HI there. So another post is on the blog. But not here. You will need to go to my new website and you will find it there: http://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/blog/2015/11/20/inquiry-and-all-that-jazz
And while you are there I would love it if you clicked on the subscription button so you receive alerts for future posts. It won’t be long until I close this one….
Hello patient followers of this blog. A new post has just been uploaded to my updated website:
I would be so grateful if you (a) read and even share it and (b) re-subsribe via email. I think we have fixed the technical glitches! I hope the post is useful and thank you again for your interest. Keep wondering!
Thank you all for your feedback about the difficulties (a) finding the new blog and (b) subscribing to it! You can locate the new website easily…(just google kathmurdoch.com!) and click the link to the blog. Unfortunately, the subscription system is not as simple as I thought! The site will have a subscribe button SOON. I’ll let you know. So in the meantime, this site stays active. Thanks for your patience and your lovely feedback re the post about literature and inquiry 🙂
Hello there loyal followers of ‘Justwondering’! This post is to let you know that I have transferred my blog to my website: http://www.kathmurdoch.com.au/ I am trying to consolidate and better manage the growing myriad of social media that links me with the online professional learning community. Unfortunately, this transfer does NOT take my lovely readers with it. You will need to come along of your own accord…and I really hope you do. It’s easy. Go to my website Click on the ‘Blog’ link, scroll down to the end of the post and you will see the ‘subscribe’ button. Click and you are re-subscribed and will be notified when I post. All the previous posts are archived on the new site but I will keep this one going for as while until I feel we have all moved and are settled into our new accommodation 🙂
And this is a good opportunity to say THANK YOU for your interest, your feedback and your use of the blog. I know I don’t write often enough but I love the dialogue that occurs when I do! So keep following…I have a NEW post about literature and inquiry waiting for you on the new site. See you there!
PS: Did I mention I have published a new book? Details on the website…..I am so happy with the way it has turned out… by far the most beautiful LOOKING book I have ever published and I hope this is a case of being able to judge the worth of the book by its cover 🙂
The school year has just begun here in Australia. It’s a time of great anticipation, resolution and excitement – I love the sense of possibility that accompanies this time. For many of us – having had a break – it is also a time of adjustment. In a sense, we return to our ‘teacher selves’ and with that, is an opportunity to think about that identity: how DO we see ourselves as teachers and how does this impact on the way we teach?
I remember hearing Ken Robinson (in a lesser known talk) once describe teachers as gardeners. This is always a metaphor that has appealed to me. I like the nurturing connotation, the link to nature, the need to tend and care, the combination of planned and unexpected and, of course, the symbol of growth.
Over the last few days, I have been working with teachers in various schools, as they prepare to meet their students and begin a new year. The gardening metaphor has come to mind many times. When it comes to inquiry – there is so much we can do (and indeed should do) to ‘prepare the soil’ and plant the seeds for a healthy, rich, vibrant year of investigation. When we meet our students at the beginning of the year, we are in a unique position to establish the culture that will best nurture our inquiry-learning garden. So I have been reflecting on some of the key things to attend to in order to prepare the way for inquiry. Here are 10 tips for term 1…
- Make relationship building your priority. Inquiry works best in classrooms where students feel safe to take risks, share thinking, wonder aloud and challenge themselves. Inquiry teachers also need to KNOW their students – as people and as learners, in order to guide them most effectively. Respectful, warm and connected relationships are the key to a strong inquiry classroom. Collaborative games and simply having some fun together go a long way to creating the kind of atmosphere in which intellectual risk taking can thrive!
How will you foster strong relationships in your classroom from day one?
- Find out what your students are interested in, passionate about and ‘good at’. Whether they are 5 years old or in the final year of school – your students come to you with experience, expertise, passions and wonderings. An inquiry classroom makes the most of the individual strengths and interests each student brings. Begin a wonderwall, inquiry diary, wonder journal……Ask students to write you a letter/blog post or tweet about why you are so lucky to have them in your class this year!
How will you find out about your students’ interests?
