argue it is ineffective? 

 Just wondering

 

Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Teaching for meaningful learning: A review of research on inquiry-based and cooperative learning. Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding (pp. 11-70). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Claxton, G. et al (2011) The Learning Powered School. TLO, Bristol. 

Friesan, S. and Scott, D. (2018) Inquiry Based learning: a review of the research Literature, Paper prepared for the Alberta Ministry of Education June 2013 

Hmelo-Silver, C., Duncan, R., & Chinn, C. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42, 99– 107. 

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. 

Rosenshine, B (2012) Principles of Instruction: what every educator should know. American Educator ( Spring)

Williams, D. (2016) https://www.tes.com/news/dylan-wiliam-nine-things-every-teacher-should-know

Hattie (2016) 11 Questions to Professor John Hattie, asked by terachers.

https://visible-learning.org/2016/07/ask-professor-john-hattie-a-question/

 

 

(courtesy of. student who participated in an inquiry workshop at Lansdowne Crescent Primary in Hobart earlier this year)

(courtesy of. student who participated in an inquiry workshop at Lansdowne Crescent Primary in Hobart earlier this year)

Keeping it real: inquiry and authenticity

I once spent a year living in the same street as the school in which I was teaching. It was a mixed blessing. One the one hand, I could work late and still be home at a reasonable hour on the other hand I probably worked way too late way too often.  But that’s not the point of this story. 

 Living so close by meant I inevitably bumped into kids from the school over the weekends. At the supermarket, walking my dog, in a café…and the reaction was most often the same - especially from the younger kids:  “Whaaaaat? A teacher? IN THE SUPERMARKET? OUT WITH FRIENDS? etc. I’m sure many of you have had the experience…slightly awkward, a few giggles, the out-of-context encounter that challenged their view of me as ‘the teacher’ whom they assumed probably lived at school (OK - yes, I almost did.)

 Back then, I was ‘Miss Murdoch’.  I referred to the classroom as ‘My Classroom’, the kids had to line up in two straight lines before being allowed to come in to the room after each break. They ate when the bells told them they could, we rarely ventured out of the room unless it was to go to ‘the art room’ or ‘ the gym’ where they would spend 45 minutes learning something that was quite disconnected from anything that happened in the classroom. They sat at little tables in little wooden chairs – occasionally ‘working’ on the floor for a special treat. They did activities that I planned and followed rules I devised for them.  What a strange environment classrooms were (are?) in contrast to the lives lived outside of school.  And what strange beings we teachers were (are?). Is it any wonder they were taken aback to see me doing everyday things that every day people do! 

 Now admittedly, that was a long time ago. Much has changed but I remain curious about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be authentic with our students and why we insist on maintaining some of the routines, rituals and practices that seem so disconnected from life outside of school. I recently heard a teacher in dialogue with her students referring to herself in the third person (‘So what Mrs X wants you to do now is….so Mrs X is showing you how to….’). Strangely inauthentic.  Many of us have a ‘teacher voice’ we put on when we work with children that is quite different to the tone we might use outside of school. We sit on a chair while children sit at our feet (would we ever do that in a non-school context ? We would generally position ourselves alongside others as we talk with them) … there are a myriad of unconscious ways we talk, interact, position ourselves, curate our spaces and organise our days that seem so alien in contrast to the rest of our lives. 

 One of the 10 key practices I advocate for teachers to develop in order to nurture inquiry is the practice I simply call ‘Keep it Real’. It is a plea for authenticity.  

Authenticity is a word we throw around a lot in education and , indeed, has become one of those words that can easily prompt an eye roll due to glib over-use. We talk about ‘authentic inquiry’ and ‘authentic contexts for inquiry’ but what do we really mean?  Some musings on the matter below:

 

© Kath Murdoch 2019. Keep it Real.

© Kath Murdoch 2019. Keep it Real.

Bridge the divide

There remains a gulf between the lives many children lead outside of school and the lives we have them lead while they are at school. The gulf is much narrower in many early childhood settings and seems to widen as children get older.  What can we do to bridge the strange divide between schools and the wider community? 

