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…  

 

The art of inquiry: 10 practices for the inquiry teacher

 

Of all the blog posts I have written,  the one that has been read, reposted and mentioned most often- is “How do inquiry teachers teach?” http://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/blog/2014/02/21/how-do-inquiry-teachers-teach

That was back in 2014. In the intervening years, more and more of my work has centred on the question of how.  Looking back, it strikes me that this work has provided an important balance of emphasis.  I am passionate about designing (planning) for inquiry. In order to understand the demands and possibilities of inquiry, it is vital to build capacity around the planning table -  for teachers to know how to design for inquiry through conceptual, rich, authentic experiences and the use of a cycle or framework that scaffolds thinking from the known to the new. This work is about going beyond ‘planning activities’ and remains an essential element of the expertise necessary to use inquiry effectively.  But without a parallel focus on pedagogy, the application of our plans to the classroom can fall well short of our intentions. In the end, it is the way we teach that makes the most difference to learning.  I have been avidly reading my advance copy of Guy Claxton’s wonderful new book “The Learning Power Approach” and this really resonated with me:

"How we teach slowly shapes the way young people respond to the unknown – to change, challenge, complexity and uncertainty….Our teaching can steer them toward becoming more positive, confident, and capable in the face of difficulty. OR it can steer them toward becoming more timid, dogmatic and insecure."  (Claxton, 2018: 34)

What we teachers  DO, SAY and think matters. More than any program or unit plan.

Over the last few years, I have had the joy of collaborating with hundreds of teachers in a quest to dig deeper into the pedagogy of inquiry.  We have watched each other at work, co-taught and stripped lessons back to the minutiae of instructional practices.  Informed by some of the work of Hattie, Marzano, Johnson, Dweck and others  I have been gradually building up a more cohesive repertoire of key practices to which I return often. 

So a new book is on its way!  This book is based on 3 years of observation, experimentation and research into the essential practices of the inquiry teacher. (Like giving birth, each book I have written has been followed with the words “I am never doing that again.”  But the memory of the pain fades and the urge to write, create, design and share returns!!!)

I am doing something I have not done before.  I am using this post to share the bones of the book - the essential framework of the practices. And I would love feedback.  I’ve been playing around with these words/phrases for nearly 3 years now. I have tweaked, changed, added, removed along the way. My intention is to capture the essence of the practices in a key word or phrase. The detail and the practical ‘how to’ will be in the book -  but this is the essence.

The practices reflect what we have noticed when teaching 4-12 year olds. This is my area of experience and expertise and although my instincts tell me much is transferable, I acknowledge that the source of this work is extensive, long term work in the early-childhood through to primary setting. I don’t have the consistent, lived experience of working with secondary school students (although taught in a University for 10 years)  so I am not going to profess that these practices are the right fit – but it would be interesting to hear....

Ten Practices of the Inquiry Teacher

(not really in order...)

1. Cultivate curiosity

Inquiry teachers provoke, model and value curiosity – and they do this in a myriad of ways. Curiosity is nurtured through the way the learning space is curated, the kinds of questions asked, the extent to which the learners’ questions are valued and through the deliberate, infectious modelling of curiosity by the teacher themselves.  

2. Question

We all agree that questions lie at the heart of true inquiry.  Inquiry teachers elicit learner’s questions and often use these to help drive learning encounters. But the role of the question in the inquiry classroom goes far deeper than displaying a wonderwall. Inquiry teachers know how to ask the right questions. They use questioning to guide the learner to think deeply. They ask more than they tell. Inquiry teachers question what they and others think  - they question their own practice on a regular basis. 

3. Connect

Perhaps the most powerful word in this suite of practices. Inquiry teachers are all about connection. They design journeys of inquiry with and for learners that help them see connections across learning areas and between school learning and the world beyond school. Inquiry teachers value the connections they have with others – students, colleagues and the broader community. They teach kids how to collaborate as they investigate problems, projects and passions.  

4. Release

I offer this word cautiously.  I prefer it to let go, it is more like letting out as one does a kite string. Sometimes this is gradual, sometimes this is immediate but for learners to take a true inquiry stance to their learning, teachers need to release power and allow them to explore, figure out and make meaning. Not by themselves, but for themselves.  Inquiry teachers take risks. While they plan thoroughly, they are prepared to release themselves from the plan and take a different path. Inquiry teachers design tasks that allow the learners to do the heavy lifting.