- Involve students in setting up the physical learning space. Ask them: ‘how can we use this space so we can do our best learning? This will tell you a lot about the students’ ideas about learning itself and may prompt some useful inquiry into the relationships between the environment and how we learn.
How will you ensure the classroom is ‘owned’ by the students? How will you involve them in creating the learning space?
- Work on nurturing a culture of curiosity. Bring in fascinating objects, start a ‘cabinet of curiosity’, institute a quirky ‘question of the day’, share some awe-inspiring youtube clips. Commit to sharing your own ‘awe and wonderment’ about the world. Be a model of curiosity.
How will you ensure that curiosity thrives in your classroom?
- Consider ways in which you can re-structure some of your ‘beginning of the year’ events or activities so they are inquiries in themselves. For example – instead of planning all the activities that help young children get to know their school…make it an inquiry. “How can we learn about our school?”. Invite children to suggest WHAT they want to know about the school –and how they could find out! The same can be done with getting to know each other. Avoid the usual gimmicky activities and set this as an inquiry challenge: How could we find out more about each other? What do we want to know? How could we gather this information? How could we share it? Why is it important? Have students design their own ‘getting to know you tasks’. The class agreement can also be created through a process of inquiry.
How can you make some of your beginning of the year ‘activities’ more inquiry-based?
- Share learning intentions as questions. As I have written about previously on this blog, when we frame learning intentions as questions we open up more scope for investigation and discovery. Try this technique early in the year. Creating an inquiry culture is all about using, valuing and reflecting on questions.
How will you use questions to drive learning?
- Start speaking ‘learnish’ . This is one of my favourite terms used by Guy Claxton. The beginning of the year is the perfect time to find out what your students think about learning and how they see themselves as learners. Ask them to share their thinking about learning with you. Commit to being more conscious of your own language. Grow a classroom discourse that is learning-centred.
How will you help students learn and use the language of learning?
- Yield to an unexpected moment. When I interviewed children at the end of 2014 about their learning as inquirers, many of them remembered the inquiries that had emerged unexpectedly more than they remembered the inquiries that were more planned ahead! Teachers, too, regularly tell me that some of their strongest, most authentic teaching happens in response to an unexpected moment, problem, event or challenge. School programming is tighter than it has ever been. I am not suggesting we abandon plans and frameworks – far from it – BUT I am suggesting we make a conscious decision to remain open to the unexpected moments that await us in 2015. Ironically, the more you know your curriculum and the clearer you are about where you are headed….the more comfortable you are about taking the road less travelled!
How will you make room for the unexpected?
- Get connected!!! Inquiry teachers and learners are connected – to each other, to the community and to the world beyond their local community. When we set up mechanisms through which we can connect students to the world, we offer SO much more scope for research, collaborative investigations, access to expertise, authentic learning and real communication skills. Class twitter accounts, blogs and connecting with other schools via Skype or FaceTime are highly engaging and allow the classroom to no longer be defined by four walls. If you, as a teacher, have not yet, for example, subscribed to a blog, opened a twitter account, explored some educational apps…it’s time!
How will you get connected?
- Commit to being an inquirer. Be the inquirer you want to see. Make sure YOU are experiencing some kind of inquiry this year – it may be professional or personal. Share your learning experiences with your students. Use language that shows them you are a learner too – you wonder, speculate, investigate, re-think, reflect and remain ardently curious. For many of us, our identity as a teacher is tightly bound to control and authority. Becoming an inquiry teacher – and nurturing inquiry learners – challenges us to re-think our ways of seeing and being. Your own inquiry disposition can be a powerful ‘fertilizer’ as you sow the seeds for a wonder-full year of learning with your students.
How will you prepare the way for inquiry to grow in your classroom this year? Just wondering….
How will you nurture your own inquiring mind?
