How are we traveling? Reflecting on the 'story so far'

In the part of the world in which I live (Melbourne, Australia), we are enjoying the early days of Autumn. The weather is still warm but the evenings are cooler, the mornings crisper and there is no doubt that summer is gently retreating as each day becomes a fraction shorter. There’s a kind of wistfulness about Autumn that will often find me staring into a soft evening sky and wondering...

 For teachers in Australia, it is also just over  half way through the first term of the school year –or thereabouts. So perhaps it is the combination of the Autumnal skies and this ‘midpoint’ that got me writing some reflections this week.   Six or so weeks into the school year is a good time to take stock. We begin the year with great expectations, plans and goals (see my previous post).  We should ensure we take a moment to stop and acknowledge the journey so far.  Only today,  in planning with some prep teachers, I heard a teacher acknowledge her delight in noticing how readily her students are now ‘sharing their wonderings’ with each other when at the beginning of the year they were reluctant to speak out and always looking to her for approval.  It got us all pausing to look back and acknowledge where we have come to - even at this relatively early stage in the year.

 As I have said and written about many times, inquiry is not a ‘subject’.  It is a way of seeing ourselves as teachers and as learners. It is an approach that comprises a constellation of practices all, ultimately, designed to strengthen students’ sense of agency or, as Guy Claxton puts it – to ‘build learning power’. The pedagogy used within this approach can create a powerful culture of learning- but it also depends on a culture that is not only learner centred but learning centred.  Taking time to intentionally nurture that culture is critical to success.  

So – as the days shorten (at least on our side of the world) let’s take stock and reflect on the story so far. Here are some questions to help you reflect on your culture-building efforts – and perhaps to help you consider new goals to work on. Suffice to say - none of us can manage to get all of these things happening beautifully all at once!  This is an 'aspirational' check list- I hope it provides the basis for some affirmation as well as for some challenge.

Know your students:  Have you taken time to gather information about each students – their family, their passions, their goals, their cultural heritage, their favorite thing to do, their friends, their strengths, their challenges….do you know their parents? How well do you know each student?

Let them know you: Have you taken time to help your students come to know who YOU are – not just as a teacher but as a learner … as a person!

Create community:  Have you deliberately focused on creating bonds. Are your kids connecting with each other? Are they forming respectful relationships? Do they feel they are part of a ‘family’ of sorts? Is there a sense of ‘groupness’ about the class? Do you include regular activities that are all about creating connections – circle games, singing together, reading a shared novel, and sharing powerful stories.  Is the class developing as a community in which individuals feel safe to explore, take risks and share their thinking?

Learning agreements: Have you worked with students to create an agreement about the kinds of learners you all strive to be?  Is your agreement about learning- not just ‘behavior?’ Have you signed the agreement - do they see you as a learner too?

Ownership: Are you inviting your students to solve problems, make decisions, suggest and take action in relation to how your classroom will ‘work’ this year? Do your students have a voice? Who owns the learning?

Physical environment: Have you spent time with students exploring ways the classroom furniture can be arranged to best support flexibility, movement, collaboration and group conversation. Are materials and resources clearly organized to ensure students can be as independent and resourceful as possible?

Visual environment: Do your ‘walls’ help students learn?  Are displays indicative of what you value as an inquiry teacher?  What do the walls tell the visitor about the learning happening in your room? Do your walls speak of inquiry?

Beauty: Have you (and your students) considered ways to make your space a beautiful space to come to each day? Have you attended to the aesthetic? Lighting, comfortable furniture, art works – is this a space in which you would want to learn?

Questions: Have you encouraged your students to share their wonderings with you? Is there a space where those wonderings are collected/shared? Do students have opportunities to explore their wonderings?

Creating/making/tinkering: Do students get to use their hands as well as their heads in your classroom?  Are there opportunities to design, create and make – whatever the age group you are working with?

Language :Are you conscious of the language you are using? Does your language invite children to theorize, hypothesise, predict, explore, question…are words like ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘possible’, ‘wonder’ part of your discourse?  Do you ask questions that encourage kids to think deep and wide? Are you doing your best to ask, listen, probe, nudge? Have you taught your students how to have ‘hands down’ conversations? Are you employing thinking routines to help scaffold thinking? Do you talk about learning itself with your kids?

Reflection: Are your students reflecting on their learning regularly? Are there routines in place that ensure reflection is an ongoing process woven into the fabric of your day?  Are there some quiet, unhurried spaces in your week? 

Technologies: Are you making use of digital technologies to help students investigate AND create and share learning?  Are you connected with the world beyond your classroom?

