Getting personal: conferring with learners as they inquire

For several years now, it has been a joy to help educators and learners explore the power of ‘personal inquiry’ as part of the broader spectrum of inquiry learning in their schools. Simply put, I define personal inquiry as an opportunity for learners to pursue questions/interests/passions/challenges that they determine. Individual learners design inquiries that allow them to travel on a learning path of their choosing. They might be inquiring into how to design and make something, how to improve a skill or inquiring into a question they find fascinating.

The way this is implemented in schools varies from school to school, classroom to classroom. In many of the schools I partner with, we have established a regular routine called “iTime” (and often “Discovery time”in the early years) which is offered on a weekly basis. More often than not, the inquiries learners are engaged in are not connected with the shared inquiry (their whole class “big Question”) although it may be that learners will use iTime to continue to delve into the same area that is being explored by the class as a whole. For me, one of the most critical aspects of personal inquiry is the focus on investing and growing the learning assets - skills and dispositions for life long learning. When learners identify the focus for their personal inquiry, they also establish a a goal or intention that commits them to developing their skills as a learner. So an investigation into the problem of palm oil production is simultaneously an investigation into, for example, effective time management. Personal inquiry beautifully nurtures learner agency in that there is a great deal of choice for the learner and it also explicitly focusses on strengthening the child’s identify as a capable, skilled, independent inquirer.

Critical to the success of our experience with personal inquiry is the role of the teacher in conferring with learners. Far from being a routine that allows learners to simply “go off on their own” , teachers are working the room as coaches, guides, observers and co-researchers. Scheduled and spontaneous conferences are the mainstay of the teachers’ role during iTime. Conversations can be brief but they serve powerful purposes:

  • To contribute to formative assessment of the student’s learning (and therefore to plans for improving  learning)

  • Get to know your learners more deeply as learners and people

  • To build trust and connect with individuals through dialogue

  • Provide personalized, specific feedback 

  •  Help learners think and talk about their learning and about themselves as learners

  •  Help learners stay focussed and on task

  •  Monitor progress towards their personal goals

  • To offer ‘just in time’ explanations/demonstrations if required

  •  To help learners clarify what they need to do next

    Conferring during personal inquiry time can be inspiring and joyful but also requires an agile and responsive teacher - moving across topics, documenting and balancing time to observe as well as time to engage. Here are some tips we have found helpful:

Tips for success

·      For more formal, scheduled conferences, give learners time to prepare for the conference and ask them bring evidence/artefacts to the conversation

 ·      Bring an inquiry stance to the conference. Remain open and curious about what and how the child is learning.  It is often simply through listening that we most effectively assist the learner. As they explain their process to us, they come to clarify it for themselves

·      Ask questions more than offer suggestions. Through your questions, students will often come up with their own solutions

·      With younger learners, ‘conferring’ will often feel more like listening, observing and ‘nudging’ ideas as they play/explore. 

·      When making suggestions  - provide more than one and then  invite the learner to select what they believe will be the best way forward.  

·      Keep the learner in the driver’s seat – ask them what they think is important to achieve through the conference

·      This is a conversation not an interview. For this reason, it canbe helpful to avoid note taking during the conversation if it takes away from the quality of your communication.  You and the learner may spend a couple of minutes making jottings once the conversation has ended. 

 ·      Notice and name what you are noticing. “So I can see you have….”

 ·      Record the essence of the conversation – and/or have the learner record what was discussed

·      Consider small group conferences – so children learn the questions and prompts you use, enabling them to confer with each other

 ·      Articulate what the child is teaching you as they share their inquiry. (‘I didn't know that - how fascinating, I can see why you are so interested in this…) 

Sample questions/prompts for a ‘personal inquiry’ conference 

Finally, over the years, I have found myself noticing the kinds of questions/prompts that seem to be more effective. Here are some that I personally find useful:

·      Can you tell/remind me what you are inquiring into? (often followed by, ‘Can you tell me more about that?)

·      Tell me about what you are doing/working on…

·      Why is this important to you? 

