Inquiry and the Culture of Permission

I have noticed a pattern in the last few years – the teachers that get the best out of students are the ones who develop a culture of permission in their classrooms. These are the classrooms in which you can find a wide of variety of inquiries happening, the classrooms in which you will often find a purposeful mess, the classrooms in which anyone can wander without anyone batting an eyelid, the classrooms in which teachers and students are often at the same level as they learn together.

This kind of teacher says “yes” while others say “no”. This kind of teacher knows that their response to students’ inquiries is their most powerful pedagogical influence. This kind of teacher seeks ways to support, empower and connect their students to the pathways they need in order to take their inquiries further.

Of course, this culture of permission starts with teachers themselves. They must allow themselves to take risks with their students’ learning, to let things happen in the classroom that they are not used to, to risk upsetting more conventional colleagues who don’t really get it and to be strong enough to identify transformative learning as it is happening. They must also be strong and skillful in working with parents so that they too may come to understand what their children are doing and how they can play a positive role.

So… rather than saying “no” or finding some other way to close an inquiry down, try some of these phrases out on your students and see what effect it has:

“OK… give it a go”

“Alright, lets look for a way to do that”

“Hmmm… who might be able to help with that?”

“Yep, you can”

“What plans do you have for this?”

“How might you be able to find out more?”

“Yes, that is interesting… lets take a deeper look”

“Where can you get the things you need?”

“Do you want me to help you look into this further?”

“I have an idea… would you like me to share it with you?”

When teachers respond in these ways, amazing things can happen. They don’t always happen, of course… but they are far more likely. After a year in a classroom where inquiries are responded to with interest, excitement and suggestion a student is well on their way. Imagine if they got to be in those classrooms year after year.


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

This post first appeared on  I’m posting it again here – with a few extra thoughts included!

Throughout 2014, 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.

I believe strongly in the the learning power afforded to students when they have the opportunity to pursue a passion or interest – something important to them. I SEE how the engagement in learning is amplified in these moments.  The rise of digital technologies in classrooms also means it is more possible than ever before for students to follow specific, personal lines of inquiry whether they are skyping an expert, checking out an instructional youtube clip, logging on to an international newspaper article, sending out a digital survey – the possibilities are endless. I want to say up front that I don’t advocate personalised inquiry in place of shared, collaborative or even ‘teacher initiated’ inquiry. Both approaches have an important role in the inquiry classroom.

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 any strong, explicit inquiry program in place 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.  Keeping a ‘researchers notebook’ rather like an author’s notebook can be a good way for students to capture ideas for inquiries when they arise – to be returned to when the time is provided for this kind of investigation.
  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 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 or desire to clarify something 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’.  The teacher’s role is critical in helping shape the investigation so it is manageable and worthwhile.
  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 children 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…

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I Inquire …(with a Little Help from my Friends)

This post is a bit overdue but things have been happening fast around here these days.…so here it goes…This year I am teaching grade 3 for the first time. I’ve taught many grades but not grade 3. After 5 years of grade 1 it was a refreshing change.

As the year began I went through the curriculum documents and planners and had a general idea about how to deliver on the broad understandings and outcomes but of course I was left with the question about what exactly does learning look like in grade 3? I had a realisation after about a week or so that the grade 3 learners were going through the same odd, satisfying yet comfortably uncomfortable learning curve that I was. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, how hard to push them- especially in Math.

I had great support from the previous grade 3 teacher who moved to grade 4 and enormous support from our ES Principal @MaryCollins21  who helped me and mentored me (and still continues to support me in many ways). I also have an awesome assistant teacher Ms V! However, I also reached out to my learning community. A few folks that gave me ideas, resources and inspiration include @hktans @Mr_Kuran and @BruceFerrington to name a few. I am HUGE fan of Bruce’s blog by the way Authentic Inquiry Maths check it out.  I wish Bruce could have been my teacher when I went to school.


So I do I get the grade 3 learners to learn area and perimeter? Yes worksheets, got me plenty of those… but I needed some real life, real world authentic provocation. Well our campus recently underwent a bit of renovation in the primary section. So we started talking about that  at the start of the year – actually the question one student raised was ‘Hey its not fair that the grade 4 and grade 5 classrooms are so much bigger than ours’!

