What teachers say about being inquirers.

Last week, I was fortunate to spend some time in a school with which I have had an ongoing partnership for a few years now. - Macquarie primary School in Canberra, Australia.  As their work on developing approaches to inquiry in the classroom grows, there is a simultaneous interest in the ways in which inquiry can drive teacher learning.  Schools as ‘communities of inquiry’ is not a new concept – but can be a challenging one to put into practice. This school has taken the bold step of appointing a teacher with expertise in higher degree research to act as a mentor teachers who are each engaged in an inquiry project of their choice. Like a growing number of schools, Macquarie is recognizing that in order for teachers to fully bring this ethos to their work with children – they need to see themselves as inquirers. Each teacher has selected an issue, problem or challenge to inquire into. The foci for their projects is, in most cases, is directly relevant to an identified area of need for their students as well as being something that they have a personal interest in as an educator. In many ways, these professional inquiries mirror the work we do with personalized inquiry for students such as ‘itime’ or ‘passion projects’ where we invite students to pursue questions of personal significance to them.  During my meetings with teachers, I asked them to reflect on how deep involvement in an inquiry project was influencing their thinking about the way they work with inquiry in the classroom. Their reflections were honest and insightful. In this post, I am sharing some of these reflections- and the potential implications for how we engaging students in quality inquiry. I am so grateful to the great staff of Macquarie for allowing me to share in their journey and their permission to include their thoughts in this post.

What teachers said about being inquirers What that got us thinking about how we work with kids
“It’s taking me longer than I thought it would.   I need time.” We need to provide kids with ample time for their inquiries. Let’s acknowledge that it DOES take more time to work this way and stop cluttering the path with too many 'activities'.
“I am passionate about this- so I am into it.   I am so glad I didn't get told what I HAD to inquire into.” Choice and voice are essential for motivation.   Being given an opportunity to investigate things that are important to us is a powerful motivator – this kind of interest-based inquiry must be part of the landscape in our classrooms
“It’s been so frustrating because I can’t find much information on this. Only really academic articles that make my eyes glaze over…" When kids can't access or understand the information they are gathering, motivation decreases and engagement is lost. We need to support students in finding relevant and accessible information. Frustration and confusion is inevitable, but if it goes on for too long it is counter-productive.
“At first felt like I lacked the skills to do this. I really needed our mentor to help me narrow my focus/use the right search tools and get me on track. Having those 1-1 conversations has been really helpful.” The teacher’s role is essential. This role is a skills and process-based one. We need to offer our learners explicit instruction on HOW to inquire – and this ideally comes at the point of need. Teachers can’t always be across the content of all students’ inquiries – but they help provide the tools and processes, feedback and questions that help maintain momentum. Time for students to meet and discuss their inquiries is so important.
“I’ve changed my mind three times – but I am on track now. Once I started, I realized I was less interested in that than this! I basically had to start again but I know what I am doing now.” We need to allow kids to change their minds!     As we confer with students we should be asking – “how are you feeling about what you are doing?” We should consider giving them permission to change track if they can justify why. It’s what researchers do.
“Well…I feel like I’m not doing this properly. I am not really researching because I am basically just trying stuff out with my kids and reflecting on it.” Kids often have a misconception about the term ‘research’ too! For many students, research is something you do when you ‘Google it’ or use a book.   In fact, we can research by DOING, experimenting, observing, interviewing, viewing….we need to keep the concept of research broader and value a range of methodologies.
“It was suggested that I  present this at a conference. It freaked me out! I thought, If I have to stand up at a conference and talk about this – I DON’T want to continue!”            AndIt's so exciting because, I was told that I could share this at a conference which is a great opportunity!” Do we stifle enthusiasm for investigation when we insist on public sharing of learning? For some children, I have no doubt that we do. Conversely, others will be highly motivated by the opportunity to bring their learning to a wider audience. Again – choice and diversity are the keys.
“I have made a start but I don’t think I really know what my question is yet.” It has been common practice to ask students to begin to design an inquiry by framing a question. Some inquiries, however, require exploration before we can figure out what it is we need to ask.   Do we model this to students?   Even when we use an inquiry cycle … we need to show students that starting points will vary according to context and prior learning.
 “It feels a bit all over the place. I am doing bits and pieces but I think that’s OK –I think it will come together. I'm finding out some fascinating things.” Inquiry is often messy. We need to acknowledge this as we engage in both guided and more open inquiry with students. While the process should be made explicit, we must show should the recursive nature of that process. Presenting the journey as a strictly linear one (e.g. “the scientific process’) can be misleading and unhelpful.
“I am working on something I am very passionate about – but it actually makes me feel quite vulnerable. What if people don’t care about it like I do? What if others think I’ve chosen something silly? What if I find I am questioned or challenged about it? How will I cope with that?” 





