Is this a habitat in which inquiry can thrive? Questions and warning bells for the inquiry classroom

I posted this on my blog a few weeks ago and have had some lively conversations and reflections as a result.  Posting here in the hope that it may spark similar conversations amongst inquiry teachers…

I was reading an interesting post from @langwitches in which she refers to @brholland’s slideshow from a recent ASCD conference. In true domino style, Beth’s post got Sylvia thinking and blogging and Sylivia’s post got me thinking and blogging! The issue being explored by these two educators was around what we are ‘looking for’ when we walk into a learning space/classroom. Beth raised a number of key questions that we can ask to help reflect more closely on the effective use of technologies. The post and slideshow are great…as is Sylvia’s sketched response to it.  You can find them here:

As readers of this blog know, I pretty much obsess over all things inquiry. So of course, this got me thinking about the questions that roll around in my head when I enter a classroom. Most of the time, I am looking through an inquiry lens … looking for connections between what I see (and hear) going on and inquiry learning/ teaching.   I am lucky. I get to walk into many, many different classrooms in many different places and I am often intrigued by the things that signal ‘inquiry’ to me and, equally, by the things that, well…don’t.  So I am wondering: what questions do I ask?

Below are some that come to mind. Brainstorming this list has been a useful exercise in considering what might count as ‘evidence’ of inquiry – albeit in a ‘snapshot’ visit to a classroom. Obviously, one needs to spend more than a lesson in a classroom to really get a feel for the kind of learning habitat it creates BUT, Here’s my list anyway…I would love you to add to it!

  • Are (thoughtful, connected) questions being asked by students?
  • Are students’ questions visible and valued in the learning space?
  • Are students ‘doing the learning’ rather than having the learning ‘done to them’?
  • Are students doing the cognitive ‘heavy lifting’ or is the teacher doing all the hard thinking work?!
  • Are students collaborating – teaching and learning with each other?
  •  Is there movement? Are students free to move around the learning space? Is there flexibility and fluidity here?
  • Is the teacher moving around, interacting, observing (as opposed to standing and delivering)
  •  Is technology being used as a means to an end – to gather, sort and share learning?
  •  Can I see how this learning moment is part of a ‘bigger picture’ as opposed to being a fragmented/one-off activity?
  •  Do the students know why they are doing what they are doing? Is the teacher transparent in her/his discourse?
  • Is there a sense of curiosity/wonder/intrigue/anticipation?
  • Is the communication between the people in the space (teachers and learners alike) respectful and warm?
  •  Are the teachers excited/curious/engaged/energized?
  •  Is there some laughter? (the good kind)
  •  Does the physical/visual environment tell me something about the learning in this space? Can I connect with a narrative of inquiry? Are students using the visual environment to support them as independent learners?
  • Can the students talk with me about their learning? Can they articulate not just what they are doing and why but HOW they are learning and why?
  • Does this space make ME curious/engaged/intrigued? Does it invite me to want to learn, to be here, to participate, to investigate?

And, while I am at it, I also got to thinking about the things that act as ‘warning bells’ …. Perhaps a sign that a classroom might not be the best habitat for inquiry learning. It can concern me when I see/hear…

  • Each child doing the same thing, the same way at the same time.
  • Total, sustained silence.
  • A noise level that makes it difficult for me to have a one-one conversation with a student
  • Teachers doing much more talking than students
  • Learning products on display (art work, worksheets, etc) that ALL LOOK MORE OR LESS EXACTLY THE SAME (yep – it still happens)
  • Tables in rows
  • NO space for students to gather in a circle/group (no ‘campfire’ gathering space)
  • No spaces that allow students to retreat and be in their ‘own’ space
  • The teacher at the desk.
  • A teacher’s desk.
  • Mess. Just plain old, can’t–be-bothered mess. Not the glorious creative chaos that comes with many inquiry experiences but just mess. Sorry…but inquiry requires organization, management a respect for the learning environment. Beauty, even. And yes. I have a thing about that.
  • The interactive whiteboard being used as a chalkboard with buttons.
  • No evidence of any use of digital technologies.
  • Worksheets.
  • Bright, beautiful, laminated things on walls but NO artifacts that share students’ learning
  • Lots of commercially produced posters (even if they say good things, if that’s all that’s on the walls it makes me suspicious)
  • No evidence of what the students are inquiring into. The classroom should tell that story in some way.
  • Kids checking in with the teacher about everything…’Can I? Is it OK if? What do I do now? I don’t get how to…’
  • Kids that can’t tell me why they are doing what they are doing
  • Teachers raising their voice. A lot.

What questions would you add to those we might ask ourselves/others when looking at classrooms through an inquiry lens?   And what are your warning bells?

 ….just wondering….

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6 Responses to Is this a habitat in which inquiry can thrive? Questions and warning bells for the inquiry classroom

  1. Lyndsay Cliffe says:

    Sent from my Samsung GALAXY S5 on the Telstra mobile network


  2. Lyndsay Cliffe says:

    Sent from my Samsung GALAXY S5 on the Telstra mobile network


  3. Love this post! I will be sharing with colleagues! Thanks for pushing our thinking.


  4. kathmurdoch says:

    Thanks Louise!


  5. Pingback: Leading Innovation for Systemic Change | Working at the edge

  6. Sandi says:

    I shared this with staff at the start of our school year. What I found particularly useful was the second section that tells what it isn’t and sometimes that is clearer! A great resource and I intend to have staff reflect again in the time before our PYP evaluation visit.


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