I am delighted to share this guest post from a long time colleague of mine – Julie Hamston. Julie and I have written a number of books and articles together over the years and I continue to learn a great deal from our conversations about inquiry, teaching and learning. Julie’s expertise is in the area of language – and, as you will see from this post, she is particularly fascinated in the role of talk in the inquiry classroom. I have previously posted some thoughts on the language we use with students and am in no doubt that one of the most important things we can do for learners is to strengthen our understanding of and skill in managing dialogue to support their’ thinking. Talk is our central and perhaps most powerful ‘tool of trade’, as Peter Johnson reminds us: “Teachers’ conversations with children help children build the bridges from action to consequence that develop their sense of agency” (Choice Words, 2004:30) I know you will find Julie’s post thought provoking – I hope it gives you something to talk (and wonder!) about at your next team or staff meeting.
Effective teachers of inquiry operate with a finely tuned set of strategies to encourage students to make their thinking visible and to share their understandings with others.
Although these strategies have sharpened our attention on the relationship between language and thinking, I suggest they are limited unless we better understand the way that classroom talk is intimately connected with student learning. Deep and meaningful inquiry is dependent upon the linguistic leverage teachers provide to students through language that is modelled, generated, recycled, consolidated and stretched within the context of inquiry. The explicit pedagogic language of the teacher, consciously focused on deepening and expanding the linguistic content of student responses, combined with strategies for exploratory and collaborative talk, helps students develop the discourse practices (such as predicting, reasoning, explaining, justifying, interpreting, problem solving) fundamental to inquiry.
This view is not a new one. Classroom-based researchers from all over the world have demonstrated through close analysis of teacher-student talk and student-student talk that the quality of linguistic interaction and feedback in the classroom impacts on the quality of learning. That said, I strongly believe that more time and patience needs to be devoted to authentic dialogic interaction in inquiry classrooms and that teachers make a stronger investment in the language both they and the students produce.
This dialogic approach to teaching involves two integrated foci on language:
- the language-specific routines that teachers draw upon within any inquiry focus: questioning; prompting; eliciting and cuing student responses; ‘pressing’ for more clearly articulated detail, information or explanation; repeating, reformulating and elaborating on student responses; and recapping what has been learnt.
- the collective, purposeful, and reciprocal language exchanged between students and between students and the teacher.
When we think of inquiry-based learning and the emphasis placed on shared work, problem solving, making connections and thinking through complex issues, the importance of dialogic teaching is clear. Neil Mercer and others view talk as helping students do the hard work of learning. Dialogic inquiry involves students in seriously working with the ideas of others, considering and challenging evidence, worldviews and perspectives, and reaching logical conclusions.
My recent work on dialogic teaching
Throughout 2014, I have been working with the Principal and staff of Meadows Primary School in Victoria, Australia to establish a whole school commitment to dialogic teaching, initially around inquiry-based learning. The student demographics at this school are shaped by generational poverty; household and neighbourhood disadvantage due to chronic unemployment and a high proportion of sole parents; significant ethnic diversity in the community, including Indigenous Australians and new and settled migrants for whom majority English is an additional language; as well as widespread first language ‘impoverishment.’
We were interested in the quality of teacher and student talk in the classroom. We wanted to see, more clearly, the ways in which teachers used language to scaffold thinking and learning, to build, deepen and extend their students’ language repertoire so they could make their reasoning ‘visible.’ I designed a program that combined professional learning on dialogic approaches in the classroom, analysis of classroom transcripts and videos, classroom observations, feedback and evaluation.
Teachers were also required to collect data of their own talk interactions with students and to analyse these in terms of the language techniques they were using (for example, did they reformulate students’ responses? Did they put a ‘press’ on students’ language? Did they cue students into possible answers?). In addition, they were encouraged to introduce exploratory talk techniques to their students (the Thinking Together project coordinated by Mercer and colleagues at the University of Cambridge formed the basis of this task https://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk).
Teacher volunteers were then invited to be involved in a pilot project involving the trial of dialogic approaches within the context of inquiry-based units of work. Two year levels responded: the Foundation Year (consisting of four teachers, led my me) and Years 3 and 4 (consisting of four teachers and facilitated by the school’s lead teacher, Adam).