BE authentic. You do you. 

If we are going to talk about ‘authentic contexts’ for learning then perhaps we need to think first about how authentic WE are as we engage with learners. Is our ‘teacher identity’ getting in the way of a more powerful, personal connection with our students? How do they see us? How do we see ourselves?  Do we interact with them in the same, respectful, reciprocal way we might with others outside of the school context? How authentic are WE? Don't be afraid to be the vulnerable, imperfect, HUMAN that you are. 

Make the classroom a place that feels good to be in.

Is the environment in which we and students gather each day one that feels ‘authentic’? Does it allow for movement and flexibility? Is it comfortable? Are there places to retreat to as well as interact with others? Can learners choose where they will learn? Have you engaged learners in co-constructing expectations? Is this a room/space that you feel proud of? Like your home, do you enjoy walking into it in the morning because you have taken time to consider the aesthetic of the space? Like a family (ideally!) do you all share the responsibility for caring for this environment? 

Recognise that inquiry opportunities are all around us.

And what about the learning itself? When we talk about ‘authentic contexts’ have we discussed with each other what we actually mean by that? When I think about ‘getting real’ with inquiry, I most often think of the power of purpose.   As communities, schools abound with problems, challenges and opportunities for us to inquire. What can we do about the congestion at pick up time?  How healthy is the food in the canteen? Should our uniforms be gender-neutral? Should we have uniforms? How can we better manage the waste we produce at school? How can we redesign some of the outdoor spaces so we can use them for learning? How can we integrate the art studio/gym/library/music room in a more meaningful/flexible way? Is the design of our learning spaces compatible with what we know about wellbeing?  How might the playground be redesigned to cater for all age groups? The list is endless….By engaging kids in inquiring into real issues/challenges within the school, we immediately enhance the authenticity. The purpose is obvious, the stakes are higher, the audience is real. The challenge is to then see the conceptual connections within that context. (It becomes more than, for example, simply building the playground…it is about design, function, properties, etc) 

Stay awake to possibilities

It seems to me that authenticity is also about our preparedness to ‘let go’ of a plan when a REAL opportunity to investigate something emerges unexpectedly. We have recently had a federal election here in Australia. The perfect context, it would seem, to explore concepts of democracy, power and decision making yet I encountered more than a few teachers who felt pressured to focus on other things that and been planned rather than go with this very natural avenue for inquiry. 

Be the inquirer you are

 The ‘process of inquiry’ is not some discrete, rarefied experience limited to school – we constantly inquire as we live our day to day lives. Whether it is choosing a paint colour, buying a car, wrestling with an ethical dilemma, teaching ourselves to play an instrument, learning a language or planning a holiday, we routinely ask questions, gather information from various sources, sort out and come to some conclusions. Share these authentic inquiries with students so they can see a greater fit between the processes they use to inquire in the classrooms and the ways we inquire every day. 

 Know your why

I know this phrase is becoming somewhat ubiquitous but bear with me. If authenticity is about a sense of purpose, then it really does pay to keep asking WHY.  Powerful learning happens when we ‘know the why’ of what we are learning. Keep asking WHY at the planning table, encourage students to identify the why as they construct their own inquiries. And the ‘why’ must be more than addressing the curriculum – the why needs to connect with our lives beyond school, now and in the future.

No secret teachers’ business

More and more, we are coming to understand the power of inviting the learner in to the decisions we make about and for theirlearning. Sharing intentions (co constructing them), building criteria for assessment together, inviting learners to help design the pathway of inquiry, having the learner curate their portfolios, providing options that allow them to choose workshops/clinics to attend, making the learning as visible as possible in the learning space, student led conferences …these things recognise the learner at the centre and the reality that is this – it is their learning!  Our failure to involve learners in the process of designing for their learning leads to ‘sham’ inquiry.  It can look like inquiry, even sound like inquiry but lacks the authenticity experienced when the learner is in the driver’s seat.   Inquiry - as an approach, IS already authentic. Just watch a young learner trying to figure out how something works or how to fix something they care about. They inquire. Linked to this is, of course the more authentic experience that emerges when we stop trying to map everything out to within an inch of its life and, instead, we are guided by what we notice in and discuss with learners regarding the 'next step’. Being authentic means accepting uncertainty and becoming more responsive to what is needed.

