The Power of Inquiry – Kath Murdoch

poibookI spent some time thinking about why ‘The Power of Inquiry‘ had made such a difference for my thinking above all the other literature I’ve engaged with dealing with inquiry. From about halfway through the book it became really clear that the point of difference was how holistic Kath Murdoch‘s ideas were around inquiry. Teaching through inquiry wasn’t about just about a process – it’s about a inquiry mindset that drives everything that we do; it’s a “way of being” (180). While this book appears to be more targeted at primary education, it was the idea of the inquiry mindset that I really latched onto and strongly feel is worth engaging with regardless of your sector.

The ideas in the book are really captured by the chapter headings, as titled below. For the purposes of this blogpost I’ve recorded something that each chapter triggered for me as a way of taking these ideas further in my practice.

Creating the Space: How can we design learning environments for inquiry?

I was struck by how this chapter didn’t just consider the physical environment, but also the emotional environment. I would argue these exist concurrently; design physical spaces for positive relationships. To me this means inclusive classroom spaces designed for diverse learners. The ideas of Universal Design for Learning sit nicely alongside this chapter.

Beyond Topics: What is Worth Inquiring Into?

Murdoch consider catalysts and contexts for inquiry, but also emphasises the big picture. The Newlands College vision contains the destination for our students. Any inquiry question posed can be evaluated by asking “how does this fit into the big picture?” (50). So for our Newlands College akonga we should be asking “how does your inquiry fit into our vision?”

Inviting Uncertainty: How can we grow a culture of questioning and curiosity?

The power of the question “what is this making you wonder?” really struck me (58). It’s a question that promote metacognition and allows thinking to be externalised. The process of learning becomes uncovered and questioning may indeed begin to flow. Other parts of the chapter recalled John Loughran’s ideas around questioning in What Expert Teachers Do (2010).

Finding our Way: What role can frameworks and models play in scaffolding inquiry learning?

The balance between formula and freedom was embraced here: “The challenge then is to acknowledge the way we can scaffold our planning and teaching by referring to a process without becoming overly prescriptive” (77). Essentially, I feel one needs to just get over yourself and let go. But also the notion of one lesson inquiries – deepening our understanding of the inquiry process through modeling it in one off lessons.

Assets for Life: How can inquiry nurture skills and dispositions for lifelong learning?

Drawing on Claxton’s learning power, Dweck’s work on growth mindset and Costa’s habits of mind, Murdoch makes a compelling case in this chapter for the way inquiry can prepare a student with toolkit for learning. The takeaway here is the importance of identifying the links to the skills and underlying dispositions that add value to the learning. In the Newlands College context, I believe this sounds like using the words of the vision actively to describe the learning taking place.

To each their own: why make it personal?

The idea that shone in this chapter was the power of letting go balanced with the challenge of letting go. Murdoch spoke about “holding the space” – giving the learning environment enough structure so that students can still find their way even if they find self-management difficult (124).

Staying Accountable: What does assessment look like in the inquiry classroom?

I felt like this quote summed up the entire book really:

Teacher who use inquiry-based methodologies have a firm belief in the transformative power of ownership. When students feel they are the ones ‘doing the learning’ rather than the teacher ‘doing the learning to them’ they are undoubtedly more engaged, and with engagement comes increase potential for learning (147).

Together is Better: How Can We Grow an Inquiry School?

Underlined the importance to me of not just having a vision, but having a deep and shared understanding of what that vision is. The shared aspect of that statement speaks to Murdoch’s section in this chapter on collaborative cultures which have been shown to increase student achievement (171).


Murdoch, K (2016) The Power of Inquiry. Seastar Education, Australia.

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Learning with the Community

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poibookThe photo above was taken on the school’s first ever Community Hour where members of the community were invited in to tell their stories and respond to student questions. It was organised by our Deputy Principal, Deb King, as part of launching our 2017 programme of Active Learning – weekly inquiry based learning time free from the constraints of curriculum and assessment.

