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.


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)

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



(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)

Making spaces to create: environments for collaborative planning

Of the many roles I play as a consultant supporting teachers and learners in inquiry. – one of my favourites is the opportunity to engage in collaborative design for learning. Effective planning (although I do prefer the word ‘designing’ these days) is an essential skill for teachers who use an inquiry approach. It requires a deft blend of thinking ahead while being responsive to what is happening in the moment. There needs to be just the right balance between elements agreed to by the team and individual freedom to follow the interests and needs of a groups.  Documentation is important for accountability but an over-emphasis on it can detract from the delight of the process and take far too much time.  Increasingly, we understand the importance of inviting the learner’s voice into the planning process, while  attending to curriculum standards and outcomes. Needless to say, true collaborative planning is a complex, multi-layered process.  It is no longer sufficient to simply tweak ‘what we did last year’ nor are we going to foster true inquiry if we studiously plan out 6-10 weeks of detailed learning tasks! 

 The process takes time and a commitment to regular thoughtful, collaborative conversations.  Participating in these conversations can be an incredibly creative experience. In fact, I believe that designing for inquiry learning is one of the most creative elements of our work!   When we truly commit to this approach, we are working with new ideas, multiple elements and authentic contexts. It feels like a combination of choreography and architecture with a generous helping of improvisation thrown in to the mix. 

 Given the significance and artistry of collaborative planning for inquiry, I find myself wondering why we often pay such scant attention to the environments in which these powerful and important conversations take place.  In recent years, many of us have become much more aware of the role that the physical environment plays in supporting learning in the classroom – but do we show the same care and attention to our meeting spaces? 

 Not all schools have (or even want) dedicated meeting/planning areas. For some, classrooms or staff rooms are sufficient or the only option. But many of the schools I work in do set aside a space for teams to meet, plan and evaluate their work. But there are spaces…and there are spaces!  Too often I find myself in ‘meeting rooms’ devoid of anything that might inspire us as we reflect, explore and create.  We’ve all seen them. Boxes of supplies waiting to be opened, redundant resources that are no longer used or available but well past their use by date.  Yellowing notes on a pinboard, dangling by a single pin, last year’s term overview fading on the whiteboard…or nothing at all on the walls.  A mix of furniture crammed in a space that might be too small to accommodate it. Sound familiar?  

 Now of course, great inquiry teachers can plan anytime, anywhere. No one really NEEDS an inspiring environment to design for powerful learning. BUT I wonder what would happen if we did indeed pay a little more attention to the spaces in which we ask teachers to do this important work?  How might it contribute to our wellbeing? Our creative process? 

 One school in Adelaide. – Hawthordene Primary School – recently took up the challenge of re-designing their planning room so that it provided more resources to support the process, offered an aesthetic that was welcoming and inspiring to be In and cultivated curiosity and wonder  - just as we try to do in inquiry classrooms.  Mother Teresa Primary School in Melbourne has long championed the importance of a beautiful, respectful aesthetic for all the learners in its community – children and teachers alike. There are several schools I have the pleasure of working in where attention is paid to the quality of the physical environment to support teacher planning.  Does it make a difference? Well…from my perspective, yes. It feels like it does. It speaks to the importance of the work, encourages creative thinking, supports the conversation through visible reminders of our purposes and pedagogy.  Some of the things I have seen in these schools include:

  •  Easily accessible resources to support inquiry teaching and learning – having great teacher resources on display (rather than hidden in library shelves) may encourage more staff to engage in professional reading

  • Interesting, relevant articles made available for reading – perhaps an ‘article of the week’ posted on the board

  • Art work/objects/photographs that inspire wonder and imagination

  • Natural light and flowers/plants! 

  • Equipment such as chart paper, markers, post its, index cards , whiteboard etc….while planning may be digitally documented, we find the best conversations actually happen when we record in more fluid, shared way. 

  • Access to a smart TV, IWB etc so that we can check out on line resources together

  • An active ‘wonderwall ‘ for staff! 

  • Visible reminders of some of the elements that are important in our planning – inquiry cycles, school values lists of key concepts, teaching practices, reminders of skills and dispositions (in my partner schools these are the ‘learning assets’). I prefer displays of elements that we always need to refer to when we plan … this can really help keep us focussed and mindful. 

  • Some examples of student learning – including photos that showcase some key characteristics of inquiry. 

  • A coffee machine and a bowl of the best Swiss chocolate….OK that might be stretching it!!

  • Now of course, not everyone has the resources to dedicate to this kind of space…but even a few changes to your meeting room might energise and inspire. 

  •  How important is the environment in which you plan/design for learning to you?

 Just wondering…

Wonderings and resources to support planning at Hawthorne PS

Wonderings and resources to support planning at Hawthorne PS

The inquiry cycle with conversation prompts at Mother Teresa PS

The inquiry cycle with conversation prompts at Mother Teresa PS

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?”

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

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! (

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….