We talk a lot about authenticity - but to what extent do we allow ourselves to ‘get real’ in the classroom. And how ‘real’ can we be when we our schools exist in systems that retain structures and expectations that fly in the face of authenticity? What do you do to keep it real?

Just wondering…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The beautiful art of Inquiry teaching

When I first became interested in inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning (here’s a clue – my hair was permed and my jackets had shoulder pads), the emphasis was almost exclusively on planning/programming. We spent hours diligently planning “units of work” – carefully mapping out ‘hands- on activities’ children would do week to week to learn about the topics we chose for them.  Not only was the focus more on the planning than the teaching…. the planning actually wasn’t all that good.

But that’s another story. 

 The more I taught this way, the more I engaged in research during my years at the University of Melbourne and the more I observed teachers and children in classrooms -  the more curious I became about the what teachers actually did and said(and didn't do and say) with the plans they had made.  I was particularly fascinated by the magic that occurred when teachers successfully empowered children as confident, effective inquirers.  The pedagogy of inquiry remains endlessly intriguing to me. I love the planning/design work we do but I know all too well that no planning is worth the effort if we don’t accompany it with a strong repertoire of practice and a real understanding of WHY we work this way. Knowing the ‘what’ matters - but it is in the why and how that the beauty lies.

 In early 2014, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘What do Inquiry Teachers do?’. It remains one of the most read posts on my site. https://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/blog/2014/02/21/how-do-inquiry-teachers-teach

I followed that post up 3 years later with a refinement of these ideas:

https://kath-murdoch.squarespace.com/config/pages/55ca9ccbe4b03b6dcce8a2ba

Having worked intensively with the practices in many classrooms (I am so lucky I get to teach kids all over the world) I knew there was some ‘tweaking’ to do. My workshops began to focus more heavily on these ‘ways of being’ as teachers. Hundreds of teachers have helped me further refine my own thinking about what it means to truly bring an inquiry stance to the classroom – regardless of the subject matter or the age group with which we are working.  Suffice to say, these practices have been percolating for a long time!

 I find myself most often referring to this as teaching as an ‘art’.  This is by no means the first time our work has been described as such but it resonates so strongly with what I see and hear teachers doing as they nurture agency through inquiry.  My personal life is strongly connected to the creative arts - particularly music and dance. I have watched both my children thrive as learners in the context of the arts. For me - there is something essentially human about the way ideas can be expressed through art. Teaching, like dance, music, visual art is an act of creativity. There is skill, choreography and improvisation. What we do is almost magical when it is at its finest.

There is such beauty in this way of being with children. It is intentional yet spontaneous, highly creative, it evolves and redefines itself over time.  The skilled inquiry teacher works with a palette of possibilities  and mindfully draws on this repertoire in response to their learners.  There is indeed an art to inquiry teaching: choreography, composition and improvisation.

 So. With the help of a local artist, Justine Hutchinson, I set about trying to bring these practices to life as a series of art works. This time, I have chosen a different way of sharing ideas – not as a book, but with a set of cards that can act as a provocation, prompt inspiration, reminder or support to the interested teacher. 

And they are FINALLY ready and available on the website. The images have been designed  to symbolise the essence of each practice. On the back of each card is a summary of techniques, a reminder of strategies and some ideas for applying the practice to the classroom. I am so excited they are finally here.

 If you do purchase a set of the ‘Art of Inquiry’ cards – I would love to hear how you use them and how they work for you. There are some suggestions in the pack itself but it would be so interesting to hear about how they contribute to your growth as an inquiry teacher.

