We live in Pinteresting times.....

There are a few eyebrow-raising emails/messages I receive on a fairly regular basis.  One is a request from undergraduate students to help them with assignments (‘just wondering how you would answer this question about inquiry...thanks!’), another is an offer to write a post on my blog...except that the post has nothing to do with education(!) And the third is a request for information about where to purchase ‘the posters’ about the inquiry cycle...  

What posters?

For years, I have been asked to create posters outlining the phases of the inquiry cycle for people to put on their classroom walls.  And for years I have resisted doing so. Here is why:

1.     We should all acknowledge that the cycle itself is a problematic creature. It is useful– but it is so much more complex, messy and nuanced than it appears on paper. I have always shared it tentatively – as a scaffold for thinking, as a prompt for designing and as a way of providing some common but not fixed language. Publishing books, articles and blog posts about it helps me address some of those complexities whereas a poster/sign/worksheet doesn’t. Most of the posters created about the inquiry cycle present it as a simplistic, linear process, as if each phase is dealt with prior to the next. When teachers and kids work together to visually represent their journey they quickly discover that the process is far from the neat, linear process that a poster often (mis)represents. I have seen some better representations of it but they are usually co-constructed with a community to meet their particular context/purpose. 

2.     In what feels like an increasingly pinterest-centric world, the last thing I want to do is add more shiny, glossy STUFF to put on classroom walls. I have no problem with making the language of the cycle visible to learners – in fact, I recommend it.  However there is something troublingly inauthentic about simply downloading, printing and displaying posters without doing the deeper work of sourcing, reading, thinking about, and creating your own (with acknowledgment of course).

3.     How much stronger would it be if we invited our students to inquire into the way a cycle of inquiry might work and then co construct a way of making that process visible in the learning space?  This is a much better way to help them understand what it might mean to journey through an inquiry than simply popping posters on the wall (and rarely referring to them). Who owns the classroom space? 

4.     While I have chosen and published particular words and phrases to communicate purposes and processes in a cycle of inquiry, the general concept of a ‘cycle’ is not mine - nor is the idea that inquirers often move through phases as they investigate a question/problem/issue.  I am always at pains to explain to people that there are numerous models and ways of describing the process and each has its own emphases.  It is not ‘THE’ inquiry cycle … it is AN inquiry cycle.  Doing the work of investigating a range of interpretations can help teachers and kids devise one that works best for them. 

5.     The ‘cycle’ is only part of the bigger picture the inquiry classroom. It IS very helpful.  I use it all the time for planning/designing and it offers teachers and kids a shared language to talk about how they might proceed through an investigation.  Inquiry is more than this though. It is a culture, a stance and a way of being. So I worry that slapping a poster on the wall makes us feel like we are ‘doing it’.  When it fact, it can be just that. A poster on a wall. 

So….why am I sharing this?   It has recently come to my attention that while I am busy refusing to commercially publish and sell posters  - others are doing it anyway. 

 Colourful posters of ‘the inquiry cycle’  - even ‘Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry cycle’ - are available not just to share with others but for sale.  And it is not only my work. I notice people selling, for example, worksheets depicting  Ron Ritchhart’s visible thinking routines without any acknowledgement and I suspect, without permission.  That these materials are sold in the company of some truly dreadful items purporting to be ‘inquiry based’ makes it worse.  There is an abundance of awful, low level activities (craptivities) presented as worksheets that should never see the light of day in a classroom - let alone be sold for profit (makes me feel the same as I feel when I walk past 'NAPLAN' preparation books in the supermarket!)   To cap it off, there are several that include a © symbol with the creator's name and no acknowledgment of the original source. Now.  I understand that this has always been the case – well before the online world made it more pervasive but it is easier than ever to cut and paste, lift and loot, read and repost. 

As someone noted on my twitter feed – perhaps this is something we should be talking about as a staff?

OK. Rant over. Don't get me wrong. I embrace the opportunities provided by digital media to share and collaborate. I hope this doesn't come across as precious or mean spirited about people using work I have published.  I willingly and regularly share ideas online. I have seen some beautiful representations of ideas I have shared and loved the interpretation. They always acknowledge the source and it feels delightfully collaborative - ideas sparking other ideas in an atmosphere of open, professional connectedness.    And I should say that I get many considered requests to use/adapt more formally published work.  I almost always grant permission and love sharing in this way.  These requests allow me to, at times, address misinterpretation and misrepresentation so that the sharing has integrity.  That's one of the reason the protocol exists.  

Some people have suggested that the best way to manage this might be to relent and do what I have been avoiding all these years: create the posters and sell them as the ‘official’ versions. I won’t do that…for all the reasons I have shared above. 

But what I am putting up on the website are the pages from my recent book ‘The Power of Inquiry’ that provide information about the way I think about the process – at least at this point in time.  This might be a useful guide to developing your own, with your kids. You can have it and share it  - for free. But hey, just take a moment to let people know where it comes from. That way, if they want to dive deeper - learn more about it or even raise questions about it, they can return to the source. 

In the meantime, I see all of this as a valuable conversation to have as a staff.  I guess two issues have emerged for me – one being the problem of posters/displays etc. and the other about the ethics of what we choose to share (and sell) online. 

How do we model ethical use of materials to our students? How much does this matter to us anyway? How freely should materials be shared without consultation or permission? When is it OK to sell our work? What does 'original' mean? If the words are someone else's but we choose the font, colour and images - does that make it original?  What responsibility do we have as producers AND consumers to acknowledge the work done by others?  Who really owns what? What do we know/believe about the thorny issue of intellectual property? AND…. Why do we prefer a glossy, pretty poster over the children's own documentation on our walls? Do our learners USE the stuff we decorate the walls with?  What should be on our walls anyway? Who is it for? 