How are we traveling? Reflecting on the 'story so far'

In the part of the world in which I live (Melbourne, Australia), we are enjoying the early days of Autumn. The weather is still warm but the evenings are cooler, the mornings crisper and there is no doubt that summer is gently retreating as each day becomes a fraction shorter. There’s a kind of wistfulness about Autumn that will often find me staring into a soft evening sky and wondering...

 For teachers in Australia, it is also just over  half way through the first term of the school year –or thereabouts. So perhaps it is the combination of the Autumnal skies and this ‘midpoint’ that got me writing some reflections this week.   Six or so weeks into the school year is a good time to take stock. We begin the year with great expectations, plans and goals (see my previous post).  We should ensure we take a moment to stop and acknowledge the journey so far.  Only today,  in planning with some prep teachers, I heard a teacher acknowledge her delight in noticing how readily her students are now ‘sharing their wonderings’ with each other when at the beginning of the year they were reluctant to speak out and always looking to her for approval.  It got us all pausing to look back and acknowledge where we have come to - even at this relatively early stage in the year.

 As I have said and written about many times, inquiry is not a ‘subject’.  It is a way of seeing ourselves as teachers and as learners. It is an approach that comprises a constellation of practices all, ultimately, designed to strengthen students’ sense of agency or, as Guy Claxton puts it – to ‘build learning power’. The pedagogy used within this approach can create a powerful culture of learning- but it also depends on a culture that is not only learner centred but learning centred.  Taking time to intentionally nurture that culture is critical to success.  

So – as the days shorten (at least on our side of the world) let’s take stock and reflect on the story so far. Here are some questions to help you reflect on your culture-building efforts – and perhaps to help you consider new goals to work on. Suffice to say - none of us can manage to get all of these things happening beautifully all at once!  This is an 'aspirational' check list- I hope it provides the basis for some affirmation as well as for some challenge.

Know your students:  Have you taken time to gather information about each students – their family, their passions, their goals, their cultural heritage, their favorite thing to do, their friends, their strengths, their challenges….do you know their parents? How well do you know each student?

Let them know you: Have you taken time to help your students come to know who YOU are – not just as a teacher but as a learner … as a person!

Create community:  Have you deliberately focused on creating bonds. Are your kids connecting with each other? Are they forming respectful relationships? Do they feel they are part of a ‘family’ of sorts? Is there a sense of ‘groupness’ about the class? Do you include regular activities that are all about creating connections – circle games, singing together, reading a shared novel, and sharing powerful stories.  Is the class developing as a community in which individuals feel safe to explore, take risks and share their thinking?

Learning agreements: Have you worked with students to create an agreement about the kinds of learners you all strive to be?  Is your agreement about learning- not just ‘behavior?’ Have you signed the agreement - do they see you as a learner too?

Ownership: Are you inviting your students to solve problems, make decisions, suggest and take action in relation to how your classroom will ‘work’ this year? Do your students have a voice? Who owns the learning?

Physical environment: Have you spent time with students exploring ways the classroom furniture can be arranged to best support flexibility, movement, collaboration and group conversation. Are materials and resources clearly organized to ensure students can be as independent and resourceful as possible?

Visual environment: Do your ‘walls’ help students learn?  Are displays indicative of what you value as an inquiry teacher?  What do the walls tell the visitor about the learning happening in your room? Do your walls speak of inquiry?

Beauty: Have you (and your students) considered ways to make your space a beautiful space to come to each day? Have you attended to the aesthetic? Lighting, comfortable furniture, art works – is this a space in which you would want to learn?

Questions: Have you encouraged your students to share their wonderings with you? Is there a space where those wonderings are collected/shared? Do students have opportunities to explore their wonderings?

Creating/making/tinkering: Do students get to use their hands as well as their heads in your classroom?  Are there opportunities to design, create and make – whatever the age group you are working with?

Language :Are you conscious of the language you are using? Does your language invite children to theorize, hypothesise, predict, explore, question…are words like ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘possible’, ‘wonder’ part of your discourse?  Do you ask questions that encourage kids to think deep and wide? Are you doing your best to ask, listen, probe, nudge? Have you taught your students how to have ‘hands down’ conversations? Are you employing thinking routines to help scaffold thinking? Do you talk about learning itself with your kids?

Reflection: Are your students reflecting on their learning regularly? Are there routines in place that ensure reflection is an ongoing process woven into the fabric of your day?  Are there some quiet, unhurried spaces in your week? 

Technologies: Are you making use of digital technologies to help students investigate AND create and share learning?  Are you connected with the world beyond your classroom?

Spontaneity: Have you made the most of the unexpected? Have you allowed an inquiry to emerge out of a surprise occurrence? A problem? A world event? Have you allowed yourself to go with something that has captivated your students’ interests? Are you on the look out for authentic opportunities for inquiry?