The community was incredible at taking up this opportunity. Politicians, City Council, our feeders schools, police, fire department, the SPCA, InsideOUT, Newlands Community Centre, lawyers and a funeral director all came to speak to various groups of students un-conference style. The concept for the day came from the principles of curiosity found in Kath Murdoch’s book (pictured) which emphasises the power of inquiry and student questioning. The structure was supported by Sugata Mitra’s mantra of “learning at the edge of chaos” with the hour appearing unstructured and the school being alive with uncontrolled opportunities.

The group I sat with was talking to John Robinson from Challenge 2000. What struck me was the level of questioning that the students delved into – really interrogating John in terms of social justice. They really challenged the ideas being presented and the depth of their inquiries impressed me. Is this the result of giving the students free reign to respond authentically? What was also interesting was how little they listened to each other. It’s a small sample size, but the room’s questioning was erratic. Instead of building on from each other and asking questions along a consistent line, it really was pot luck as to where the next question would target. It’s a new part of teaching questioning I hadn’t thought about. The subject is important, but the room is equally so.

eFellows17 – Hui #1

wp-1485562570118.jpgThe CORE Education Dr Vince Ham eFellowship programme kicked off last week with the first hui of 2017. I’m privileged to be one of seven teachers on this year long journey that will see us challenged and inspired as we all take on individual inquiries that will be presented at uLearn17.

My intent with my eFellow17 hui blogposts is to briefly capture the discussion and learning with three ideas and three questions. I blog in order to reflect; by thinking back through the hui and synthesizing the discussion I hope to think more deeply about my learning. My aim is to share ideas that fit with the purpose of the fellowship: “to inspire transformational practice“.

Three Ideas

  1. Derek Wenmoth introduced the inquiry mindset and the key questions challenging education at the moment.
    • What do we see the role of technology in learning?
    • If education is all about interpreting knowledge – knowledge based system – who owns the knowledge?

The impact of these key questions was captured by the slide below, where he argued that realising the potential of 21st Century learning  can only occur when technology is used to transform learning and knowledge is owned by the collective.

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2.  Alex Hotere-Barnes introduced ideas regarding Kaupapa Māori Research, and what he’s learnt being Pākehā and engaging in this area result. He referenced the work of critical Māori scholars Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Graham Smith and Ani Mikaere who all foreground the cultural and political dimensions of kaupapa Māori thinking and action.  A key point was the importance of challenging “deficit theories” in research that position Māori as “objects” of research; as opposed to being the designers and doers of Māori research. I took from this that there are a lot of cultural considerations to think about when approaching research from a Māori perspective; but fundamentally one needs to be open to communication and collaboration – it’s all about relationships.

3.  Keryn Davis introduced Cowie and Carr’s concept of the consequences of assessment – that all assessment makes a difference to competence (how does the assessment impact the abilities and skills of the learner?), continuity (what does this assessment connect to?) and community (how does assessment build community?)

Three Questions

  1. Derek’s question of “What do we see the role of technology in learning?” has been answered in a way by one of the leading players in NZ education, NZQA. The commitment to using digital formats for assessment has shaped a lot of the conversation in the last two years on this matter. However, as Derek pointed out, at this stage they substituting: taking a paper exam and putting it online. If we were to transform external assessment, what might that look like?
  2. In Alex’s presentation, he gifted us an expression: “Pākehā paralysis”, which is based on the work sociologist Martin Tolich. It occurs when pakeha become immobilised by the challenge of interacting in culturally appropriate ways.  This is a barrier that gets in the way of Maori success in the NZ school system. A question going forward is how best to overcome this feeling? What strategies do we need to employ? This EDtalk expands on that brief definition and has several ideas.

3. And finally, a question that is launching my inquiry this year: how might teachers collaborate to create safer spaces for students of minority sexualities and genders?

