The art of inquiry: 10 practices for the inquiry teacher


Of all the blog posts I have written,  the one that has been read, reposted and mentioned most often- is “How do inquiry teachers teach?”

That was back in 2014. In the intervening years, more and more of my work has centred on the question of how.  Looking back, it strikes me that this work has provided an important balance of emphasis.  I am passionate about designing (planning) for inquiry. In order to understand the demands and possibilities of inquiry, it is vital to build capacity around the planning table -  for teachers to know how to design for inquiry through conceptual, rich, authentic experiences and the use of a cycle or framework that scaffolds thinking from the known to the new. This work is about going beyond ‘planning activities’ and remains an essential element of the expertise necessary to use inquiry effectively.  But without a parallel focus on pedagogy, the application of our plans to the classroom can fall well short of our intentions. In the end, it is the way we teach that makes the most difference to learning.  I have been avidly reading my advance copy of Guy Claxton’s wonderful new book “The Learning Power Approach” and this really resonated with me:

"How we teach slowly shapes the way young people respond to the unknown – to change, challenge, complexity and uncertainty….Our teaching can steer them toward becoming more positive, confident, and capable in the face of difficulty. OR it can steer them toward becoming more timid, dogmatic and insecure."  (Claxton, 2018: 34)

What we teachers  DO, SAY and think matters. More than any program or unit plan.

Over the last few years, I have had the joy of collaborating with hundreds of teachers in a quest to dig deeper into the pedagogy of inquiry.  We have watched each other at work, co-taught and stripped lessons back to the minutiae of instructional practices.  Informed by some of the work of Hattie, Marzano, Johnson, Dweck and others  I have been gradually building up a more cohesive repertoire of key practices to which I return often. 

So a new book is on its way!  This book is based on 3 years of observation, experimentation and research into the essential practices of the inquiry teacher. (Like giving birth, each book I have written has been followed with the words “I am never doing that again.”  But the memory of the pain fades and the urge to write, create, design and share returns!!!)

I am doing something I have not done before.  I am using this post to share the bones of the book - the essential framework of the practices. And I would love feedback.  I’ve been playing around with these words/phrases for nearly 3 years now. I have tweaked, changed, added, removed along the way. My intention is to capture the essence of the practices in a key word or phrase. The detail and the practical ‘how to’ will be in the book -  but this is the essence.

The practices reflect what we have noticed when teaching 4-12 year olds. This is my area of experience and expertise and although my instincts tell me much is transferable, I acknowledge that the source of this work is extensive, long term work in the early-childhood through to primary setting. I don’t have the consistent, lived experience of working with secondary school students (although taught in a University for 10 years)  so I am not going to profess that these practices are the right fit – but it would be interesting to hear....

Ten Practices of the Inquiry Teacher

(not really in order...)

1. Cultivate curiosity

Inquiry teachers provoke, model and value curiosity – and they do this in a myriad of ways. Curiosity is nurtured through the way the learning space is curated, the kinds of questions asked, the extent to which the learners’ questions are valued and through the deliberate, infectious modelling of curiosity by the teacher themselves.  

2. Question

We all agree that questions lie at the heart of true inquiry.  Inquiry teachers elicit learner’s questions and often use these to help drive learning encounters. But the role of the question in the inquiry classroom goes far deeper than displaying a wonderwall. Inquiry teachers know how to ask the right questions. They use questioning to guide the learner to think deeply. They ask more than they tell. Inquiry teachers question what they and others think  - they question their own practice on a regular basis. 

3. Connect

Perhaps the most powerful word in this suite of practices. Inquiry teachers are all about connection. They design journeys of inquiry with and for learners that help them see connections across learning areas and between school learning and the world beyond school. Inquiry teachers value the connections they have with others – students, colleagues and the broader community. They teach kids how to collaborate as they investigate problems, projects and passions.  

4. Release

I offer this word cautiously.  I prefer it to let go, it is more like letting out as one does a kite string. Sometimes this is gradual, sometimes this is immediate but for learners to take a true inquiry stance to their learning, teachers need to release power and allow them to explore, figure out and make meaning. Not by themselves, but for themselves.  Inquiry teachers take risks. While they plan thoroughly, they are prepared to release themselves from the plan and take a different path. Inquiry teachers design tasks that allow the learners to do the heavy lifting.

5. Keep it real

When I talk to kids in schools about the learning experiences that they remember most fondly, it is always the real ones. Learners crave authenticity and purpose. Inquiry teachers know how to use the school, local and global community as contexts for investigation. Whether it is inquiring into how to design and grow a sustainable garden, what to do about the car parking issue at pick up time, or collaborating with a scientists on the other side of the world, learners value opportunities to inquire into things that matter to them and their community.