That was the start of an authentic inquiry into how can we PROVE that the grade 4 classroom was actually larger. So there it began and perfect timing! We talked a lot about how we can find out and why its important. We knew that we knew the grade 4 class was bigger but we wanted to prove it with data, with evidence..well that was more challenging and authentic.

So we eventually wanted to compare the size (leading to area and perimeter) and needed to know how to find each. We did a bit of estimating and then measured accurately (there were a range of engagements lasting over about 2 weeks about measuring in standard and non standard units, imperial, metric etc- this fit with our curriculum). The students didn’t really get what a square metre was so I cut one out for them so they could visualise it. We then went into the grade 4 class  and our own with this 1 sqm sheet and estimated. The we got down to measuring (after some scaffolding and practicing DSCN2557how and why need to understand the area and perimeter). I also blogged a bit about it here and here.

So in the end we proved it, we recorded it. Inquiry over right? Well I thought so until a few learners wanted to PROVE that the soccer field was bigger than the basketball court!

So here we go again..although this time they ditched the 1sqm paper and went right to work using the trundle wheel and in no time they recorded their findings  and worked out..I mean PROVED which one was bigger in area and perimeter. We spent a lot of follow-up about why one would want to know the area and why and when we would want to know the perimeter. I was pretty stoked with this authentic inquiry that came from the students.

Just in case you were wondering… most of the worksheets were put to good use by using the backs of them to plan our next maths inquiry. :)


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Reflecting on Content vs. Skills, Attitudes and Concepts

This is merely a reflection post. No fancy tools or strategies. A simple look at how we teach.

Recently, I’ve attended several workshops, which got me thinking about how we teach. One workshop I attended recently was a good example of how not to teach.

It had been a while since I had participated in such a workshop. The workshop was partially teacher-driven, in a direct instructional method. When one of the facilitators asked for questions, he would then immediately answer them. He often remarked on his surprise when we weren’t thinking like he was thinking. I hesitated to ask questions because I didn’t want a pat answer. I wanted to discuss. I didn’t want to be told what to do. I didn’t want content just forced down my throat.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 11.02.24 AM

from the IBPYP model:

Since entering the PYP system, I’ve become more and more driven by inquiry and have enjoyed learning in workshops or professional development through inquiry. I understand the workshop content, about the Exhibition or language for example, through the bigger concepts, attitudes and skills. I’m the type of learner who thrives on this, and really, aren’t we all?

Yet, I still come from a background of direct instruction and traditional school and so without knowing it, I’m still often driving at content, which is only one part of the PYP. It’s the subject area, not the approaches to learning. In another recent workshop, or really planning sessions we had with Kath Murdoch, a profound and respected inquiry-based educator, I realized I’m still too focused on the content.

I planned a great provocation four our next unit, How the World Works. Students got a chance to tune in to different stations about different forces that shape our earth. I appealed to different types of learners, from rock handling and observation to watching videos and playing with Google Earth. However, in reflection, it was all about content. What do they already know about how the earth changes? What are the initial assumptions?

Knowing where students start with their understanding of a subject is important. However, it is just as important to focus on how students approach their learning. So, we need to pre-assess where they are with their skills for the unit. Kath pointed out to us that our unit seemed to be about scientific communication, and we agreed. How well then, she asked, do we know where kids are with their scientific explanatory skills?

Hmm. A simple question but it really made us think. I don’t know. Even in the last unit, I was focused on making sure they understood the central idea: How organisms rely on each other. I wasn’t focused on the skills, attitudes and concepts as much. I was aware, but thinking back, was it really driving me and my students?

So, we’re on the right track again with this unit, thanks to some helpful advice from Kath. We’re planning a pre-assessment to see how well they can communicate their understanding about anything they know that has some scientific basis: how day becomes night, the purpose of eyelashes, what fruits and vegetables do for our bodies. We’ll brainstorm with the kids about some ideas they might be able to express and then we’ll see how well they express them at the beginning of the unit.

We’ll analyze and reflect on their scientific explanations and then continue to study examples of professionals and older students expressing their scientific understanding. We’ll focus on communication in writing, reading and in math throughout the unit. Students will zoom in on a branch of earth science related to how the earth is changing. But, they’ll keep the focus on how they communicate their understanding. How do they do it well?