 I currently have them sitting on my desk at home – in little perspex stands. The remind me of what it means to teach (and learn) this way and of the beauty in the art of inquiry. 

 

What practices are on your palette?

 

Just wondering…

The Art of Inquiry Card Set is now available through kathmurdoch.com.au

The Art of Inquiry Card Set is now available through kathmurdoch.com.au

Mapping journeys of inquiry through the year: emergent, flexible and connected.

I was recently rummaging through some old papers and came across a program I had helped a school create many (MANY) years ago. It was an impressive document in its day. A carefully organised sequence of units under ‘topic’ headings. Each topic was linked to detailed curriculum outcomes and positioned in sequence over a two-year cycle. Inevitably, these units would be tackled term by term – beginning as the term started and ending before the term break.   It was a neat, organised, detailed, safe, dependable two-year cycle of…. topics. Developed by teachers. For teachers.

This blast from the past prompted me to reflect on how much my thinking has changed about the way we can design for inquiry with and for learners. The end of the school year is only a couple of weeks away here in Australia so the process of ‘big picture’ designing for inquiry is in full swing. But, in some schools, it is looking very different from the old, fixed scope and sequence of standard topics. The predictability of a scope and sequence means inquiries became less driven by the learners’ questions, needs and interests and current resources or authentic connections are often overlooked. Children come to expect they will ‘do’ certain topics at certain year levels, and teachers new to teams feel little ownership over plans that have been made by previous teams.  

In Australia at least, the curriculum already provides us with a scope and sequence. The achievement standards lay out expectations for both content and processes students should be engaging with as they move through school. The CONTEXTS in which these achievement standards can be met can, by contrast, be dynamic and varied. Opening up the way we design our maps for inquiry means we can be much more responsive and attuned to the community of learners with which we work. The key, ironically, is knowing your curriculum really well.

There are four significant changes I often make to the process of ‘curriculum mapping for inquiry’ (although this depends on the readiness of the school) 

1.    Inquiries are designed on a year by year basis. The program is flexible – not fixed. There is plenty of room for new inquiries to emerge through the year as well.

2.    Where we can, we find authentic contexts for inquiry using issues relevant to the school, the local and global community.  

3.    We consider the big questions to potentially arc across a year rather than allocating a rigid time frame. We can then dip in and out of them over the year and make connections between them.

4.    While the curriculum informs our thinking, it is not the only source of information assisting us in the design of the map – the students themselves contribute to the decisions we make about these contexts for inquiry.  It is their learning, after all.

 Ditching the reliance on a two-year cycle of units and treating each year as a fresh start, means we can use the children’s interests and needs as well as global, local and school-based issues and events to offer more authenticity  and purpose for inquiry.  One of the best things we can do is to take a look around our immediate environment – the school, its surrounds and our community. ‘Problem finding’ is a key element of design thinking and can offer up amazing opportunities for authentic inquiry. Are you renovating or building new classrooms?  Does the canteen need an overhaul? How safe is the car park at drop off and pick up time? How sustainable is the garden? Does the playground need a re-think?  Are you planning a performance/production? Is there a camp that might lend itself as a centrepiece for inquiry?  Some of the best contexts for inquiry are right under our noses – and they will vary from year to year.  Liberating ourselves from a fixed scope and sequence allows the both teachers and learners to really own the inquiry as it is designed.  Similarly, taking time to ask kids what they would love to explore – what things excite and challenge them can provide us with wonderful ideas for contextualising inquiry in engaging contexts. Contexts such as the ones I have described are often used as ‘case studies’ to helped children explore broader, compelling inquiry questions.  It is these compelling questions we generate as we start to map the year ahead. 

 The big questions we intend to inquire into can be shared with (and indeed developed with) students from the beginning of the year.  The best questions deserve to be revisited throughout the year as events, texts, interests emerge that connect to them. The world is not neatly organised into discrete boxes, so treating the questions in a more fluid, flexible way also helps students make important conceptual connections between them.  Each question, of course, will have its ‘moment in the sun’ but rather than packing that inquiry away (we’ve done ‘adaptation’ what are we doing next?) it remains visible and available to return to.  