Routines and rituals:  Do your students know 'how things work' in their classroom. have you (with their input) established some predictable systems and ways of operating that enable them to manage themselves and their learning more efficiently. Do you have some regular rituals that they look forward to and that serve to connect the community (eg: circle time, 'Wondering Wednesday', class meetings, etc.)

Joy: Do you have fun together? Do you enjoy the company of your students? Do you laugh together on a regular basis? Are you enjoying your teaching?

So - how are you traveling? 

Just wondering...


Leading for inquiry learning

Leading for inquiry learning

I imagine some of my blog followers may well have given up on me by now!  This is the first post I have written in a long time….you may have been wondering why….

The release of ‘The Power of Inquiry’ late last year has meant a hugely, wonderfully busy year and time has been tight.  And, in a way, I have said so much of what I wanted to share in that book.  In addition,  I restored my facebook page earlier this year and committed to using it more frequently.  I have found my urge to blog has been satisfied, to a degree, by the ‘miniposts’ I write on facebook. I have even contemplated discontinuing the blog and just using facebook and twitter.

 On reflection, however,  I see them as serving different purposes.  The facebook posts I write are useful – but often don't require me to share my thinking in real depth. They are certainly easier to write than this!  The blog is something that takes me more time to think through, compose and write. And that’s good for me.  So I am going to stick with the blog despite the growing temptation of the ‘bite-sized’ thinking that facebook requires.  I need to keep challenging myself to pause, think more, write more. I just may not post as often J

This long-time-coming post has emerged while I have been busy planning a workshop I am running in Melbourne next week.  I will be working with a big group of teachers who are interested in exploring their role as leaders in an inquiry-based context.  So much of my work is located in the classroom space and focusses on how we work with children, it has been great to stop and reflect again on ways in which we work with teachers to empower them as inquirers. 

Over time, Ihave partnered withmany schools who have been eager to embrace the philosophy and pedagogy of inquiry as a whole school approach. While I have an important role in that process,  the success of my work depends so much on those in the school who‘keep the pot boiling’ in between or following my visits. I am often intrigued (and sometimes dismayed) by the lack of real ‘take up’ in a school despite what seems to be an enthusiastic and willing response from staff.  Of course we all know that strengthening and sustaining growth in a school goes way beyond what one consultant can do.  When it boils down to it, developing inquiry as a whole school approach depends so much on the quality of the leadership in a school. When I think of the schools I work with who have really embraced and grown a culture of inquiry,  I come to the same conclusion each time. They are schools with leaders who are, in themselves, inquirers.   The ‘administrative’ team and those charged with the responsibility of guiding or facilitating collaborative planning are committed to the process and committed to nurturing the staff as learners as well as teachers.  If the classroom teacher ‘controls the climate’ of the classroom – then school leaders have the same effect on the staff . In essence, great leaders give others they work with a real sense of agency.  Hence the notion of shared/distributed leadership.  Strong inquiry schools have a distinct climate – a climate that breeds curiosity, a relentless passion for investigation and a genuine fascination with learning. It isa climate that invites connection within and across communities and that supports learners take risks.  Inquiry leaders don't want passive compliance – they want active, questioning, engaged staff who care for each other as well as their students.

So…… as I mull over the question of how to lead for inquiry and reflect on those who do it so well,  I find myself jotting down some ‘nutshell’ statements.   They are in no particular order, but are an attempt to capture the essence of what this kind of leadership is all about….

  • Relationships are at the heart of all we do.
  • Questions are the inquiry leader’s most powerful tool.
  • Inquiry leaders need to be inquirers- they need to be willing to learn, they are people with a growth mindset – they view learners ( children and adults) as potentially capable, curious and creative!
  • Wonder, joy and passion are contagious. Passionate leaders inspire passionate staff.Pedagogy – not programs – help learners develop as inquirers. Programs can support the pedagogy but attention to pedagogy comes first.
  • Nurturing all teachers as inquirers builds a strong, whole school inquiry culture.
  • Cultivating curiosity in our teachers – about the world, about their kids, about themselves and about learning is critical to the success of an inquiry school.
  • When we see teaching itself AS inquiry – we change the way we think about our work and the way we view ourselves in the classroom
  • Collaborative planning is all about inquiring into the needs and interests of our learners  - and responding accordingly
  • The principles that underpin inquiry in the classroom apply equally to teacher learning.
  • When schools see themselves as ‘communities of inquiry’ everyone is a teacher, everyone is a learner.
  • Nurturing the ‘whole teacher’  means we balance personal and professional care and build stronger, more trusting teams.
  • True collaboration requires time.  When we consciously build our skill set for effective collaboration – our planning and teaching is strengthened.
  • Effective planning for inquiry takes time – people need space and time for the kind of deeper conversations from which powerful teaching is born
  • Standards/outcomes should inform our planning rather than drive it. Our students’ needs are the drivers.
  •  It is not the leader’s role to make the plans.  Plans are powerful when they are co-constructed rather than imposed.

What are your 'nutshell statements' for inquiry leadership?

Just wondering….