It makes sense, but sometimes it takes a little nudge from someone who looks in from the outside. Our habits, our background is rooted deep within us, and we need to keep reaching out to teaching through inquiry. Teaching skills, concepts and attitudes that are so important in life: the IB approaches to learning.

How do you teach? How do you reflect on your teaching?

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Inquiry with Evernote vol 3 | Introducing the Inquiry Learning Resources Project

In the summer of 2013, I started using Evernote to collect and curate resources for planning and pursuing inquiry learning, as I blogged in the posts, Inquiry with Evernote vol 1 and Inquiry with Evernote vol 2 . Since then, my collection of notes has expanded. More importantly, the channels from which I collect these images, videos, and articles have become much more diverse and poignant. Most importantly, I am slowly refining my tagging strategies to make the collection more conceptually connected and social and environmental action oriented.

Now, I would like to introduce the Inquiry Learning Resources Project. The effort to build a digital notebook of inquiry provoking notes continues, but I have expanded the project to social media.


The project’s primary home is the public notebook, Inquiry Learning Resources. Feel free to join, search, and utilize it for your classroom or personal inquiries.


This project was inspired by a desire to organize the fascinating content I discovered on Tumblr. Resources are shared on the Inquiry Learning Resources blog and using the tag #inquirylearning. That blog accepts submissions, so if you’re on Tumblr, feel free to contribute.


I set up the account @provokinquiry to share resources on Twitter, and also using the #inquirylearning tag. Hopefully it will also be a great way to raise awareness for the project.


The public board Inquiry Learning Resources on Pinterest is also a great place to share. Please ask to join to submit pins.


Resources are also shared on an Inquiry Learning Resources Page on Facebook.

The future

My immediate goal is to get in the habit of updating regularly, although completing projects is always a challenge due to the crunch of the school year before January. Hopefully, more inquiry educators will want to collaborate to help expand the project further!

The post, Inquiry with Evernote vol 3 | Introducing the Inquiry Learning Resources Project, originally appeared on Symphony of Ideas (

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Sophisticated Inquiries in MYP Humanities

During the first unit of my Grade 10 MYP Humanities class, after a Blitzkreig through the various government systems and political ideologies, I give the students two concepts – ideology, and governance. The rest is up to them: the topic of their inquiry, the product they create to show their understanding, the assessment criteria and the due date (within parameters). Their inquiry choices always astound me.

I always have the usual bunch interested in finding out why Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews, or what life in Fascist Italy or Cultural Revolution-era China was like for its citizens. But there are always a few who go beyond the usual – inquiring into the effect of British imperialism on the world, or of liberalist ideology on modern social democracies – topics that you’d normally find in university classes. Many of my international students always make it personal, inquiring into political eras their families have told them about but never researched themselves since don’t live in their “home” country – the effects of Nazism on Czechoslovakia, the dictatorship in post-war South Korea, life under Pinochet in Chile.

I give them a choice of 18 different formats in three categories: oral, written, and visual. They need to cover one from each category; again, choice has resulted in creative outcomes. Instead of the typical oral presentation, students are creating screencasts. Instead of the typical written essay, students are creating newspapers, manifestos or fictional stories. Instead of the typical visual poster, students are creating propaganda or graphic stories.

In the end, I feel confident that I’ve turned a typical, predictable classroom (“let’s write an essay about Stalin”) into a learning environment that’s highly differentiated, engaging for all students and pushes them into a level of sophistication that I normally couldn’t plan for.

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Learning to Learn by Learning – a Reflection on a Collaborative Project

In a post a few months ago I mused on the idea of providing time for teachers to tinker and explore. My feelings were that like the students we teach, we too all have areas of interests that we never quite get a chance to unpack. I was reminded of this again recently by Edna Sackson who spoke about enlivening a professional development day by empowering the voices of the staff at her school and giving them a chance to present, rather than simply bringing in outside providers. Although I have experienced this to some degree in regards to ICT at my school, where we ran a session where various staff provided different sessions, I have never really heard of it been offered as a whole school initiative. I was therefore left wondering, why don’t more staff share and collaborate, whether online or off?