·      How is your investigation going? (can you tell me more about that? What makes you say that?  What have you found out/discovered/learned to do so far 

·      (Begin with the ‘content’ of the inquiry as this is generally the more motivating element for the learner) 

·      What skill/behaviour are you trying to strengthen during this inquiry?  (eventually some simple continua of skills and behaviours will be available for the child to refer to as part of this conversation) 

·      How is it going? (here, success criteria that has been developed with the class can be a useful reference) 

·      So what’s challenging you? What might you need help with? 

·      Can I share some things I have noticed? (target something the child is doing well and something they need to work on) 

·      Something I have noticed is….

·      I’m going to suggest 2 things you could do about that…What do you think might be most helpful? 

 ·      Someone that could show you how to do that is….

 ·      Would it be helpful if I showed you how to….?

·      Given what we have discussed, what do you think you might need to do next? 

 ·      You might consider…

 ·      I’m going to make a couple of suggestions that will help you with ….. then you can decide which one seems the best suggestion for you

 ·      Someone in the class who has got expertise/maybe able to show you how to… is….

And finally, a few reminders on ‘choice words’ for conferring….

  • Refer to “learning” rather than “work”.

  • Remember the power of ‘yet’  (so you haven’t found the information you are looking for YET) 

  • (use might/could…) How might you? How could you? What might be..

  • ‘I’m wondering if you…. I’m wondering about the way you… 

  • What are you noticing about yourself as you do this? 

  • Use the language of the relevant discipline where possible (so as a scientist, is there a way you could test this hypothesis? As a writer, how do you feel about this lead sentence?..)

What do you find helpful in managing personal inquiry in your context? What questions work best for you? How do you and your learners document these conversations? How do you keep the learner in the driver’s seat?

Just wondering…

If you could take just one word into the new year….what would it be?

Whether you are soon to begin a new school year or returning to school in a new calendar year, this is inevitably a time of heightened intention.  I love this ‘moment’ in time when the new and old year hinge on each other.  Reflection is made more purposeful when it casts light on the way ahead.  As a new year dawns, I can’t help but wonder about the way my thinking, my learning and my teaching will unfold.  This will be my 33rd year of teaching (how on EARTH did that happen?).  Whether teaching children, student-teachers or experienced teachers in the field I continue to love what I do and marvel at how much I learn, unlearn and re-learn each year.

As I have shared before (http://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/blog/2014/01/23/and-the-word-is)  my family and friends have a tradition of selecting a word to bring into the new year.  Just one, single word. The word provides as a kind of ‘tincture’ to the year – its purpose being to regularly nudge you along a path of your choosing – a path that strengthens you in some way.  

This year, I have chosen the word ‘space’… it works for me on a personal and professional level.   My passion for inquiry requires a lot of thinking about, providing for and curating space.  I know the best learning happens when I give myself and my students enough space to explore, grow, to think and to talk.  Clutter (physical, emotional and cognitive) feels like the antithesis of discovery and learning.  Even having some space to think, to read, to walk and to write is palpably nurturing for me as a learner as I enjoy some down time over the Christmas break.  I need space – and as a teacher, I need to provide it.

As I walked the spacious sands on a nearby beach early this morning, I pondered some single powerful words that resonate with the practice and stance of the inquiry teacher.  If you are so inclined, perhaps one of these words might act as your talisman for a wonderful year of inquiry.

Connect...If ever there was a ‘multi-purpose’ word for inquiry, this is it!  This year, help your students make connections – between ideas, between new and past experiences, between eachother and with themselves.  Make your own connections – not just within your school but with the wider community of inquiry teachers around the world. Stay connected to why you do what you do.

Wonder...No word list for inquiry would be complete without it.   Wonder fuels inquiry.  This year – commit to providing your kids with more time and reason to wonder.  Start a class wonder-journal into which you record things you have marveled at, noticed, been puzzled by.  Make your wonderwall a place for dynamic investigation. Give your kids time to explore their interests. Most of all, share YOUR wonders with your students. Be the curious, passionate learner you want to see

Open...One of the most challenging aspects of being an inquiry teacher is learning to stay open to the possibility that things may not go as planned – but it is also one of the most satisfying dispositions to build in yourself and your students.  Stay open – to new thinking, new ways of doing things, new questions. Design tasks that are open enough to allow diverse and individual responses. Open your doors. Open up your spaces. Ditch some tables. Move.