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Authentic Learning in the Digital Age – Larissa Pahomov – Part Two

In my previous post on this book, I looked at  Larissa Pahomov’s take on creating an authentic learning environment using the perks of the digital age. She took on teaching research and collaboration, and then looked at presentation. She continues…

Chapter seven focuses on Making Reflection Relevant.

The key question that opens the chapter is: “If you were to do this project again, what would you change or do differently?” Of course, rarely in the culture of NCEA do we take the time to reflect adequately on a completed task before moving onto the next assessment. However, this is valuable and Pahomov argues that for meaningful reflection to occur it must be “metacognitive, applicable and shared”. I found the challenge that reflection needed to be shared the most confronting. I think I have been guilty of seeing reflection as being tunneled into an independent process, because that is what it needs to be in order to be honest. However, often we aren’t honest with ourselves, so it makes sense that reflection is brought out into the open to be navigated in a space where help is available. The challenge here is to a create a culture of infinite improvement and where “the classroom can become a place of collective support” (113).

The framework for Student Reflection (114):

  • Put reflection first
  • De-emphasize grades
  • Integrate student and teacher reflection
  • Let reflection accumulate

Chapter eight focuses on Embracing the Culture: Schoolwide Practices. This is a discussion of how the model of SLA can actually be made to work and what practices and policies are in place to make the kind of teaching and learning possible.

  • Common Language – this has been evident in my experience when the school adopted SOLO and students’ built an understanding of a common language because it was being used in all their classrooms. How powerful would it be if our values, and key competencies were more prevalent in our language rather than the back end of the curriculum which so often gets put first? The benefits here are that the language encourages learning, not assessment, it helps to empower students, and teachers support one another because everyone is reinforcing the same thing.
  • Open Doors – through using shared planning procedures, the opportunity to access everyone for conversations (no one expert) and frequent classroom visitors. They also have a peer tutoring arrangements which I found quite interesting. Academic credit is incorporated into this service and it builds role modelling and enriches the learning environment.
  • Outside Partnerships – real world learning is embraced through getting students out into authentic environments to extend their learning. Again a shift away from the teacher as the expert.
  • Advisory – a central teacher figure (sounds very similar to what ‘Form Time’ or ‘mentoring’ is trying to be as it seems to be in the NZ context). It is essential the relationship between the teacher and the students are strong in this context, and the continuity here is obviously also key.

I’ve taken a huge amount away from this book and consider it one of the best professional reading I’ve done in a long time. I’ll be recommending it whenever I can and sharing the love!

Authentic Learning in the Digital Age – Larissa Pahomov – Part One

Pahomov’s book begins by quoting John Dewey:

’Knowledge’, in the sense of information, means the working capital, the indispensable resources, of further inquiry; of finding out, or learning, more thing

…and uses his idea as a backbone to establishing a familiar shift that is occurring in education and begins to build a framework for implementing “personalized, inquiry-based education in a typical secondary classroom” (2).

The transformative effects of technology

  • Shifting the emphasis from content to skills
  • Allowing for constant engagement
  • Democratising Learning
  • Connecting to ‘the real world’
  • Simplifying the back-end of work

Characteristics of authentic inquiry-based instruction:

  • Choice
  • Personalization
  • Relevance
  • Empowerment
  • Care

Chapter Three deals with the facilitation of research. Two shifts I am attempting to make in response to this reading is to make another attempt to more authentically teach research methods. I was amazed at the tools that are out there now since the last time I sought help in this area. In particular, these lesson plans have me very excited. Secondly, my current approach in my Year 13 class seems to offer too much space for research.  Pahomov suggests ‘inquiry prompts’ which are well constructed questions encouraging critical thinking and deep research. Following this lead may offer more substance in class.

Chapter Four deals with collaboration. Pahomov cites three qualities of successful collaboration, “it must be documented, asynchronous, and classroom-based” (64). One of the thoughts shared in this section was the idea of “anchor documents” – a useful term to refer to documents that outline the requirements for a project of task. Teacher Dashboard makes this easy, but the term I think might be useful for differentiating between documents.