A point of collaboration that I have been involved in this year was the development of a conference presentation with Steve Brophy. As teachers we often talk about collaboration, yet either avoid doing it or never quite commit ourselves to process. Some may work with a partner teacher or as a part of a team, but how many go beyond this, stepping out of the comfort zone, and the walls of their school, to truly collaborate in the creation of a whole project?

Having spoken about the power of tools like Google Apps for Education to support and strengthen collaboration and communication, I decided that what I really needed to do to take the next step was to stop preaching and actually get out there and actually model it. I really wanted to work with someone in not only presenting a range of tools that make collaboration more possible, but I wanted to use those tools to actually collaborate and create a presentation from scratch.

The first time I met Brophy was online. The Ed Tech Crew ran a Google Hangout at the end of 2013 focusing on the question: what advice would you give a new teacher just appointed as an ICT coordinator? I put down my thoughts in a post, Steve commented and wrote a response of his own. It was these two perspectives, different in some ways, but the same in others, that brought us together.

Since then we have built up a connection online – on Twitter, in the margins of a document, within blog posts themselves, via a few emails – growing and evolving the conversation each step of the way. For example, Steve set me the 11 question blog challenge, which he had already taken the time to complete himself. We were lucky enough to meet face-to-face when we both presented at Teachmeet at the Pub in February.

What I think clicked in regards to working with Brophy was that although we teach in different sectors, coming from different backgrounds, we shared an undeniable passion – student learning and how technology can support and enhance this or as Bill Ferriter would have it, ‘make it more doable‘. We therefore decided to put forward a proposal for the Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria conference around the topic of ‘voices in education’. Interestingly, once the submissions were accepted those wishing to present were encouraged to connect and collaborate with other members in the stream, rather than work in isolation. However, we already were.

In regards to planning and collaborating, it was all pretty ad hoc. A few comments in an email, brainstorming using a Google Doc, catching up via a Google Hangout, building our presentation using OneNote (click for PDF). Most importantly though, there were compromises at each step along the way. This was not necessarily about either being right or wrong, but about fusing our ideas together. So often I feel that we plan presentations with only our own thoughts in mind. Although we may have an idea of our intended audience, nothing can really replace the human element associated with engaging with someone else in dialogue.In regards to the substance of our actual presentation, I put forward the idea of dividing it into Primary and Secondary. However, as things unfolded, this seemed counter-intuitive, for voices are not or should not be constrained by age. So after much dialogue we came upon the idea of focusing on the different forms of connections that occur when it comes to voices in and out of the classroom. We identified three different categories:

  • Students communicating and collaborating with each other
  • Students and teachers in dialogue about learning
  • Teachers connecting as a part of lifelong learners

A part of the decision for this was Brophy‘s work in regards to Digital Leaders. This focus on students having a voice of there own really needed to take some pride of place, especially as much of my thoughts had been focusing on the engagement between students and teachers.

The next point of discussion was around the actual presentation. In hindsight, I fretted so much about who would say what and when, as well as what should go in the visual presentation. This is taken for granted when you present by yourself as you say everything. However, when you work with someone else it isn’t so simple. The irony about the presentation was that so often plans are often dispersed in an effort to capture the moment.

This is exactly what happened and I feel that it worked well. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to stick to the slides, because somehow that is the way it has to be, even though that way is often a concoction in itself. The other thing to be said is that the slides also allow people to engage with the presentation in their own time, in their own way. I sometimes feel that this is a better way of thinking about them.

The best aspect about working collaboratively with someone was that by the time we presented we knew each others thoughts and ideas so well that it meant that if there was something that one of us overlooked then the other could simply jump in and ellaborate. This was best demonstrated in our shortened presentation for the Scootle Lounge, where instead of delivering a summary of what we had already done we instead decided to go with the flow. The space was relaxed with beanbags and only a few people, therefore it seemed wrong to do an overly formal presentation. Focusing on the three different situations, we instead bounced ideas off each other and those in the audience, for surely that is what voice and expression should actually be about?After growing our presentation together, the challenge we set for others was to reach out and connect, whether it is online or face to face. Contribute, collaborate and be open to new perspectives and be prepared to be inspired and grow as a learner.

So, how have you collaborated? What did you learn? What is it that holds you back? Feel free to share below.

Listening to Voices – FULL PRESENTATION – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

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