 A few of the questions teams have generated so far in our mapping work over the last couple of weeks include:

 What can art teach us about history? (history, the arts, design technologies, ethics, intercultural understanding)

What makes a connected community? (Civics and citizenship, geography, history)

How does design influence wellbeing? (design technologies, health, science)

How do stereo types influence our relationships with others? (health, intercultural understanding)

How can I be an ethical consumer? (economics, ethics, geography)

How do living things (including humans) adapt to changing environments? (science, health, geography)

What influences the choices we make? (health, civics and citizenship)

 (These are all examples linked to the Victorian curriculum)

Working this way -  in and out of compelling inquiry questions  - requires big picture, synergistic thinking and is not for the faint-hearted (or inexperienced). It requires strong curriculum knowledge and the capacity to spot an opportunity for connection between events and interests that emerge over the year and the questions themselves.  Returning to questions over the course of the year allows learners to deepen their understandings and gain new perspectives over time.  Inquiry teachers are highly attuned to the opportunities to help learners make connections to the big questions. Take, for example, the rather unwelcome appearance of a large cockroach in a kindergarten classroom early this year.  The children were both terrified and fascinated in equal measure – with many, many questions.  The resulting investigation connected beautifully with the big question ‘What living things do we share our world with?’ and ‘How do living things survive in changing environments?’- building conceptual understandings around structure and function, classification and connection.   In a year 2 class, the opportunity to investigate the design of a new playground was too good to resist!  This inquiry connected strongly with the big question ‘What is it made of and why?’  -  the perfect vehicle for looking at design, materials and their properties.  Lost teeth, new babies, holidays overseas, big weather events, a political issue everyone is talking about, community celebrations, a novel that has everyone in its spell….these moments can trigger small inquiries amongst the ‘bigger’ investigations we design more intentionally. All connect back to those compelling big questions – weaving a connected tapestry of inquiry across the year. 

Have you escaped the tyranny of a repetitive, predictable program?

Just wondering…

Getting personal: conferring with learners as they inquire

For several years now, it has been a joy to help educators and learners explore the power of ‘personal inquiry’ as part of the broader spectrum of inquiry learning in their schools. Simply put, I define personal inquiry as an opportunity for learners to pursue questions/interests/passions/challenges that they determine. Individual learners design inquiries that allow them to travel on a learning path of their choosing. They might be inquiring into how to design and make something, how to improve a skill or inquiring into a question they find fascinating.

The way this is implemented in schools varies from school to school, classroom to classroom. In many of the schools I partner with, we have established a regular routine called “iTime” (and often “Discovery time”in the early years) which is offered on a weekly basis. More often than not, the inquiries learners are engaged in are not connected with the shared inquiry (their whole class “big Question”) although it may be that learners will use iTime to continue to delve into the same area that is being explored by the class as a whole. For me, one of the most critical aspects of personal inquiry is the focus on investing and growing the learning assets - skills and dispositions for life long learning. When learners identify the focus for their personal inquiry, they also establish a a goal or intention that commits them to developing their skills as a learner. So an investigation into the problem of palm oil production is simultaneously an investigation into, for example, effective time management. Personal inquiry beautifully nurtures learner agency in that there is a great deal of choice for the learner and it also explicitly focusses on strengthening the child’s identify as a capable, skilled, independent inquirer.