5. Keep it real

When I talk to kids in schools about the learning experiences that they remember most fondly, it is always the real ones. Learners crave authenticity and purpose. Inquiry teachers know how to use the school, local and global community as contexts for investigation. Whether it is inquiring into how to design and grow a sustainable garden, what to do about the car parking issue at pick up time, or collaborating with a scientists on the other side of the world, learners value opportunities to inquire into things that matter to them and their community.

6. Notice

Inquiry teachers observe, notice, reflect and respond.  They bring an inquiry stance to their observations of and conversations with learners. They take time to notice whats going on  and to reflect on what they see and hear. And they notice themselves. They deliberately slow down instruction to notice the way students are responding.  Inquiry teachers are intentional, observant and responsive.

7. Grow Learning Assets

Taking an inquiry approach to learning means drawing on ones capacity as a researcher, a thinker, a self-manager, a communicator and a collaborator.  Teachers who use an inquiry based approach understand that the power lies in the process. They work hard to privilege the process of learning. They invite learners to inquire into learning itself and know that it is ultimately the skills and dispositions of the learner that dissolve the boundaries between school and life beyond school.

8. Play

Inquiry teachers understand the power of purposeful play. They know that all senses are involved in learning.  And they know that play is not just for young learners. Time to play – to experiment, to tinker, to play with ideas benefits all learners. Inquiry teachers are not afraid to ‘play with ideas’ – to go outside…literally and figuratively.

9. Think Big

Inquiry teachers keep their eye on the bigger picture. They avoid ‘activities’ or ‘topics’ for their own sake – inquiry journeys are ultimately about working towards conceptual understanding.

10. Get Personal

Inquiry teachers inquire into the lives and passions of their learners. They provide opportunities for learners to follow some paths that matter to them and encourage each learner to set personal goals. Time is made for learners to explore questions of significance to them and an effort is made to help learners regularly inquire into themselves as learners. 

So...there they are. The 10 practices as of Nov 25th, 2017!  Would love your thoughts as I continue to write the book. What do inquiry teachers...do?

Just wondering .... 

Getting into the Habit of Inquiry

I have been driving about as long as I have been teaching. And that’s a long time! I still recall how exhausted I would be at the end of even a short trip in those first few weeks of getting my licence. Everything I did, every move I made in my little 1979 Honda Civic 2-door was conscious, mindful, deliberate- and slightly angst-filled.  Getting from A to B was an exercise in concentration. It took me a while to feel relaxed enough to turn on the radio or have a sustained conversation with a passenger.  Nothing was habit. Both I and my car were in ‘manual’ gear.  Some thirty years on, I enjoy driving (which is just as well as I am so often on the road) and many aspects of driving have become automatic (as has my car’s transmission!).   After years on the road I’ve developed what I hope are some good driving habits. And I don’t think too much about them.  At least not every journey and not all the time.

This analogy seemed an apt way to examine a trend I have noticed in reflective conversations following ‘labsites’ or modelled inquiry lessons.  Giving ‘fishbowl’ lessons – where teachers get to look in on an inquiry based approach in action, is one of my favourite forms of professional learning. The conversations we have after these sessions are often powerful, honest and energising.  Over the past couple of years I have begun to notice how people regularly remark on the same things:

“You position yourself at the same level as the kids – you are on the floor, at the tables, in the circle…you are at their level.”

“You don't ask for hands up – the kids talk to each other instead. ”

“ There is a lot of time to think – the pace feels slower and more relaxed”

“ You don't tell them much, you ask more than you tell”

“You use a lot of very specific language of thinking …”

You say “I wonder…” a lot!

“You let them figure things out…you keep probing”

I am not sharing these observations in a self-congratulatory way. What interests me is that much of the time, these aspects of my pedagogy are things I don't really notice. To be honest, I am not aware that I am doing them as much as I obviously am.  These things have become habit. Not doing them would feel strange and unfamiliar. Micro skills, like waiting after a question is asked or sitting amongst kids rather than in front of the group just feels right.  They are my 'go to' behaviours. If I have a conversation with children where they all put their hands up and answer in turn, I feel uncomfortable.  If I am standing at the front, looming over young children who are seated on the floor, I feel unsettled and out of my skin. Over time, these and other aspects of my pedagogy have become habit.  Having worked hard on building an inquiry-based pedagogy, this stance now feels natural. I guess I am at what some describe as the stage of ‘unconscious competence.’