 I don't claim to have the answers...and I am still pondering it all myself (this post has been simmering in my draft folder for a while...) but I think it is an important conversation to have, don't you?  

Just wondering....



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...


Establishing a culture of inquiry through inquiry.

As the school year commences here in the southern hemisphere, I am reminded of one of the great paradoxes of inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning. On the one hand, helping students inquire requires such forethought and curriculum knowledge - teachers need to be highly intentional and conscious as they support students through the process. On the other hand, inquiry learners need to be given opportunity and space to find the questions that matter to them and to feel that delicious sense of possibility from teachers who expect the unexpected and are willing to follow paths that might not have appeared on the 'maps' they have drawnSo, as inquiry teachers, we need to expect the unexpected,  create a map and then be prepared to veer from it.  For more on a culture of permission and possibility see Sam Sherratt's great post here:  https://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/natural-inquiry-depends-on-a-culture-of-permission/

In my first few years of teaching, I diligently spent many days over the final week of the summer break preparing my classroom for my new group of students. I arranged furniture, put up colourful displays, drew fun pictures in the chalk board (yep, I’m that old), set up the roster system for classroom helpers, displayed the school rules, brought in plants, organized the classroom library - and I planned.  I planned the first weeks thoroughly. My work program was a thing of beauty. Neatly written, detailed daily schedules with activities planned from 9-3.30 for several weeks. I was a paragon of organization.  

When the children walked into their new classroom, they were generally excited and happy to be there.  But, when I look back now, I see that they entered a space that was already much more MY space than theirs.   Imagine buying a house then walking into it on day one to find that not only had it been decorated by someone else (without asking for your opinion) but that your breakfasts, lunch and dinners for the next 5 weeks were ALSO already planned in addition to almost all of your daily activities.   Perhaps that is a rather extreme analogy (and perhaps there are some of us that would rather like not to have to make these decisions)  but most of us would feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction and an awful loss of control.  We need to have agency in our daily lives. We need a sense of control over what we do and how we do it. We need to have a role in creating the space around us. So do our students.

The first few weeks of the year provide a wonderful, authentic context for student and teacher inquiry.  Together, we are venturing into the unknown and most of us begin the year with many questions rolling around in our heads.   I think one of the very best questions we can ask a new class of children is: “What are you wondering?”   Simply gathering the questions that children bring to us at the beginning of the year (or at the end of the previous year) can help inform the plans we make for their learning and give them a real sense of ownership and voice.  Inquiry is a natural process we use to make sense of the world. In the first few weeks of the year,  our kids are trying to make sense of their new class, their new teacher and their new environment.  By using a more inquiry based approach to establishing the classroom and helping kids get to know each other, the routines, and their teachers a culture is born.  From the first weeks of the school year, students come to understand that this is a space in which they will have voice and in which they are expected to actively investigate rather than passively receive.

Younger children or children moving to a new section of the school often bring countless questions – both big and small – as they enter a new learning space.  At the start of the last school year, several of the prep teachers I worked with decided to use the children’s wonderings as the impetus for their first explorations together.  Simple investigations emerged around the playground, the names of the teachers in the school, what the principal did, the mysteries of announcements ….  (how does the office lady get into the speaker?), where the bins were emptied, why some areas were out of bounds, what the ‘big kids’ did in their classrooms, what the trophies in the display cabinets in the foyer were all about, what food was in the canteen, etc.  Rather than the teachers painstakingly planning activities to introduce the children to school, a few provocations (even a simple walk around the school) led to questions that then offered opportunities for all kinds of short term inquiries.  The intention of familiarizing beginners with the school environment and community was still met – but it was driven by the students themselves. And in the process of exploring the more surface questions about the school and its environs, perhaps the deeper, unasked questions be answered…’Will I belong here?’  “Will I have a voice?’  Will I feel connected and safe?

Most of us begin the year by designing tasks/activities that facilitate community building. We want to get to know our kids – and we want them to get to know and relate to each other. Again – rather than over-planning the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of this – try inviting the students to design questions and investigations:

  • How can we build a great community in this classroom?
  • What do we need we find out about each other?  How could we go about this?
  • What do we need to know about each other in order to start to build a great community?
  • How might we design this learning space to help us do the best learning possible?
  • What do you need/want to know about me as your teacher?
  • What would you love to learn about/learn to do this year? How might we make that happen?
  • What should I (as your teacher) learn about you?
  • What are you wondering about yourself as a learner this year?
  • What are you most curious about when you think about the year ahead?

This approach is still highly intentional – our purposes are still to get the year off to a productive and positive start and to build routines. A more inquiry-based approach sees students as collaborators in the design of those routines and, as a result, engages them in a more rigorous, accountable and fascinating process of culture building.

How will you bring an inquiry stance to the beginning of your school year?

Just wondering…


Curating for inquiry learning...reflections on a learning space.

As many of the readers of this blog will know, I am in the final stages of completing a new book. For several reasons, it has had the longest ‘gestation’ period of any book I have ever written - so seeing it now at the design stage is EXCITING.   Still a few months off but we are nearly there!   It was with this book in mind, that I recently spent the morning at one of my partner schools here in Melbourne.  It was time for me to capture some images to support the text – and I wanted that to happen in a school really ‘walks the talk’ of contemporary learning. I knew that Mother Teresa primary school – in the far outer suburbs of Melbourne would not disappoint. As a relatively new, purpose-built school, it is light-filled, spacious and flexible and we could photograph the children in a relatively unobtrusive way. The images we came away with are beautiful and support the text just as I had hoped.

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