From: Tayla Cosaitis’ Year 3/4 class: Ground Rules for Talk.
The Foundation teachers, working with 5 year olds (Sarah Lynch; Laura Di Lizia; Stephanie Webster and Libby Morris) collaborated closely with me on building students’ capacity to share their thinking, using longer stretches of language incorporating reasoning words such as ‘because’ and ‘if.’ In consultation with the research literature, we designed language frames relevant to their students’ inquiries (“ I like your idea because…” ; “ I will build a …. because….”; “I will use… because….”).
From: Laura Di Lizia’s Foundation class: Design, Creativity and Technology Unit – Building a House for Buddy Bear.
The teachers also ‘planned in’ their own and student language to their inquiry units, established ‘talk buddies’ for an initial foray into exploratory talk, and introduced students to the ground rules for active listening, talking and sharing with others.
The analysis of transcripts was central to the teachers’ professional learning. Examples such as this one were used to identify (i) the language repertoires used by each teacher and (ii) any growth in the students’ linguistic reasoning:
Teacher: Sofia, can you tell me what you have used to make your couch? (Eliciting a response)
Sofia: I have used material. We used cotton balls and we got the Buddy Bears to test them out on them… and we used cardboard and we used bubble wrap.
Teacher: Great. You used lots of things. Can you tell me why? (Request for student to provide a reason). So can you say “I used cardboard and bubble wrap and material because… (Providing a language frame as support).
Sofia: Bubble wrap.
Teacher: Put it in a full sentence. “I used …” (Putting a ‘press’ on the student’s language in the hope for a more comprehensive and reasoned response).
Sofia: We used materials because to make it comfy (sic). We used cotton balls to make it even more comfortable. We used cardboard to make it strong. We used bubble wrap to make it soft. We used glue to glue it together (Putting language and thinking together).
The explicit apprenticeship of students into the discourse practices of inquiry has been so positive that teachers report a shift in students’ capacity to use talk to provide evidence and justification, and to think through alternatives. Importantly, the teachers say they are more focused on their own language use. Great examples of this from the teachers in Foundation year include:
- Reformulation of student responses (Did you mean…?)
- Direct elicitations – (“Can somebody …? Who knows…?: “I want to know what you know about sketching.”)
- Exhortations (“Who is thinking the same/different?”)
- Repeating student responses to consolidate learning (“Well that’s a lot of information there. I’m going to break it down for everyone. Shreya said …. Shreya went on….. and explained more………………….)
- Recaps to consolidate understanding (“OK, so we have used our observation frames to look at the weather…”)
- Connecting feedback to inquiry (“Great thinking!; “I love the connection you just made.”)
- Building on student responses (“I just want to bring it back to what Louie was saying.”)
- Requests for reasoning (“You have to tell me why. Remember to make a prediction and tell me your reason.”)
- Putting a ‘press’ on student language (“Can you put your answer in a full sentence?”; “Can you begin by saying ‘I think…”; “Remember our language frames: “I predict…because…”)
Work continues on dialogic teaching at Meadows Primary School in 2015 and 2016 – watch this space?
Dr Julie Hamston is an education consultant and a Senior Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, Australia. She can be contacted by email at: email@example.com
If you are interested…
Alexander, R. Dialogic teaching. Retrieved from http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/
Dawes, L. (2008). (Chapter 2 ‘Talking Points’) The Essential Speaking and Listening: Talk for learning at Key Stage 2. Retrieved from https://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/resources/About_Talking_Points.pdf
Hamston, J. (2006). Bakhtin’s theory of dialogue: a construct for pedagogy, methodology and analysis. The Australian Educational Researcher, 33, 1, 55-74.
Haneda, M. W., G. (2010). Learning science through dialogic inquiry: Is it beneficial for English-as- additional-language students? International Journal of Educational Research, 49, 10-21.
Haneda, M. W., G. (2008). Learning an additional language through dialogic inquiry. Language and Education, 22, 2, 114-136.
Mercer, N. (2008). Talk and the Development of Reasoning and Understanding. Human Development, 51, 90-100.