Spontaneity: Have you made the most of the unexpected? Have you allowed an inquiry to emerge out of a surprise occurrence? A problem? A world event? Have you allowed yourself to go with something that has captivated your students’ interests? Are you on the look out for authentic opportunities for inquiry?

Routines and rituals:  Do your students know 'how things work' in their classroom. have you (with their input) established some predictable systems and ways of operating that enable them to manage themselves and their learning more efficiently. Do you have some regular rituals that they look forward to and that serve to connect the community (eg: circle time, 'Wondering Wednesday', class meetings, etc.)

Joy: Do you have fun together? Do you enjoy the company of your students? Do you laugh together on a regular basis? Are you enjoying your teaching?

So - how are you traveling? 

Just wondering...


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. 




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

Reflections on 'i-time'

One of the most interesting projects I have been involved in this year, is the introduction of personal inquiry routines into several of my partner schools.  We’ve been keen to look at ways to open up more opportunities for regular inquiry into personal passions.  Most of the teachers who have implemented some form of personal inquiry time already use a model that allows for ‘student led’ inquiry but this has tended to be within the scope of the ‘big idea’ the class is investigating.  While maintaining this, we have also been keen to explore the benefits of investigations that cater more specifically for the particular interests, ways of thinking, ideas, passions and curiosities. We have not been alone in this venture!  Increasing reference is made worldwide to such approaches –20% time, innovations days, passion projects, oasis time, genius hour – whatever we choose to call it, the intention is similar.  The term ‘I-time’ (which I first heard used by some teachers in the Sandhurst Diocese of Victoria, Melbourne) appealed to me – the letter ‘I” turned out to have a lot of potential being the initial letter for many of our favourite words...inquiry, independence, investigations, inspiration, well as the obvious digital reference. itime wordle

Providing opportunities for personal inquiry has been an instructive experience for us all and has required teachers to have a strong inquiry mindset as we reflect on and strengthen the structures and strategies to ensure learning is rigorous and purposeful as well as truly owned by the students.  Students’ feedback and reflections have been the most useful source of learning for teachers. 

Recently, Michele Martin  - Inquiry learning leader and year 3 teacher at Elsternwick Primary school,  asked her students to reflect on how their views of ‘itime’ had changed since the beginning of the year.  Their honest and thoughtful comments show a growing insight into the nature of quality inquiry itself.  It reminded me of just how powerful learning can be when we allow time and space to ‘re-think’ and when we give them opportunities to express their thinking about the process learning itself.

Here's what some of them had to say... 

I used to think……….. Now I think …………..
You had to make stuff for every “I” – time

                                                              Oliver S.

I know I have a big choice and even though I like making, it’s much more challenging if I ask questions and do research.
That you already had to know the information and that you couldn’t research it.                                      

Also, I wasn’t very organised and forgot to bring things in to help me!                                                   Elinor W.

You can research, so that lets you choose anything at all so you try new things!

I now ask for help getting resources (like I asked MM to bring in some of her cook books) and I remember to bring my own when I can.

I thought that you could just choose a random thing to learn about.                                                           Lucy O. You should choose something that you want to learn about!
I thought that you needed to do something really simple and you only needed one question.                                                         Bethany You need to choose something that challenges your learning. You need more than one question to challenge yourself. You need to ask yourself ‘open’ questions, not yes/no questions.
I didn’t really get why you needed a question.                                                               Will Questions help you learn!
I thought you could just get other people’s words from the computer or books and cut them up and paste them on.                                                   Liam and Lucy D. That when I summarise what I have read, by writing my own words, it helps me understand and it helps my audience when they read my thinking and learning.
That to find information you must use a computer.    Alice You can use people (experts / primary sources) and books.
Only I had to understand what I had found out.   Sequoia It’s good if other people can understand your information.
I thought I was so smart because I did easy things that I sort of knew about.                                                            Oliver L. I’m challenging my learning and it’s harder to find the information, but I’m not giving up. I’m persisting!
It’s just writing some simple information (a tiny bit!).                                                                        Chloe Finding more complicated and detailed information challenges me to learn more
11% of the time I focused. Most of the time I just wandered around. I wanted to do things but I got distracted.


70% I am totally focused and it’s increasing! I think about what I need to do, like going to the library or bringing something from home to help me.

 We should regularly check in with students about how their views of themselves and their learning is growing and changing.  And what better context for exploring the self as learner then open, personal inquiry!  Do your students have a similar opportunity? Do they have the time and permission to change their thinking?

 Just wondering….