We can learn so much about inquiry by being inquirers ourselves. How often do we stop to reflect on our own experience of this process - both formal and informal?  And what connections do we make between our learning and our students' learning...?

Just wondering....


This beautifully honest comment made us all think about the flip side of allowing students to pursue their passions in the very public and collaborative context of a classroom. We need to remember that our passions often form part of our identity…they matter to us. Some students may choose to investigate things we deem less important or less worthy than others – but they matter to THEM. Permission to explore passions needs to be given alongside a commitment to respect and support the individual’s interests. Questioning needs to happen from a disposition of genuine curiosity rather than skepticism or judgment. 




What would it be like to be a student in your classroom? Walking in the learner's shoes.

A question I often encourage teachers to ask themselves is: 'what would it be like to be a student in your classroom?'   Empathy  (simply defined as ‘understanding and sharing the feelings of others’)  is a disposition we all want to nurture in our students and one we MUST continue to nurture in ourselves. Empathy builds relationships and relationships are the key to quality teaching. One of the characteristics of great inquiry teachers is their ability to ‘read’ their students.   The questions we ask, the way we scaffold learning, the expectations we have, the degree to which we step in or let go are micro-skills that are strengthened by quality assessment  - and also by empathy.    Empathy grows when we challenge ourselves to stand in the shoes of those we teach.

In the approach to inquiry I use, I emphasise the importance of ‘tuning in’. This is all about tuning in to the student and allowing the student to tune in to themselves – what they think, feel and wonder about the context for inquiry they are launching into.   When we hear students’ misconceptions, when they articulate beliefs or ideas that confront us or even when they show a negative or flippant attitude at this stage -  it can be a challenge to remain empathic!   In other words, when we tune in – we don't always like what we see/hear!   Careful, genuine questioning, taking time to listen, standing back and watching allows US to better inhabit the space the child is in at that moment and seek understanding.  As a teacher I need to ask myself:  “What are they telling me without telling me?”  “Why might they be feeling/thinking that?” “Have I ever felt like that about something? Why?”  ‘What can I do to understand this feeling/belief/position more deeply?'    Empathy requires us to take a more inquiring approach in our everyday interactions with students - to be wary of assumptions and to care about where the learner is at.

One of the best strategies for developing one’s empathy is to create opportunities to ‘walk in the shoes’ of another.  If I ask teachers to consider what it would be like to be a student in their class, then surely I need to ask myself what it would be like to be a participant in one of my workshops!    As someone who spends most of her time presenting or facilitating learning, I rarely have formal opportunities to do this.   Of course, I learn every day – WITH teachers and kids – but it is a treat to find myself as a workshop participant.

I have been very grateful for three such experiences in recent times – one with Lynne Erickson in Hong Kong, another with the wonderful Perry Rush of Island Bay Primary School in NZ and my latest (today!)  - a delightful morning, with Sam Sherratt and Chad Walsh of 'Time and Space Education' here in Melbourne.  In each case, my thinking about inquiry was stimulated and developed but it was the experience of inhabiting a different ‘space’ and identity in the room that was so important for me.

When I experience the role of participant,  I notice things about myself that help me remain empathic when I next facilitate.  I notice when I am intensely engaged and when I am less so, I notice how I respond to the request to work with people I don't know, I notice how feeling hungry or tired affects my engagement, I notice how where I am sitting in the room and indeed how the room is set up makes a difference, I notice when I want to talk and can’t or when I don't want to talk but am asked to.   I notice what distracts me and what I do to stay focused. I notice how I get in my own way at times. I notice how fantastic it feels when I can make a connection between my prior learning and new ideas.  And watching someone else teach makes me think about how I teach – it's such a powerful form of personal inquiry!

I know each time I do this, I return to my ‘classroom’ with a palpably different feeling about and empathy towards my learners.  I want to stay more tuned in to their experience.

In inquiry classrooms, the distinction between teacher and learner is blurred.  Children teach other and the teacher is guided by the students and so on but we do, for the most part, remain ‘the teacher’.  When we truly put ourselves in the learner’s shoes…when we seek others who can teach us, when we participate in learning something new – alone or with others we can consciously remind ourselves of the joys and the challenges of learning itself.  And we walk back into our classrooms  with greater empathy and insight.

Many teachers have regular opportunities to attend professional learning workshops, peer led staff meetings or other situations where they are ‘the learner’.  Regardless of the content, I suggest we can always make the most of this time to inquire into ourselves as a learners – how we respond, how we behave and how we feel.  In turn, we can become more empathic teachers – and better learners.

When was the last time you walked in your learner’s shoes?

Just wondering…