Mercer, N. D., L. (2010). Making the most of talk: Dialogue in the classroom. EnglishDramaMedia, 19-25.
Taggart, G., Ridley, K., Rudd, P. & Benefield, P. (2005). Thinking Skills in the Early Years: A literature review. Retrieved from http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/73999/1/Thinking_skills_in_early_years.pdf
Zhang, J. D. S., K.A. Collaborative reasoning: Language-rich discussions for English learners. The Reading Teacher, 65, 4, 257-260.
I have been thoroughly neglectful of this blog! It is somewhat ironic that I spend a good deal of time talking about the need for reflection; time to think and slow down instruction for deeper understanding – while I rush around allowing myself precious little time out to write! There is a back-log of posts I am eager to get out there so I hope that the remainder of the year will see them come to fruition.
A number of issues have got me wondering of late. Perhaps the most intriguing has been about the relationship between what we describe as ‘specialist’ programs (in elementary/primary schools) and inquiry. The expertise of specialist teachers in any primary school is often a hugely undervalued resource. It is not uncommon for me to run a workshop where specialist teachers don’t attend due to the perception it is ‘not really relevant ‘ to their subject area. And yet – some of the best inquiry teaching I have seen occurs in art rooms, music studios, gymnasiums, etc.
I have taken my ‘wonderings’ to friends who are professional artists, musicians, writers, etc. and, without exception, they describe their own learning and the development of their skills as a true process of inquiry. Sure, they have all benefited from others showing them how to execute a skill and from the wisdom of masters in the field – but they also talk passionately about the need to explore, experiment, meander, question, reflect – the hallmarks of inquiry learning. I sometimes wonder whether my beliefs about my skills in visual arts (I am an ‘I can’t draw’ person) might have been different had I not been expected to ‘do art’ the way the art teachers insisted – had I not been compelled to create a given ’product’ the same as everyone else’s and had I been given the opportunity to see what I could discover for myself with some freedom to explore.
Of most interest to me are views about language teaching as not compatible with inquiry – yet I know of no more inquiring an experience for me than the quest to master new language in a non-English speaking country! What we need in these situations is a desire to master the skill, the learning skills to help ourselves do so and the availability of an expert/coach when we need one!
My work in international schools in particular increasingly involves teachers who work in single subjects areas such as music, PE, visual arts, languages, and so on. I am noticing some recurring questions in our conversations – some specialist teachers are frustrated by the restrictions that exist due to timetables or other people’s perception of their role. Common questions include:
- How can I use an inquiry approach when I have such short sessions with the children? (some specialist teachers have as little as 30 minutes per lesson)
- How can we use inquiry when we have no time for collaborative planning with generalist classroom teachers?
- How can we help classroom teachers (and students) see our role more deeply than giving them time release or ‘supplementing’ their unit with shallow, related, activities?
- Ours is a skill-based subject – how can we use inquiry when we have to actually ‘teach’ kids what to do?
- We are expected to make links to the ‘units’ that classroom teachers are doing but they often don’t suit our program – how can we manage this challenge?
For those now anticipating a clear, decisive response to each of those questions – be prepared to be disappointed! The very reason these questions emerge time and time again is that they reflect some pervasive misconceptions that still exist in relation to inquiry OR they are the product of the way we have organized our schools/programs. Having said that, there are several things I have found helpful to consider when thinking about the relationship between inquiry and specialist programs. Here are my thoughts – I would love to hear yours!