Dare... With a nod to Brene Brown, we sometimes have to ‘dare greatly’ in order to see inquiry truly flourish in our classroom.  Dare to express yourself with more candor and passion in your planning or staff meetings, dare to suggest and try new ways of doing things, dare to ditch the stuff you KNOW is a waste of time, dare to be spontaneous when you see a truly teachable moment worth inquiring into, dare to spend an entire day exploring something fascinating with your students,  dare to stop doing something you have always done just because you’ve always done it. Dare to try something that scares you a little.  Dare your students to challenge themselves, to move out of their comfort zone. Dare to help your students inquire into something you know nothing about.  Dare to question

Play...We know the value of play for learning and how vital it is that children have opportunities for the exploration and stimulation of play.  But play is not just about interacting with materials or having discovery time a couple of times a week.   Inquiry teachers help students play with ideas, play with thinking, play with words, play with possibilities. They bring a playful disposition to learning that creates a culture in which even the most challenging tasks can have a joyful element. Playfulness -  knowing how to bring a lighter touch to classroom discourse often to more sophisticated engaged thinking than the dull seriousness of an all-too-earnest conversation.  Don't lose sight of YOUR inner child. Play. Commit to learning some new circle games and play them all year.  Laugh together. Enjoy your teaching more. Enjoy your kids!

Grow...Inquiry teachers see themselves as learners.  It is our responsibility to continue to grow ourselves and our thinking along with our students. Make this a year of growth – whether you are in your first or last year of teaching.  Show your students that you too are an inquirer and that learning never stops. I am regularly stunned by conversations I have with some teachers who cannot tell me a professional book they last read, who don’t subscribe to any blogs or lists or attend any workshops other than those required of them. I don't get it.  We can ALL grow ourselves as learners more easily than we have ever been able to before.  Learn something new.  There is a world of wisdom in our pockets, at the touch of a button. Grow!

So….those are 6 words that come to mind when I think of entering the new year as an inquiry teacher.  I’ve merely scratched the surface. What’s YOUR word?

 

Just wondering…

 

 

 

Passion and curiosity can’t happen ‘on demand’! or 'What do the 'shoulder shruggers' need?'

As many readers of this blog know, I have been busy exploring various approaches to personalized inquiry in schools. This has been one of my own significant ‘inquiries’ over the last few years. Providing more personalized inquiry opportunities for students is certainly gaining in popularity and momentum and happens in various ways through such approaches as genius hour, innovation days, itime, etc. Each year, I learn many new lessons about how to make these opportunities work more effectively to ensure high quality, rigorous learning while providing choice and flexibility. Two comments in recent times have given me pause for thought. The first came from a child - not from a school I have worked in - but one that is obviously making efforts to personalize learning. The children have all been given the opportunity to do a ‘passion project’. They have 4 weeks and are using some class time and some homework time to complete it. They have simply been told to ‘investigate their passion’ To be fair, the school does not seem to have a strong, explicit inquiry program so she may well felt more equipped and connected if it had. Regardless, it's not the first time I have heard a child say… “But I don't really HAVE a passion, I don’t know what to do!” Far from being excited by the prospect of investigating something of her choice, this 11 year old was floundering - grasping at random ‘topics’ her teacher had selected and shrugging at any suggestions I made related to some of her (admittedly limited) interests outside of school.

The second comment I heard was from a parent following a talk I gave recently where the focus was on ‘wandering and wondering’ with your child and the delight and power of young children’s questions. At the end of the talk she said her own child asked lots of questions and was a keen, curious learner at home…but when it came to “discovery time” at her son’s school, he was often ‘stuck’ and did not know what to do – he also felt rushed to pick something to work on for the session and expected to suddenly ‘switch on’ his curiosity. I sensed a few problems with the way these sessions may have been run but did not take that further. What I DID say was that like all learners, we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’ .