6. Notice

Inquiry teachers observe, notice, reflect and respond.  They bring an inquiry stance to their observations of and conversations with learners. They take time to notice whats going on  and to reflect on what they see and hear. And they notice themselves. They deliberately slow down instruction to notice the way students are responding.  Inquiry teachers are intentional, observant and responsive.

7. Grow Learning Assets

Taking an inquiry approach to learning means drawing on ones capacity as a researcher, a thinker, a self-manager, a communicator and a collaborator.  Teachers who use an inquiry based approach understand that the power lies in the process. They work hard to privilege the process of learning. They invite learners to inquire into learning itself and know that it is ultimately the skills and dispositions of the learner that dissolve the boundaries between school and life beyond school.

8. Play

Inquiry teachers understand the power of purposeful play. They know that all senses are involved in learning.  And they know that play is not just for young learners. Time to play – to experiment, to tinker, to play with ideas benefits all learners. Inquiry teachers are not afraid to ‘play with ideas’ – to go outside…literally and figuratively.

9. Think Big

Inquiry teachers keep their eye on the bigger picture. They avoid ‘activities’ or ‘topics’ for their own sake – inquiry journeys are ultimately about working towards conceptual understanding.

10. Get Personal

Inquiry teachers inquire into the lives and passions of their learners. They provide opportunities for learners to follow some paths that matter to them and encourage each learner to set personal goals. Time is made for learners to explore questions of significance to them and an effort is made to help learners regularly inquire into themselves as learners. 

So...there they are. The 10 practices as of Nov 25th, 2017!  Would love your thoughts as I continue to write the book. What do inquiry

Just wondering .... 

The gift of presence: inquiry and being 'in the moment'

One of the most powerful opportunities for teacher inquiry into inquiry is to locate at least some of our professional learning in the classroom itself. I am fortunate to have many opportunities to regularly teach alongside teachers who observe, question and reflect both during and after the session. These conversations are almost always rich, challenging and satisfying. Locating our professional inquiry in the classroom brings us to the heart of what (and why) we do what we do.   I am used to being observed as I teach and I think it has a positive effect on my teaching.  I am more conscious of the 'moves' I am making and more intentional overall.  

Over the years of ‘modelling’ inquiry-based teaching, I have noticed recurring themes arising in our debriefs. I don't always get it right- far from it, but one of the most pervasive themes relates to pace and timing. I often hear:

“The kids seemed to have a lot of time to think and talk”

“It felt relaxed”

“Even though the kids were challenged, they did not seem stressed…”

“There was an atmosphere of calm”

“The strategy was actually quite simple but so much came out of it…”

“ Everything just feels slower and more considered”

As teachers committed to a more inquiry based approach, we all know how important it is to be truly present as we teach.  Inquiry is a stance - so we need to have a mindset that permits us to observe and listen.  When I am working with a group of children in this ‘lab site’ context, I feel incredibly present. I can activate my inquiry stance with relative ease asking myself continually ‘what am I seeing/hearing? What am I noticing? What should we do next?” I don't always get there - sometimes the pressure of being observed can have a negative effect or I fail to respond to my inner voice telling me the strategy I have chosen won't work and I should try another -but most of the time.....

I can recall days of teaching when I was far from truly present.  I was so often thinking about the next thing or about whether we were going to ‘get it done’ in time for the next thing! And, as a younger teacher I was worried about management. I needed things to feel controlled and orderly and then often meant pushing through and ignoring the small voice that questioned my motives.   Although this is still a struggle (I can feel that sense of urgency creeping in when I am running teacher workshops and the clock is ticking!) I am so much less bothered by the clock these days.   Maybe it is one of the benefits of experience (read - getting old) but I know the sky won’t fall in if we don’t finish. I know less is more. I know it is more about the journey than the destination. I understand more keenly now, the gift of presence.

So, what gets in the way of simply being in the here and now?  What stops us from being truly present as teachers – to be right there, in the moment with our learners?

This issue came up with a group of teachers I had the pleasure of working with at Mulgrave School in Vancouver, Canada.   We wondered whether, to engage kids – we can sometimes lapse into ‘edutainment’, creating a kind of frenetic energy (albeit fun!) that gets in the way of reflection and processing. Our kids become dependent on US to motivate and energise so we become even more panicked about not dropping the (juggling?) ball!

We all acknowledged that if the daily timetable is fragmented and overcrowded, we easily become driven by the clock rather than our learners. When we feel pressured for time, we literally speed up. We speak faster, we hurry students and give less time for thinking.  Distracted by the thought of ‘the next thing’ we lose the opportunity to be present in THIS moment.

