Inquiry and the art of listening

I’ve been wondering a lot about listening. I am currently in the very rare position of being home for a while – recovering from surgery. My head has been too foggy to do much reading or viewing…so I have turned to podcasts to pass the time. I am a huge fan of the podcast already but have been very grateful to have so many beautiful things to listen to while recuperating. Listening has given be hours of joy and learning. As a teacher and teacher educator I DO spend a lot of time talking so it is both luxurious and enlightening to spend hour after hour not saying a word…but instead listening to the wisdom, humour, music and passions of others. Teachers, in general, are talkers. Older readers of this blog might recall the animated Charlie Brown cartoons where teacher voices were communicated only with a kind incessant trumpeting sound as the children endured the boredom of their classroom. When I interview students about teachers, the most common criticism is simply that they ‘talk too much’ – we do!   But true teaching - especially in the inquiry classroom is surely more as much about listening as it is about talking.

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Inquiring into the ‘how’….

One of the key principles of inquiry based learning is that HOW the learner learns is as important as WHAT they are learning about.  Inquiry teachers talk a lot about process and the importance of learning to learn.  It’s part of our discourse…but lately I have been wondering how much we REALLY value it.  Enough to raise it to the level of the ‘content?’ of an inquiry? Enough to report on? Enough to devote real time to its exploration? Enough, to actually inquire into it?

 I spend a lot of time contributing to teacher inquiry (including my own) by giving ‘fishbowl’ lessons. Students and I work together (we’re the fish!) while a bunch of teachers look on and participate to varying degrees.  It's a great way for us all to think about what it means to be an inquiry teacher.

 Every ‘demonstration’ lesson I conduct includes an explicit focus on learning processes.  We might, for example, be investigating the ways in which our community has changed over time but – at the same time – we might inquire into HOW to manage our time well when we are working in a group.  Or perhaps we are inquiring into the materials that everyday objects are made of but, at the same time, we can be inquiring into the skill of observation and recording - exploring the best ways to do this effectively.   This ‘split screen’ teaching as Guy Claxton so eloquently puts it, creates a rich and layered approach to the way we guide students.  It’s not just about the what – it’s about the how.  Many inquiry-based educators argue that it is in fact the inquiry skill-set that constitutes the most valuable learning for students.   When students discover how to learn, their capacity to learn continues to grow.

 I recently enjoyed working with a year 4 class who had been involved in an inquiry that demanded a great deal of collaboration.  The purpose of the session was to step aside from the ‘content’ of the inquiry and to spend time investigating the process.  We needed to do some inquiry INTO collaboration – what was working, what wasn’t, how to manage challenges and  how to do a better job of it.  By reflecting on how they had worked in their teams, the students were able to gather and sort data on what helps and hinders the process.  Importantly, new avenues for inquiry into collaboration opened up, for example, how does body language affect collaboration?  How can we deal with someone who is not contributing?  

As teachers reflected on the session afterwards, it was clear that some of us found it difficult to justify ‘so much time’ focused on such specific process oriented work.  Our reflections made me wonder whether we can become guilty of seeing this kind of learning as an ‘extra’ to the REAL work of the inquiry.  Do we give this the emphasis it deserves?

 The skills and dispositions needed for effective inquiry are indisputable.  In my work, I have taken to describing these as learning ‘assets’ and they include being able to manage ourselves, communicate effectively, collaborate with others, research in a range of ways and of course to think – creatively, critically and reflectively.  The inquirer also needs to BE courageous, focused, curious and confident amongst other things. Such skills and dispositions are echoed throughout contemporary curriculum frameworks such as New Zealand’s Curriculum and in the ‘general capabilities’ of the new Australian Curriculum. The transdisciplinary skills, profiles and attitudes of the PYP serve a similar function.  Few would disagree with the importance of these skills and dispositions – so why do they seem to remain frustratingly peripheral in planning and assessment? 

Many of us did not grow up in classrooms that focused on learning processes. I wonder how much time WE give to questions like “How DO people collaborate effectively? What DOES it mean to be a good self manager?”  What do we know about effective research techniques?  Unpacking some of these questions around the planning table is a start. Rather than asking: ‘what skills can we ‘cover’ in this inquiry – let's ask…'what skills can we inquire into?'  Here are some sample essential questions:

What does it mean to think creatively?

 How do I know if I can trust an information source?

How can I manage my time more effectively?

How can I get my message across to an audience without words? 

What makes a good question?

What makes a team work more effectively?

How can I record information from an interview in an efficient way?

How can I use my thinking to help me plan ahead?

What can I do to avoid distractions?

What strategies help us keep a team focused?

What do you do when you just don’t get it?

 For those teachers working with a PYP planner, consider including a process oriented line of inquiry.  Why not have guest speakers who are ‘experts’ on skills like self management?  Why not have kids survey others about how they stay curious and creative?  I know pockets of this kind of inquiry exist but I guess I am just wondering how we can ensure the skills and dispositions of inquiry share some of the spotlight currently enjoyed by the content.  These skills ARE indeed ‘transdisciplinary’ so provide wonderful vehicles for authentic connections between specialist and generalist teachers and across subject areas

One thing I do know is that while it is possible  - and often very satisfying to inquire into skills and dispositions…all of us need to have a purpose for doing so. This is why the integration of ‘what’ and ‘how’ are so vital…investigating how to grow our creative thinking, for example, can work best when integrated into an art or design-oriented inquiry that demands this kind of thinking.

 I used to think that it was sufficient simply to check off a list of skills covered in a unit of inquiry.  Now I know that such skills are actually PART of the inquiry.  I want my students to know that each journey of inquiry upon which they embark will contribute not only to their understanding of ‘the way the world works’ but will build their capacity as learners. They will be able to add new skills and dispositions to their tool kit – the one they carry from year to year, from school to life beyond school. 

 Next time you are seated around the planning table with colleagues or you are negotiating an inquiry pathway with students – ask yourselves what you could investigate about the process of inquiry itself.  How  do you make sure skills and dispositions are truly ‘alive’ in your classroom and not just words on a planner?


Just wondering….