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?