The wonderful conversation got me thinking. Why is it so hard to slow down and be in the moment? Like the ‘slow food’ movement that pushes against the unhealthy impact of the ubiquitous fast food industry, The ‘slow schools’ movement is in direct response to our need to take time to really listen and observe as we teach. To be an inquirer.  

What else stops us from stopping?

We over plan. Perhaps we get excited by a bunch of creative ideas, perhaps because we worry we won’t have enough for kids to ‘do’.  But the reality is that less really IS more.

And we plan too far ahead.  Detailed, long range planning can sometimes be useful but it can also mean we are far less responsive than we should be.  When we discipline ourselves to plan in response to our learners, we use our time to notice, document and analyse what we see and hear.

We make the mistake of thinking collaborative planning is about all ‘doing’ the same activities all of the time. So, we panic when we have not kept up with everyone else. The activities drive us – not the students or the learning.

We sometimes focus more on the ‘doing’ than the learning. We can be too product-oriented meaning our lessons can pressure kids to get things finished.  We speed things up and forget to notice what’s happening NOW.

We forget to give ourselves time to reflect, to decompress and to slow down.  Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do to be more present in our teaching is to practice the kind of self-talk we might tell our students to employ.  Ironically - as a self-confessed 'busy' person, this is something I need to work on.  

I recognise that it is far easier for me to be truly ‘present’ when I am in the rarefied context of modelling a lesson.  It is a true gift to be able to focus on so intently on what is happening as a lesson unfolds which, in turn, activates a stronger inquiry stance.  

How do we help ourselves be truly present as we teach? To slow down, to notice and to respond? As it says in a popular meme doing the rounds at the do we be less mind-full and be more mindful? 

Just wondering…

In praise of 'AND'....

Suffice to say, the gap between this and the last post is a tad embarrassing.  Miniposts in Facebook don’t quite do it but at least there is some excuse there!

This particular post has been a while in the making. And it still doesn’t feel quite right. But, uncharacteristically, I have decided simply to put it out there in all it’s not-quite-there-yet glory. I have made so many attempts to write posts about inquiry and evidence of effectiveness or about the troubling characterization of inquiry as a kind of ‘teacher-free;’ approach.  I find the process of writing about this enervating. I am not sure why.  Anyway…..would love your thoughts….

I did my initial teacher training in the early eighties (yep – I’m THAT old!).  At the time, the work of Donald Graves was beginning to have a strong influence on our thinking about the teaching of writing.  I was so inspired by the prospect of working with children as genuine authors.  I learned about the importance of rigorous drafting, conferring and reflecting in the writing process. I knew the importance of conducting what we called ‘clinics’ - small group, targeted, instructional sessions to address specific needs and issues we noticed as analysed children’s writing. In these clinics, we focussed on aspects of punctuation and grammar needed to strengthen the writing.  Along with Donald Graves, I was introduced to the work of Lorraine Wilson (here in Australia) who championed the power of language experience in growing the young reader and writer.  I learned about listening. And I learned about documenting the language children generated through experience and how to ‘harvest’ that language to stretch and build vocabulary and phonemic awareness. I learned that language instruction worked best when children had ownership over what they were reading and writing and when there was true purpose and authenticity in my approach.  I also took it for granted that explicit teaching of phonics, punctuation and grammar were part and parcel of what it meant to be a whole language teacher. It was a no brainer. Or so I thought.

I still remember the bewilderment I felt when, early into my career, I started hearing people identify ‘whole language’ teachers as different (in fact, in opposition) to those who ‘believed in phonics’.  Huh? I was baffled by the ‘or’ in this debate  - you either taught phonics OR you were a whole language teacher. All I had ever known was AND.  When it came to helping build children’s capacity as writers I had a holistic, integrative, learner-centred view but it included careful, strategic, explicit instruction.  This was my first experience of what I still believe to be a ‘false dichotomy’ and, as the years went by, I noticed it happening again and again.   It was either X OR Y, either black OR white. It either worked or it didn’t. It was effective or ineffective. Us or them.  I came to see that teaching was riddled with false dichotomies and unhelpful, divisive labels.  