It’s an approach – not a classroom ‘subject’. We can ALL be inquiry teachers. While we continue to associate inquiry only with ‘units’ of work in the classroom – these issues will persist. When we see inquiry as an approach rather than a subject, then it becomes relevant to all teachers, all learners. Even in a 30 minute session, teachers can ask themselves “how can I provide more inquiry based learning experiences for my students? How can I encourage them to explore, make their own connections, ask questions, etc.” A simple example would be a PE teacher choosing to give her/his young students time to experiment with different ways to get a ball from point A to B as quickly as possible before providing any direct instruction on techniques. The lesson is flipped from ‘watch me, listen to me, then have a go…’ to have a go – then we will see what we discover AND what we need to focus on. And while we are on the subject of PE, check out these great examples of specialists as inquiry teachers: http://www.pyppewithandy.com/ and http://www.iphys-ed.com/inquiry-in-pe
Working on the same ‘content’ does not make it any more inquiry based. In the past, our attempts to make stronger connections between specialist and generalist programs have often manifested in specialist taking on the same ‘topic’ being worked on in the classroom. I don’t need to go into the problems associated with shallow, tenuous links. Suffice to say, forced connections that can compromise the integrity of the discipline do nothing for student learning. Let’s not confuse the term ‘integrated’ learning with ‘inquiry’ learning. That said, where learning can be genuinely integrated through shared skills and concepts the result can be powerful. If the content offers a perfect ‘context’ for student learning in a specialist area then go for it – but never force the issue!
Transdisciplinary skills are just that – transdisciplinary. Regardless of the program/curriculum, most inquiry schools recognise some framework of skills and dispositions that are shared across all subject areas. These may include, for example, social and self management skills thinking skills and communication skills. As I have discussed before, these skills should be inquired into as part of students’ learning experiences. Highlighting the same skills in specialist programs (not all of them every time – but at least some!) helps students transfer their learning AND widens the scope of inquiry. For example – students exploring ways to give others feedback in the classroom can consciously practice and extend that skill in PE, in art, etc. If any aspect of planning is shared between generalist and specialist teachers I think it should be this.
Create opportunities for shared teaching. Watching each other at work is a very effective form of professional learning. In an inquiry school, opportunities to observe practice helps build bridges between specialist and generalist teachers AND within specialist programs. Observations across subject areas helps us think less about the content and more about the pedagogy. I am not a PE teacher – but have learned a great deal from watching skilled, inquiry based PE teachers work with students. Watching the way an inquiry based art specialist promotes reflective and critical thinking can help transform the teaching techniques for literacy in the generalist classroom.
Identify shared learning strategies and build a common language for students to ‘talk about learning. We all know that opportunities to transfer and practice skills and strategies in different contexts are vital for deeper learning. When specialist and generalist teachers communicate with each other about the strategies (such a visible thinking routines) they are introducing or revising at any year level – students have a greater chance of experiencing this transfer.
Consider flexible timetabling, shared use of learning spaces, more personalized access to specialist ‘studios’: Perhaps one of the biggest impediments to more authentic, inquiry based approaches to ‘specialist’ programs is the structures used in most schools – eg: a lesson per week for each class at a set time. As this time is so often used for generalist collaborative planning, it can mean there are precious few opportunities for shared, cross program conversations –it may also serve to reinforce some students’ perception of inquiry as a ‘subject’ that happens in their classroom rather than elsewhere. Several schools continue to explore ways to re-think the way they structure for specialized learning in these areas. Arrangements include flexible timetables, for example – library teachers might be booked on a needs basis and work alongside the classroom teacher to coach students’ research skills. Art rooms in some schools have become studios where students can access materials and expertise of the specialist teacher beyond their designated session time. If schools offer an ‘itime’ or ‘genius hour’ program – specialist teachers and any designated learning spaces can be utilized if the timetable allows.
It is so exciting to see the growth of understanding of inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning rather than something that happens in ‘units’ that are occasionally integrated into specialist programs. We have come a long way.
I would love to hear from more of you about how you have approached this in your schools – what’s the relationship between ‘inquiry’ and specialist subject areas in your school?
Late last year, I was fortunate to spend some time with Hilary Green – then a graduate teacher in a local school here in inner Melbourne. Hilary described in enthusiastic detail, an inquiry she and her team had facilitated with their 6 &7 year old students. The inquiry started out as an investigation into the culture of play but culminated in the students experiencing the power of giving to make a difference to the lives of others. Along the way they built skills as researchers, designers, film makers, collaborators, communicators and activists! I asked Hilary to write about this experience as a guest on my blog – here is a great example of a rigorous yet emergent approach to inquiry – and real action as a result! I am sure you will enjoy reading her reflection.