In this chapter on collaboration, Pahomov  talks about the idea of group contracts. While the example she gives goes too far for my context (but I could see the benefit of heading in this direction) the ideas here are very exciting for my Drama class and Media Classes. She suggests a group contract. She gives a exemplar and I really like the power it gives students and allows them to police themselves. The idea of having a firing process is also excellent – exciting for students, but ultimately designed so that it addresses and resolves group dynamic issues. I’m planning on taking this to the next level!

Subsequent chapters on Perfecting Presentation, Making Reflection Relevant and Embracing the Culture will be addressed in a future post. This book is loads brilliant. 

Core Values of Authentic Learning

The five core values of teaching and learning as per the text ‘Authentic Learning in the Digital Age’ by Larissa Pahomov:

  • Inquiry – “students need to ask their own questions” (10)
  • Research – “what matters is no longer how much you already know, but how well you can find out what you need to know” (10)
  • Collaboration – “collaboration is the cornerstone of the work life of adults” (11)
  • Presentation – “knowing how to present themselves and their work appropriately and effectively is essential” (11)
  • Reflection – “reflection…helps ensure that students (and teachers) improve with each cycle of learning” (11)

I’ve taken this framework and decided to use it as a start of year activity. These values underpin my process as a teacher and therefore it’s essential that the students understand why I am doing what I am doing. This is the major shift in my practice that I want to achieve this year. I want to ensure that I am effectively communicating with students the thinking behind my teaching and their learning. I’m going to propose these values and let the students explore them and find out what they mean to them.  Some agreed class definitions would be appropriate for building a shared vision of the teaching and learning for the year.

Introduction to Self-Study

An evolution of the Professional Reading group has been proposed and it has got me really thinking. The evolution is a Self Study group – a collection of teachers that would undertake a self study across the year, meeting monthly as we explore our inquiries.

Self Study, according to Anastasia P. Samaras and Anne R. Freese who wrote in ‘Self-Study of Teaching Practices Primer’ the characteristics of Self-Study:

  1. self-study is situated inquiry;
  2. self-study is process;
  3. self-study is knowledge;
  4. self-study is multiple;
  5. self-study is paradoxical.

It is not just about sitting by yourself and reflecting, it’s about working within a framework of literature, critical friendships, internal and external reflection.

Samaras wrote another book called ‘Self-Study Teacher Research Improving Your Practice Through Collaborative Inquiry‘ and defines self-study as (the brackets are my thoughts):

  1. Personal situated inquiry (it has to be of interest, something that matters to ‘self’)
  2. Critical collaborative inquiry (critical friends are better than friendly critique – “How did it go?…How do you know?” – honest feedback and reflection)
  3. Improved learning (focus on outcome, learning about yourself)
  4. A transparent and systematic research process (necessity of openness to outside views, questions, critique)
  5. Knowledge generation and presentation (questions around how to present the information and what audience we are targeting and is accessible ethically).

I believe self-study to be a personal, systematic inquiry situated within one’s own teaching context that requires critical and collaborative reflection in order to generate knowledge, as well as inform the broader educational field

The process of self-study opens us up to questions and feedback. How to elicit that feedback can be done through student voice. Meetings with students and critical friends interviewing students is interesting. Some feedback about this, how to get this feedback out was discussed and these ideas were shared:

  • Start with generic questions – what was your favourite topic? Warm them up before hitting the nail. Settling in questions.
  • What could I have done differently? What could the teacher be doing to improve your learning?
  • Use “why” and open question to find more specific detail.
  • What have I done in the classroom to make the biggest difference out of school? What advice would you have for next year’s class?

Where to from here?

  • Looking at the Self-Study guidepost and framework to determine next steps.
  • Meet further with the group and determine a research question.
  • Interested in applying the self-study framework to the potential high achieving boys in mentoring, the student centred 3MED course next year or some of the basics around my Drama teaching.