Passion, strong interest, curiosity, a desire to find out or learn to do something new or better….these are the driving dispositions of personalized inquiry. Some children almost spill over with enthusiasm and an eagerness to pursue something while others - well not so much. So, what do they need? What do the ‘shoulder-shruggers’, the ‘I dunno’s’, the “I’ll do what he’s doing” kids need ... in order to be more authentically engaged in experience of personalized inquiry?

  1. Time. Rather than seeing the foci for itime/genius hour as something to work on in dedicated sessions – encourage kids to build a bank of possibilities throughout the year. Researcher’s notebooks, wonderwalls, ideas boards, etc. allow the learner to collect their own questions and interests as they arise – rather than ‘on demand’. Gradually building a collection of possibilities gives the students something to ‘dip into’ when they have an opportunity to launch into a new journey of inquiry. Curiosity – even passion – as dispositions that need to be nurtured as part of a wider classroom culture.
  1. Inspiration. Part of the teacher’s role is to be ever on the look out for stimulating, interesting questions/issues/events that might pique interest and be worth pursuing…share these with the children and create a bank of wonders for those students who might need that extra support. Websites like www.wonderopolis.org are excellent resources. Ted talks, short video clips, articles - can all provide great springboards for interest.  Teachers who consistently model their OWN enthusiasm for learning, finding things out and who show excitement about the range of things kids themselves are interested in go a long way to providing an inspiring atmosphere for inquiry. And while we encourage children to become passionate learners – let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by making children feel that if they are not PASSIONATE about it, it's not worthy! A thoughtful, even reserved interest may be enough to provoke a quality investigation. Once underway, itime or its equivalent can generate its own energy as children gain ideas from each other. Have students share their investigations in small groups, conduct gallery walks, keep public lists and charts of the ideas they have explored – peers inspiring peers.
  1. Breadth. Beware the dreaded ‘topic’… itime investigations do not have to involve students inquiring into a random topic (eg: panda bears, formula 1 racing) …they certainly may…but they may also be an opportunity to improve a skill or learn a new skill, to work on an action plan, to canvas people’s opinions about an important issue, to create make and build. If students think of a ‘project’ the way many of their parents experienced a ‘project’ it is no wonder they can’t get past simply choosing a topic. The best personalized inquiries are also seen by students and teachers as an opportunity to ‘build their learning muscle’ - it’s so much more than the content.
  1. Forethought.   Many of the more successful personalised inquiry programs I see, really scaffold students thinking before, during and after their investigations. Students complete proposals (careful not to make them too arduous!), or keep researcher’s notebooks, and conference with peers and teachers to gain support and advice rather than simply ‘coming up with a topic’.
  1. Trust: One of the struggles we have as teachers is our own tendency to judge the choices that children make. We give them a choice – but we can also make it pretty clear when we disapprove of the choice! Perhaps this is why some are tentative to say what they want to explore. Of course there will be some things that won't be appropriate for investigation – and criteria for that can be worked out with the class. But we need to be mindful not to shoot down their interests because we might not judge it worthy of spending time on. The best teachers I see know how to take that child's desire to learn about (eg soccer) and help them develop a question or a focus for investigation that stretches thinking without devaluing their interest (eg: How has the game of soccer changed in the last 50 years – is it a better game now than it was?Why?). Spending time in thoughtful conversation with children who need that extra support is vital. Just as we conference with students about their reading and writing – so too should we about their researching. This is not ‘teacher free’ learning!

Providing opportunities for true, personalized inquiry as part of our classroom program can be a wonderful way to support the growth of the learner.   But if we expect them to ‘turn on the curiosity’ for one session a week without a broader culture of inquiry and the necessary time for reflection and inspiration, well…I guess we can expect our fair share of ‘cut and paste’ posters and half-hearted powerpoint presentations.

How do you encourage and sustain authentic passion and curiosity in your classroom?

Just wondering…