Which brings me to the point of this blog post!  As I have said numerous times, inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning. It is both a stance and a useful framework to assist in the design of learning experiences.  What teachers do and say- how they behave and interact in the learning space has a huge role in determining the way kids see themselves as learners.  If we want kids to be great inquirers, our teaching habits need to nurture that.  While a lot of great work goes on when teachers project and reflect around the planning table, we strengthen our inquiry muscles through our interactions with students. Every lesson, every day gives us an opportunity to practice some of the key elements of this pedagogy such as the questioning, the pacing, the releasing of responsibility and the language of thinking. Becoming a more inquiry based teacher is, at first, like learning to drive – even harder, it can be like unlearning to drive one way and having to re-learn to drive another.  Perhaps it is a little like learning to drive on the other side of the road … the same basic moves, the same basic context but requiring a different perspective, different choreography and different cues.

And even though I have developed a strong suite of habits that position me and my learners as inquirers, there are some old habits that remain. They are for the most part dormant but can return when I feel pushed for time, when I am uncertain about my purposes, when I am challenged by a student or when I am just plain tired.  I have learned to own these moments, admit to kids and to observing teachers that I’ve made a wrong move.  I try to consciously change gears and resume the journey. Getting into new teaching habits is not easy but it can be exhilarating when we do.

So…some tips for getting into the habit of inquiry- with acknowledgement to this Lifehack blog from whom I have shamelessly stolen some headings! (http://www.lifehack.org/articles/featured/18-tricks-to-make-new-habits-stick.html)

Make it daily: ‘Doing inquiry’ twice a week treats inquiry more like a subject than a pedagogical stance. It’s not enough.  If you are starting out, take just one lesson/learning experience each day, in any area, and consider how you could provide kids with more opportunity to investigate, figure out, problem solve and ask questions. 

Start simple: Inquiry is a wonderfully complex, layered approach to teaching and learning. But this can be daunting.  A great place to start is by learning more about questions and questioning. Try focussing on having kids ask questions and teaching them about questions. One step at a time.

Get a buddy: They say you are more likely to stick with a gym program if you go with someone else. Might this be true of new teaching approaches too? Find someone on staff to discuss your plans with. Watch each other teach, talk about your progress. Collaborate.

Accept your imperfections!: Don't be hard on yourself when a lesson doesn't work out or when your fine efforts to provide open ended, differentiated, challenging, authentic, problem based, higher order tasks … are met with confusion or learner indifference! It happens. Tomorrow is another day.

Remove temptation from your path.  Tear up your photo copy card. Burn their text books. Get rid of some of the tables in the room.  Or whatever your teaching equivalent is of ‘don't have chocolate in the house.’

Associate with role models:  stay connected with others trying to work in the same way. If they are not in your school, use a digital PLN. Facebook and twitter abound with enthusiastic inquiry teachers who will happily keep you energised and motivated!

Write it down. Say it out loud: share your intentions with your kids and colleagues.  This way you are not only accountable to yourself - you are accountable to others. For example, you might say to your kids “I really want to get into the habit of giving you more thinking time. I am going to be trying some new ways of asking questions and having conversations with you…”

Know the benefits.  Good habits are formed when we truly believe in the results they will bring us. Read.  Know why you are doing what you are doing and return to those reasons when it becomes challenging or frustrating.

Persist.  Working in new ways as a teacher is not just about changing our own habits. The way we behave has a symbiotic relationship with our students’ behaviour.  Our habits perpetuate theirs and vice versa. If we are in the habit of asking closed, leading, shallow questions – students form the habit of responding with limited, ‘teacher-pleasing’, shallow answers!  Unlearning is uncomfortable – but the new learning and the new way of being is worth it.

We become inquiry teachers by teaching for and through inquiry. Kids develop their skills and dispositions by being given plenty of opportunities to inquire. These opportunities are available to us across the day whether we are running a math workshop, taking a PE lesson outdoors, reading from a class novel or hanging out with kids in a maker space.  I know it is a slightly glib phrase but I can’t help but say it again – inquiry is a way of being. 

And one final note. Unconscious competence is an important state to reach because it allows an ease of being, less energy expenditure and a flow state.  But it also, of course, has its pitfalls. The reflective conversations I have with teachers and kids about my teaching help me return to ‘conscious’ competence – a state we need to be in in order to teach others. Being highly conscious, at times, of the teaching moves we are making can help us sharpen our skill set and remain ever vigilant about self-improvement.

Much like the state I will need to be in when I teach my daughters to drive.

Are you in the habit of inquiry teaching?

Just wondering….