Planning for inquiry – an opportunity for growth and inspiration.

It’s mid-year planning season in many Australian schools. Each term, around this time, I  find myself more often working with small teams of teachers around a planning table rather than in a classroom or at a podium. I admit, it’s one of my favourite things to do. I love the creative energy that inquiry planning demands of us. I love the challenge of connecting the children’s questions and interests with the resources we have, the curriculum and the teacher’s bigger picture view of where he/she wants to taker her students. I also love the fact that, in the schools I am fortunate enough to work in, teachers are prepared to have real conversations about the concepts the children will be exploring. We take time to ask ourselves what WE understand…over the last week I have had fascinating conversations about the nature of 'work', the true meaning of sustainability, what the term ‘states of matter’ REALLY means and why it's even worth learning about, the derivation of the word ‘commemorate’ , the relationship between force and energy, the complexities of the idea of a ‘balanced’ diet…I could go on! Looking back over the week, I am struck not only by the sheer diversity of ideas teachers grapple with as they plan but the increasing need for us to be strong inquirers ourselves. When we slow down our planning conversations and resist the urge to simply generate activities – we begin to ask questions and see our own confusions, uncertainties and gaps in our understandings.   Here’s where the collaborative element of planning is so important. Taking time to toss ideas around, to challenge each other, to clarify to draw on our own experience not only enriches the conversation but provides a much more stable basis upon which to identify the key conceptual understandings for students. While I appreciate the intended message of the phrase ‘learning alongside the student’ in an inquiry classroom, I am also acutely aware of the way a teacher’s lack of clarity can lead to poor questioning and missed opportunities for deeper thinking.   Taking time to talk through our own ways of seeing the ‘big picture’ of any inquiry journey is such a valuable component of the conversation around the planning table – and SO much richer than simply listing a bunch of achievement standards from a curriculum.


Collaborative planning for inquiry has become increasingly responsive and representative of the needs and interests of various groups and individuals. While teams still plan some similar strategies and experiences, the days of ‘cookie cutter’ units are over. When a team is clear about the bigger picture – there is greater flexibility in how different classes/students will travel towards it. One of my stand out moments for a really delightful week of planning was a conversation I had with the early years teachers at Roberts McCubbin Primary School here in Melbourne. Like many of the schools I work with, teachers at this level are encouraged to be on the look at for moments that lend themselves to authentic and powerful investigations. As we evaluated the inquiry work done over the term, one teacher in the team, Anita Siggins,  had us all mesmerized by her sharing of the unexpected inquiry that unfolded when she brought in a perfectly sculpted, abandoned birds’ nest to show her children. This provocation opened up such rich learning for her fascinated students who have continued the most stunning investigation in their quest to find out what bird made it and how. As she shared her stories, photos, student questions, responses and documentation with us – her genuine delight in the experience was infectious and inspiring. I know we all went away from that meeting reminded of the power of a spontaneous, genuine inquiry.

I have said before on this blog, that I believe collaborative planning to be a valuable form of professional learning.   In a worthwhile planning meeting we not only share but we inspire, challenge and question each other. And what results is far more than what goes ‘on the planner’ or ‘in the minutes’ – we grow ourselves as inquirers.

How inspiring are your planning meetings?  Just wondering...



Sometimes we DO have to reinvent the wheel...

My work takes me into all kinds of schools with all kinds of curriculum frameworks designed to support inquiry learning.   Some frameworks allow teachers a great deal of latitude when it comes to selecting and planning contexts for inquiry and others provide pre-determined contexts for inquiry that may be repeated from year to year as part of a broad, more structured curriculum map.   Some schools expect a high degree of accountability to system curriculum standards while others approach the links to curriculum more loosely.  Whether a context for inquiry is fully emergent, negotiated or more tightly predetermined does not, in itself, make it more or less worthy.   It is, of course, what teachers and students do with these context that counts.    And what teachers and students do is, in turn, connected to the quality of the conversations had around the planning table. 


For me, the most potent element of the planning process for inquiry is the conversation about conceptual understanding.   Regardless of whether a school's framework already identifies a ‘central idea’ , an ‘enduring understanding’, ‘lines of inquiry’ or ‘essential questions’ …we are never ‘off the hook’  about the bigger picture.   Every journey of inquiry is a new one.   The simple question, “what is it that we hope students will come to understand more deeply?” has to be asked EACH TIME an inquiry is developed….even if this context for inquiry has been explored before.    Similarly, the questions “How is this inquiry relevant/important  to this group of students, this year?”  and  “Why does this matter?” helps us keep the teaching and learning fresh, authentic and purposeful.   Of course, the conversation at the planning table will always be fresh and relevant to students’ interests and needs if we are careful to invite their voices in.


When we take time to discuss the ‘understanding goals’ of any inquiry, we clarify our own thinking. When we have clarity – we ask better questions of our students and are better able to see opportunities to take their thinking further and deeper.   Establishing conceptual (rather than knowledge-level) goals further enriches the quality of this professional conversation.  As soon as the inquiry is more concept-driven, the conversation is energized - and the possibilities for transfer and connection present themselves more clearly.   As well as giving the team greater clarity and intention, this conversation nurtures ownership.  Nothing kills collaborative planning (and indeed inquiry itself) more quickly than the feeling that the plan is a ‘done deal’.  For teachers new to the team, in particular,  participation in developing the plan from ‘bottom up’  - with each other and with students - is critical. 


How do you ensure your inquiry journeys remain fresh and relevant to the current group of students? 

Just wondering...