About the inquiry.
” Our inquiry was initially into ‘The Culture of Play’ (part of a whole school project into culture). The Year 1 teaching team thought that by exploring play, a subject the children in which the children were experts, we would be able to uncover the complexities of culture. The first semester saw us explore many questions we had about play. What do we play? Where do we play? How do we play and even why do we play? From there, the children narrowed down their ideas to categories their ideas into three things that affect play that they want to explore. At the end of term we presented our research in the form of a film festival, a nighttime celebration involving all children and parents where the children presented short films they had made.
The film night was made up of 3 short films, each using a different “language” of expression. This included animation, silhouette mime and a puppet theatre. Each of the films was based on an experience we had exposed the children to which included visits to retirement villages another school and the Melbourne Museum.
The seeds of action…Prior to the film festival, one of the children suggested that we raise money from the night and make toys for asylum seeker children in detention because they didn’t have toys. After some discussion, the group agreed and a new branch of the inquiry grew. Like real designers, the children began by making some prototyopes and co constructed some success criteria – they wanted the toys to be:
- Able to be shared with friends
- Long lasting
- Used in many different ways
- Made with strong materials
- Age appropriate
Children were so excited about this action they naturally involved their families after hours:
- My dad goes to court and argues about refugees coming to Australia. He argues with the government to make sure that refugees are safe. He came to talk to us about refugees. Hannah
- David showed us on a world map where refugees are coming from. Alima
- Refugees are people who are forced to leave their home because it is too dangerous. Holly
- Detention centres are places where people cannot come and go as they like. Vittoria
The children worked in small groups to develop initial designs and prototypes of toys for the children in detention centres. They then reviewed each others’ designs each other feedback.
Another father, who designs soft toys came in to share the toys he designs and makes. The children thought of the questions to ask him:
- How do you put the stuffing in?
- How do I create the different colours on my material?
- How do you know what materials to use?
At all stages of the process, the children were inquirers – whether they were investigating how to create their own film, asking experts questions, testing out designs, learning how to physically construct aspects of their toy/game – they had to question, investigate and meaning make in authentic ways. By the end of the inquiry, the children had collaborated to produce some beautiful toys and games to give to the children being housed in detention centres in Melbourne. They decided to write letters to accompany their gifts – the letters show how emotionally invested the children became in this project:
As a first year teacher, this experience has taught me a great deal about teaching and learning through inquiry. What made it so fulfilling? I think the following elements played a crucial role:
Expectation – believing that children can achieve more than you think. As a new teacher, I find that coming fresh into teaching often brings about moments where I think… will this be too hard for them…I’ll just see how it goes and they always surprise me. Some children become experts and then they teach others. I was amazed at what they could do –as film makers, toy makers and activists!
Listening – letting the students have a voice/ drive the project at critical turning points. Often it was just a brief whole class discussion at the end of the day but the students always had questions and we responded to their questions – letting them guide the next stage of the inquiry.
Documentation We regularly displayed questions and student work so that students (and parents) could see the way the project was building over time and the children could see what their peers were thinking. Regular documentation helped us track and reflect on the inquiry.
Parent Involvement Our cohort was blessed with parents who had expertise in the areas we needed. But others were similarly keen to help. When things were overloaded, I organized a “Stitch and Socialise” night were I brought any sewing that the kids would find too tricky and the parents came to learn how to sew or just do their best to finish off the toys.
Teacher and community collaboration The teachers in my team all had different strengths which added to the engagement of the students. We relied heavily on experiences in the community and the emphasis was very much on primary sources. The students themselves – though young – collaborated throughout. Making the animated movies in small groups was the perfect vehicle for true collaboration – they had a shared goal and needed to do lots fo communicating and problem solving to make it happen. The use of ipads for this aspect of the inquiry was fantastic.
