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 .... 

Inquiry and all that jazz....

When I am not inhabiting the world of schools (which I must say takes up a good deal of my time!) I love nothing more than to immerse myself in my other passion – music.  I have adored listening to, playing and sharing music since childhood and it remains my go to activity when I have some time away from work.  I recently re-visited Brian Cambourne’s tried and true ‘conditions for learning.’  When I think about it , I can see that all those conditions for learning have been in place my whole life in relation to music.  I have been immersed in it (to the point where my siblings and I had to yell out from our bedrooms….‘can you please turn Ella Fitzgerald down we are trying to sleep!!’) I had a love of music demonstrated to me even though my parents didn’t play instruments themselves, I saw their genuine appreciation and interest every day.  I was engaged IN it by having the opportunity to explore different instruments at different times in my life.  There was an expectation that I could improve. I could experiment and approximate and learn from mistakes. I got to use music – to perform and create and of course, I had response – feedback, encouragement and advice. Without even knowing it, my parents, my school and my friends helped create the perfect recipe for a life-long love affair with all things music related.  If you have not re-visited or come across Cambourne's famous conditions – take a look and consider the degree to which your classroom and school provide them for students.

Last weekend, I took my eldest daughter to see an ensemble comprising four of the best jazz musicians around. She is an accomplished musician but has had less exposure to this genre and despite my father’s love for it,  jazz is something I appreciate but don't often choose to listen to.  I have had so many great responses to the recent blog post on ‘letting go’ I guess that post was in my mind as I watched and listened to them performing:

Peter Johnson (Choice Words, 2004)  describes quality teaching as a kind of ‘conversational jazz’.   I have always loved the metaphor but it really came home to me on Saturday night.  Great jazz musicians , like great teachers, are improvisers.  At one point, it was obvious the pianist was doing something entirely unexpected.  The singer (highly experienced) smiled broadly and said to the audience “ah, you never know what he will do and that’s what makes it so fun”.   Like so many jazz gigs, there was a palpable sense that the musicians were thinking on their feet AND this kind of immediate, playful, ‘go with the flow’ style was what fuelled their joy and the quality of what they did.  A skilled jazz musician knows how to honour the tune AND let the tune go.  They can take a tune in all kinds of pathways and tributaries - every so often, returning to the core melody as a kind of auditory anchor.   When playing in a band, each musician has to remain acutely empathic: listening to each other, following leads, pulling back when necessary taking the spotlight for a moment but never drowning the others out.   And behind all this amazing innovation, improvisation and seemingly free, fluid performance is an incredibly deep understanding.  The melody is known inside and out: so intimately,  it can be let go.  And in letting go and branching out, in innovating and exploring new music is born.   And each performance, each rendering of the piece is unique.  Jazz is such a profound example of the way solid structure, certainty, shared agreements and routine lay the path for innovation, choice, the unexpected and the new.

Inquiry teaching can divide people in much the same way that jazz divides music lovers…I wonder if it is because we can’t cope well if we think we are leaving the familiar safe haven of our curriculum and our ‘knowns’ behind?   Of course the very best inquiry teachers are like the best jazz musicians – they bring deep understanding of their craft to the classroom, they KNOW how to teach like a skilled musician knows their instrument, they know the curriculum well enough to improvise without losing it completely and they know their kids.  They are strongly grounded in the fundamentals of quality teaching practice and so…they can improvise. Teaching becomes a form of highly sophisticated play.

And if we think of a collaborative teaching team in the way we might think of some of the very best music ensembles, each person listens with respect, steps back when needed,  gives others time to ‘solo’,  applauds their colleagues’ innovations.

How strongly do you trust pedagogical expertise?  How free do you feel to improvise and innovate?  

Just wondering…