Critical to the success of our experience with personal inquiry is the role of the teacher in conferring with learners. Far from being a routine that allows learners to simply “go off on their own” , teachers are working the room as coaches, guides, observers and co-researchers. Scheduled and spontaneous conferences are the mainstay of the teachers’ role during iTime. Conversations can be brief but they serve powerful purposes:

  • To contribute to formative assessment of the student’s learning (and therefore to plans for improving  learning)

  • Get to know your learners more deeply as learners and people

  • To build trust and connect with individuals through dialogue

  • Provide personalized, specific feedback 

  •  Help learners think and talk about their learning and about themselves as learners

  •  Help learners stay focussed and on task

  •  Monitor progress towards their personal goals

  • To offer ‘just in time’ explanations/demonstrations if required

  •  To help learners clarify what they need to do next

    Conferring during personal inquiry time can be inspiring and joyful but also requires an agile and responsive teacher - moving across topics, documenting and balancing time to observe as well as time to engage. Here are some tips we have found helpful:

Tips for success

·      For more formal, scheduled conferences, give learners time to prepare for the conference and ask them bring evidence/artefacts to the conversation

 ·      Bring an inquiry stance to the conference. Remain open and curious about what and how the child is learning.  It is often simply through listening that we most effectively assist the learner. As they explain their process to us, they come to clarify it for themselves

·      Ask questions more than offer suggestions. Through your questions, students will often come up with their own solutions

·      With younger learners, ‘conferring’ will often feel more like listening, observing and ‘nudging’ ideas as they play/explore. 

·      When making suggestions  - provide more than one and then  invite the learner to select what they believe will be the best way forward.  

·      Keep the learner in the driver’s seat – ask them what they think is important to achieve through the conference

·      This is a conversation not an interview. For this reason, it canbe helpful to avoid note taking during the conversation if it takes away from the quality of your communication.  You and the learner may spend a couple of minutes making jottings once the conversation has ended. 

 ·      Notice and name what you are noticing. “So I can see you have….”

 ·      Record the essence of the conversation – and/or have the learner record what was discussed

·      Consider small group conferences – so children learn the questions and prompts you use, enabling them to confer with each other

 ·      Articulate what the child is teaching you as they share their inquiry. (‘I didn't know that - how fascinating, I can see why you are so interested in this…) 

Sample questions/prompts for a ‘personal inquiry’ conference 

Finally, over the years, I have found myself noticing the kinds of questions/prompts that seem to be more effective. Here are some that I personally find useful:

·      Can you tell/remind me what you are inquiring into? (often followed by, ‘Can you tell me more about that?)

·      Tell me about what you are doing/working on…

·      Why is this important to you? 

·      How is your investigation going? (can you tell me more about that? What makes you say that?  What have you found out/discovered/learned to do so far 

·      (Begin with the ‘content’ of the inquiry as this is generally the more motivating element for the learner) 

·      What skill/behaviour are you trying to strengthen during this inquiry?  (eventually some simple continua of skills and behaviours will be available for the child to refer to as part of this conversation) 

·      How is it going? (here, success criteria that has been developed with the class can be a useful reference) 

·      So what’s challenging you? What might you need help with? 

·      Can I share some things I have noticed? (target something the child is doing well and something they need to work on) 

·      Something I have noticed is….

·      I’m going to suggest 2 things you could do about that…What do you think might be most helpful? 

 ·      Someone that could show you how to do that is….

 ·      Would it be helpful if I showed you how to….?

·      Given what we have discussed, what do you think you might need to do next? 

 ·      You might consider…

 ·      I’m going to make a couple of suggestions that will help you with ….. then you can decide which one seems the best suggestion for you

 ·      Someone in the class who has got expertise/maybe able to show you how to… is….

And finally, a few reminders on ‘choice words’ for conferring….

  • Refer to “learning” rather than “work”.

  • Remember the power of ‘yet’  (so you haven’t found the information you are looking for YET) 

  • (use might/could…) How might you? How could you? What might be..

  • ‘I’m wondering if you…. I’m wondering about the way you… 

  • What are you noticing about yourself as you do this? 

  • Use the language of the relevant discipline where possible (so as a scientist, is there a way you could test this hypothesis? As a writer, how do you feel about this lead sentence?..)

What do you find helpful in managing personal inquiry in your context? What questions work best for you? How do you and your learners document these conversations? How do you keep the learner in the driver’s seat?

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…