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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And the word is?….

I have just finished a delightful week of inquiring with the elementary teachers at Zurich International school.   The work we were doing was very focused on ways in which we can elevate the ‘status’ of transdisciplinary skills as we plan, teach, assess and reflect.  As I have discussed several times on this blog, learning to think, collaborate, research, self-manage and communicate are central to what it means to inquire.  As an inquiry teacher, my aim is to help my students become increasingly aware of the skills and dispositions that enable them to approach ANY questions, issues, problems, challenges. I want them to learn to learn. Over the course of the week, the concept we returned to again and again was that of ‘intention’.  We explored what it meant to ‘teach with intention’ – and what those intentions might look, sound and feel like in the context of an inquiry classroom.   We recognized that our intentions may shift as we listen to and observe children but that, without intention, we missed teachable moments and we lacked clarity.

Much of our planning this week has been about clarifying intentions in response to students’ interests and questions.  We were reminded that this is the essence of quality planning and that helps us resist the urge to generate ‘activities’ rather than consider purpose.

Being intentional helps us be better teachers – but it is also a valuable disposition as a learner.   If I enter a learning experience in a mindful, intentional state – I get so much more out of it.  I might remind myself to ‘listen actively’ to what my colleagues are saying or ‘stay open minded’ when I think I am about to be challenged.  This ‘moment of mindfulness’ is something we can help our students learn to do. It’s not about completing a task or even about the content of the task….it’s about our intention,  as learners, to get the most out of that moment.  To notice.

For many of my colleagues in the southern hemisphere, a new school year is soon to begin.   What better time to think about our intentions.   Over the last few years, I have used a simple technique in both my personal and professional life, to capture the ‘essence’ of my intentions for the year.

Rather than identify a lengthy list of goals or resolutions, I have, instead, chosen a word.  Just one word.IMG_2403

This word acts a gentle reminder to me of what it is I hope to do or be  - as a person and as a teacher.  Working with teachers at the beginning of the year, I have challenged them to do the same….”What’s your word?”


Identifying a word that captures the essence of your ‘intention’ for the year ahead is surprisingly powerful. It has a way of sneaking in to your daily activity and it becomes part of the lens through which you make a decision.   I feel as if I, metaphorically, carry my word in my pocket as I journey through the year.  I challenge myself to inquire into it – and to live up to it.

Regardless of the way we do it, inquiry teachers believe in the centrality of ‘agency’ – in helping students see that THEY are the ones doing the learning – learning isn't something that someone does to you.  Taking time to consider goals, intentions, hopes and dreams -  is an important part of developing this agency.

Are you entering the teaching year with intention?

What’s your word?

 Just wondering…..

Being the subject of your own inquiry: learning to inquire within

 For many years, the context of my inquiry work with students has been, broadly speaking, the disciplines of science, the humanities, technologies and the physical aspects of health and wellbeing.   When I look back over years of designing rich “units of inquiry”, the big ideas generally encourage students to investigate the social, physical, natural and built landscape.  Our  goals have been framed around concepts that help students understand continuity and change, systems, culture, diversity, cycles and other significant, timeless themes.  So often, these inquiries have engaged students in finding out about something ‘out there’ – something that, while connected or relevant to their lives in some way, still remained at arm’s length from their inner worlds.

 More recently, my interest in reflective thinking and the centrality of ‘learning to learn’ has added a layer of meaning to these inquiries that was missing in my early work.   I now see every journey of inquiry – whatever the question – as an opportunity to inquire into how we learn. By ensuring that students  and teachers bring a reflective lens to all they do, we  gain such powerful insights into the process of inquiry itself and, in Guy Claxton’s terms, we ‘strengthen learning muscle’.

 But I think I need to take it even further.  Alongside my growing interest in inquiring into learning itself, I have been strongly drawn to the concept of mindfulness and the increasing importance of helping students to  ‘notice themselves’ as they learn.   


Towards the end of term – just before I was to board a plane to do some exciting work overseas for 10 days,  I spent a morning with some teachers planning a unique inquiry into the concept of resilience.   We were interested in seeing what we could do to take this concept and work with it as inquiry teachers: to try to avoid the kind of well-meaning but essentially activity based approach that had been used in the past.  It was such a fascinating and powerful planning meeting.  Essentially, this is an inquiry that will encourage the students to ‘inquire within’.   Sure – we will share stories of people who have successfully faced challenges and the students  will interview others about challenges in their lives – but the most important source of ‘data’  will be the students themselves. 

 My hope is that throughout this inquiry, the students (through journals, circle time, simulations, video play-backs and other routines) will ‘notice’ themselves more.   I want the students to sit on their own shoulders – watch themselves, notice their responses and listen to their self-talk.  I want them to slow down, press the pause button and review their actions. I want them to ask: “what am I noticing about myself in this?”  “What did I just do/say?” “What is this telling me about myself?” “What could I do differently?” I want them to bring an inquiry stance to learning about themselves as people  and I want them to carry that disposition into the rest of their lives.

 Ah, the irony.  At the end of that week, health issues (not life-threatening ones) forced me to postpone travel and cancel my overseas workshops.  I found myself doing my own inquiry into resilience!    Like so many teachers, my life is tightly scheduled, the work is intense and I love it with a passion.   To be suddenly unable to travel and in a state of uncertainty has been enormously unsettling.   I can't make plans, I can’t see what’s ahead – I have to wait and allow things to unfold.  Ironically – the challenge of not knowing; of being  ‘in the fog’ and waiting for it to lift; of expecting the unexpected….these are phrases I say every other day in relation to what it means to be an inquiry teacher!!    

Despite the enormous frustration and the horrible experience of letting people down, the week HAS been an opportunity to be reflective and to inquire into my own way of being.  I’ve been the subject of my own inquiry and – like all challenging events in one’s life – I’ve noticed and learned some interesting things about myself.  The concept of perspective keeps emerging again and again as my most valued ally.  Perspective builds resilience but perspective (for me) takes enormous discipline. I’m working on it.


One of the PYP’s overarching themes is, of course, ‘who we are’.  I know I will now bring a fresh mindset to inquiries planned within this theme in PYP schools -  here is where we can really put the spotlight on learning about ourselves.   But we can also encourage a more mindful disposition simply through the questions we ask across the day and the self talk we model.  Inquiry learners ‘notice’ – the world around and within them.  Noticing yields insight and insight helps regulate our responses to life’s disappointments and opportunities.   Having an inquiring disposition  - when directed inward – helps us know who we are and, even more importantly, who we can become.  As we teach our students to be inquirers,  let’s not inadvertently send the message that the skills they are gaining apply only to what’s ‘out there.’

 Do you encourage your students to inquire within?


Just wondering