It’s now over 30 years since I was that earnest, wide-eyed, early-career teacher but I still find myself baffled by the discourse that emphasises OR rather than AND.  I have never let go of my commitment to teaching in ways that value the experience and voice of the learner.  I agree with Kathy Short when I say that inquiry, in its most simple iteration, is a stance.  For me, inquiry is about giving the learner opportunities to question, to play and experiment, to explore, wrestle with and clarify ideas, to figure things out, to problem solve, to make connections, to reflect on and change thinking, to share and test out theories in the pursuit of making-meaning.   Does this happen in a teacher-free zone? Of course not! Do inquiry teachers simply … ‘let kids learn by themselves? Well, sometimes that is exactly what they do - but, the vast majority of the time, inquiry teachers are right there: questioning, nudging, prompting, observing, stepping in and knowing when to step out. And inquiry teachers are instructing. Rarely does a lesson goes by without a careful moment of explaining something to a student or a small group, perhaps modelling a process or demonstrating a technique. But we to do this when (and if) we assess the moment is right.  I am regularly amazed by what learners DO figure out for themselves (and how deeply satisfying that is for them)  when given the right conditions, opportunity and challenge AND I have in my repertoire, the technique of timely, direct explanations or demonstrations when required.  

So when I read statements like:   “The idea that children learn best when they discover things on their own is believed by many educators -  but it is a myth” (Visible Learning) or hear pronouncements like “evidence shows inquiry learning doesn’t work” I feel like I am back in the world of “or”.  Firstly – who are these ‘many educators’?  If a teacher truly sees inquiry learning this way, then they have much to learn about the approach!!   I work with hundreds of teachers all over the world who use inquiry based approaches in their classrooms. They would be the first to say the students are far from ‘on their own’ and they would rarely expect them to learn this way.  Like the simplistic characterization of ‘whole language’,  inquiry is too often described in somewhat monochromatic terms, eg:  kids ask questions and are then left to research their questions.  If ‘learning on their own’ means a teacher-free, entirely student-led and always-interest based approach then I would agree the impact would most often be low (that being said, let’s consider the countless things that kids learn on their own, before coming to school and outside of school!... hmmmmmm)

Can we start thinking less about the OR and more about the AND? Can we agree that it is entirely possible for classrooms to be places in which students own their learning, make choices, are deeply engaged and care about what they are learning AND interact with teachers who know when to step in and instruct, explain, demonstrate, model? Can we agree that inquiry is a teaching stance that emphasises questioning and listening AND requires some demonstration and explaining?  

A cautionary note.... I am well aware that embracing the ‘and’ can be seen as a bit of a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ position,  Make no mistake. I am not saying ‘anything goes’. The underpinnings of inquiry remain steadfastly true to a constructivist view of learning.  What I am trying to do here is, perhaps, dispel a myth about a myth. Inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning depends on thoughtful, strategic, nuanced,  and highly intentional teachers. 



Just wondering...

Getting into the Habit of Inquiry

I have been driving about as long as I have been teaching. And that’s a long time! I still recall how exhausted I would be at the end of even a short trip in those first few weeks of getting my licence. Everything I did, every move I made in my little 1979 Honda Civic 2-door was conscious, mindful, deliberate- and slightly angst-filled.  Getting from A to B was an exercise in concentration. It took me a while to feel relaxed enough to turn on the radio or have a sustained conversation with a passenger.  Nothing was habit. Both I and my car were in ‘manual’ gear.  Some thirty years on, I enjoy driving (which is just as well as I am so often on the road) and many aspects of driving have become automatic (as has my car’s transmission!).   After years on the road I’ve developed what I hope are some good driving habits. And I don’t think too much about them.  At least not every journey and not all the time.

This analogy seemed an apt way to examine a trend I have noticed in reflective conversations following ‘labsites’ or modelled inquiry lessons.  Giving ‘fishbowl’ lessons – where teachers get to look in on an inquiry based approach in action, is one of my favourite forms of professional learning. The conversations we have after these sessions are often powerful, honest and energising.  Over the past couple of years I have begun to notice how people regularly remark on the same things:

“You position yourself at the same level as the kids – you are on the floor, at the tables, in the circle…you are at their level.”

“You don't ask for hands up – the kids talk to each other instead. ”

“ There is a lot of time to think – the pace feels slower and more relaxed”

“ You don't tell them much, you ask more than you tell”

“You use a lot of very specific language of thinking …”

You say “I wonder…” a lot!

“You let them figure things out…you keep probing”

I am not sharing these observations in a self-congratulatory way. What interests me is that much of the time, these aspects of my pedagogy are things I don't really notice. To be honest, I am not aware that I am doing them as much as I obviously am.  These things have become habit. Not doing them would feel strange and unfamiliar. Micro skills, like waiting after a question is asked or sitting amongst kids rather than in front of the group just feels right.  They are my 'go to' behaviours. If I have a conversation with children where they all put their hands up and answer in turn, I feel uncomfortable.  If I am standing at the front, looming over young children who are seated on the floor, I feel unsettled and out of my skin. Over time, these and other aspects of my pedagogy have become habit.  Having worked hard on building an inquiry-based pedagogy, this stance now feels natural. I guess I am at what some describe as the stage of ‘unconscious competence.’