Authentic purpose. I have now seen how engaged kids are when they have a real purpose for their inquiry. At different stages in the inquiry…they recorded their invented games to share each other, they made films because they believed what they learned was worth sharing -and they also loved the idea of having a night time film festival where they would be the stars (wouldn’t you?). But perhaps the most powerful purpose was their drive to make a positive difference to the lives of other children. As the letters they wrote to accompany the toys attest – our children showed real empathy and compassion. This is an aspect of the inquiry I want to try to consider throughout my future as a teacher.”
Hilary Green, July 2014
I am sure that readers of this blog will agree that this is an example of a rich, authentic inquiry. Let’s keep reminding ourselves of the importance of real purposes and action for learning – asking kids “We KNOW this…but what can we DO about it?” – As Hilary’s narrative shows, action itself can be the greatest catalyst for inquiry.
How well do your inquiries prompt powerful action?
It’s mid-year planning season in many Australian schools. Each term, around this time, I find myself more often working with small teams of teachers around a planning table rather than in a classroom or at a podium. I admit, it’s one of my favourite things to do. I love the creative energy that inquiry planning demands of us. I love the challenge of connecting the children’s questions and interests with the resources we have, the curriculum and the teacher’s bigger picture view of where he/she wants to taker her students. I also love the fact that, in the schools I am fortunate enough to work in, teachers are prepared to have real conversations about the concepts the children will be exploring. We take time to ask ourselves what WE understand…over the last week I have had fascinating conversations about the nature of ‘work’, the true meaning of sustainability, what the term ‘states of matter’ REALLY means and why it’s even worth learning about, the derivation of the word ‘commemorate’ , the relationship between force and energy, the complexities of the idea of a ‘balanced’ diet…I could go on!
Looking back over the week, I am struck not only by the sheer diversity of ideas teachers grapple with as they plan but the increasing need for us to be strong inquirers ourselves. When we slow down our planning conversations and resist the urge to simply generate activities – we begin to ask questions and see our own confusions, uncertainties and gaps in our understandings. Here’s where the collaborative element of planning is so important. Taking time to toss ideas around, to challenge each other, to clarify to draw on our own experience not only enriches the conversation but provides a much more stable basis upon which to identify the key conceptual understandings for students. While I appreciate the intended message of the phrase ‘learning alongside the student’ in an inquiry classroom, I am also acutely aware of the way a teacher’s lack of clarity can lead to poor questioning and missed opportunities for deeper thinking. Taking time to talk through our own ways of seeing the ‘big picture’ of any inquiry journey is such a valuable component of the conversation around the planning table – and SO much richer than simply listing a bunch of achievement standards from a curriculum.
Collaborative planning for inquiry has become increasingly responsive and representative of the needs and interests of various groups and individuals. While teams still plan some similar strategies and experiences, the days of ‘cookie cutter’ units are over. When a team is clear about the bigger picture – there is greater flexibility in how different classes/students will travel towards it. One of my stand out moments for a really delightful week of planning was a conversation I had with the early years teachers at Roberts McCubbin Primary School here in Melbourne. Like many of the schools I work with, teachers at this level are encouraged to be on the look at for moments that lend themselves to authentic and powerful investigations. As we evaluated the inquiry work done over the term, one teacher in the team, Anita Siggins, had us all mesmerized by her sharing of the unexpected inquiry that unfolded when she brought in a perfectly sculpted, abandoned birds’ nest to show her children. This provocation opened up such rich learning for her fascinated students who have continued the most stunning investigation in their quest to find out what bird made it and how. As she shared her stories, photos, student questions, responses and documentation with us – her genuine delight in the experience was infectious and inspiring. I know we all went away from that meeting reminded of the power of a spontaneous, genuine inquiry.
I have said before on this blog, that I believe collaborative planning to be a valuable form of professional learning. In a worthwhile planning meeting we not only share but we inspire, challenge and question each other. And what results is far more than what goes ‘on the planner’ or ‘in the minutes’ – we grow ourselves as inquirers.
How inspiring are your planning meetings? Just wondering…