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?