Which brings me to the point of this blog post!  As I have said numerous times, inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning. It is both a stance and a useful framework to assist in the design of learning experiences.  What teachers do and say- how they behave and interact in the learning space has a huge role in determining the way kids see themselves as learners.  If we want kids to be great inquirers, our teaching habits need to nurture that.  While a lot of great work goes on when teachers project and reflect around the planning table, we strengthen our inquiry muscles through our interactions with students. Every lesson, every day gives us an opportunity to practice some of the key elements of this pedagogy such as the questioning, the pacing, the releasing of responsibility and the language of thinking. Becoming a more inquiry based teacher is, at first, like learning to drive – even harder, it can be like unlearning to drive one way and having to re-learn to drive another.  Perhaps it is a little like learning to drive on the other side of the road … the same basic moves, the same basic context but requiring a different perspective, different choreography and different cues.

And even though I have developed a strong suite of habits that position me and my learners as inquirers, there are some old habits that remain. They are for the most part dormant but can return when I feel pushed for time, when I am uncertain about my purposes, when I am challenged by a student or when I am just plain tired.  I have learned to own these moments, admit to kids and to observing teachers that I’ve made a wrong move.  I try to consciously change gears and resume the journey. Getting into new teaching habits is not easy but it can be exhilarating when we do.

So…some tips for getting into the habit of inquiry- with acknowledgement to this Lifehack blog from whom I have shamelessly stolen some headings! (

Make it daily: ‘Doing inquiry’ twice a week treats inquiry more like a subject than a pedagogical stance. It’s not enough.  If you are starting out, take just one lesson/learning experience each day, in any area, and consider how you could provide kids with more opportunity to investigate, figure out, problem solve and ask questions. 

Start simple: Inquiry is a wonderfully complex, layered approach to teaching and learning. But this can be daunting.  A great place to start is by learning more about questions and questioning. Try focussing on having kids ask questions and teaching them about questions. One step at a time.

Get a buddy: They say you are more likely to stick with a gym program if you go with someone else. Might this be true of new teaching approaches too? Find someone on staff to discuss your plans with. Watch each other teach, talk about your progress. Collaborate.

Accept your imperfections!: Don't be hard on yourself when a lesson doesn't work out or when your fine efforts to provide open ended, differentiated, challenging, authentic, problem based, higher order tasks … are met with confusion or learner indifference! It happens. Tomorrow is another day.

Remove temptation from your path.  Tear up your photo copy card. Burn their text books. Get rid of some of the tables in the room.  Or whatever your teaching equivalent is of ‘don't have chocolate in the house.’

Associate with role models:  stay connected with others trying to work in the same way. If they are not in your school, use a digital PLN. Facebook and twitter abound with enthusiastic inquiry teachers who will happily keep you energised and motivated!

Write it down. Say it out loud: share your intentions with your kids and colleagues.  This way you are not only accountable to yourself - you are accountable to others. For example, you might say to your kids “I really want to get into the habit of giving you more thinking time. I am going to be trying some new ways of asking questions and having conversations with you…”

Know the benefits.  Good habits are formed when we truly believe in the results they will bring us. Read.  Know why you are doing what you are doing and return to those reasons when it becomes challenging or frustrating.

Persist.  Working in new ways as a teacher is not just about changing our own habits. The way we behave has a symbiotic relationship with our students’ behaviour.  Our habits perpetuate theirs and vice versa. If we are in the habit of asking closed, leading, shallow questions – students form the habit of responding with limited, ‘teacher-pleasing’, shallow answers!  Unlearning is uncomfortable – but the new learning and the new way of being is worth it.

We become inquiry teachers by teaching for and through inquiry. Kids develop their skills and dispositions by being given plenty of opportunities to inquire. These opportunities are available to us across the day whether we are running a math workshop, taking a PE lesson outdoors, reading from a class novel or hanging out with kids in a maker space.  I know it is a slightly glib phrase but I can’t help but say it again – inquiry is a way of being. 

And one final note. Unconscious competence is an important state to reach because it allows an ease of being, less energy expenditure and a flow state.  But it also, of course, has its pitfalls. The reflective conversations I have with teachers and kids about my teaching help me return to ‘conscious’ competence – a state we need to be in in order to teach others. Being highly conscious, at times, of the teaching moves we are making can help us sharpen our skill set and remain ever vigilant about self-improvement.

Much like the state I will need to be in when I teach my daughters to drive.

Are you in the habit of inquiry teaching?

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:

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…