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.


Learning with the Community


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.


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?


2016 Goal Setting

2016 Goal: to develop the learning agency of students with low self-management and low self-efficacy. 

Historical Position

  • Increasingly aware of the need to explicitly teach core skills such as the key competencies and the habits of mind. The cynic in me believes that the students that already have strong self efficacy pick up on these skills naturally when given the right environment. This is often what I get measured on because these students demonstrating these skills are often visible.
  • Self-directed units of work have become more and more frequent in my classes. Last year I pushed this to new levels in having students create and pursue their own courses in Level Three Media. A student captured what this was like in this write up.
  • 2016 is seeing my Media classes attempt a multi-level structure, which will be unit based, but with opt-in class time and opt-in assessments (with four set due dates for the whole class).
  • I want my students to have a high degree of agency, be in charge of their learning and make good choices. I believe in giving them the space to do these things, and having reflective processes in place so that we can learn from them. I have observed though that historically I don’t make significant shifts with the students with the weakest levels of self-efficacy and motivation. Two students last year only achieved 6 credits, and one achieved none in a course where they were given the power to act. In interviewing them at the end of the year I still didn’t feel they had gained much knowledge into how they learn, and therefore the approach of the course simply wasn’t valuable for them.

Action and Next Steps

  • Identify five students for a focus group to track and work with through the year. Each of these five students have low rate of participation in self-motivated tasks as observed in term one. The table below captures a snapshot of these five students. They represent a range of ethnic groups (including Pasifika and Maori) and are all boys which aligns with a our school goals of increasing achievement for these groups.


  • With these five students I’ll run an individual discussion with each of them to explain what I’m focusing on this year. I’ll then give them a formative survey to collect some data about where they see themselves in relation to some specific skills. Something I’ll repeat later in the year to measure shifts. Then I plan to run focus lunches where I’ll bring the students together to talk about agency and learning and co-construct interventions for us to follow through with.
  • Explicitly teach key competencies, self-efficacy, growth mindset, and the habits of mind. I say this often, but I don’t often talk about how. It’s on the list for a future blogpost.
  • Look into current research into motivation and ways to build agency. As a starting point, here are some gems from this post on cult of pedagogy:

What studies suggest motivates students:

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.
  5. Students are motivated to learn things that have relevance to their lives.

Six reasons for motivation deficit:

  1. The student is unmotivated because he or she cannot do the assigned work.
  2. The student is unmotivated because the ‘response effort’ needed to complete the assigned work seems too great.
  3. The student is unmotivated because classroom instruction does not engage.
  4. The student is unmotivated because he or she fails to see an adequate pay-off to doing the assigned work.
  5. The student is unmotivated because of low self-efficacy—lack of confidence that he or she can do the assigned work.
  6. The student is unmotivated because he or she lacks a positive relationship with the teacher.

Finally, this approach is connected strongly to our school’s vision (below) and placing students’ at the centre of their learning. I hope tat I will be able to understand more about low self-efficacy learners and develop more successful ways of helping them this year, and in the years to come.


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.

Leadership – Deaning – Part Two – Reflection

In a previous post I discussed a shift to becoming a more successful leader of the Year Level team in providing more incentive to perform more successfully in the guidance role. I proposed three significant next steps, and now come the end of the year, it’s appropriate to look at what shift has occurred.

  1. Motion for the Form Teacher role to be an appraised role.
  2. Adapt the business model of performance targets.
  3. Integrate reporting back into fortnightly meeting to highlight best practice and inspire collaboration.

The motion of appraising Form Teachers was not only embraced, it actually proceeded and happened. Overall, it was a huge success, but aspects to the process highlighted the need for careful planning when introducing a new procedure.

After research, the PPTA performance standards were selected as the most useful platform to create criteria around. The chart looked like this:

Professional Standard For our school this could mean ……(Performance Indicators)
Student Management
Develops and maintains an environment that enhances learning by recognizing and catering for the learning needs of a diversity of students. ·         Knowledge of learning and/or guidance profiles.·         Subject choice.

·         Goal setting.

·         Progress Conference.

·         Celebrate success in Form Time.

Manages student behavior effectively. ·         Constructive relationships with students.·         Responsive to individual student needs.

·         Investigates situations and refers to Dean or other staff where appropriate.

Has compassion when dealing with individual students’ discipline.

·         Notification and messaging on KAMAR.

Monitors use of homework diaries.

Motivation of Students
Encourages a positive engagement in learning. ·         Set and establish expectations which promote learning.·         Use data eg attendance/Asttle.

·         Notification and messaging on KAMAR.

Fosters and practices a culture of learning and achievement. Listens to student voice and supports student initiatives.
Effective Communication
Communicates effectively with students. Convenes interviews as appropriate.Approachable and supportive of students.
Reports on student achievement to students, families, whanau and caregivers. Convenes meetings as appropriate.Makes input to meetings as appropriate.

Communicates in a timely fashion.

Inter-staff communication. Good working relationship with Dean and Classroom Teachers.Contributes at Year Level Meetings.

It was pitched to the Form Teacher group at a meeting, proposing that it was a 15 minute conversation to discuss their role as a Form Teacher in 2014, reflect on the year, consider feedback from students and look to 2015. The only thing they were asked to do was potentially prepare for two RTC reflective questions (1,2) designed to bring their voice into the meeting, and integrate the meeting into the appraisal structure used elsewhere in the school. In future, these questions will be dropped. They made it feel like an interview, and it was uncomfortable because that information wasn’t used in any way, it was just an awkward two minutes.

The reaction to the process was mixed, but interesting points were made about the system:

  • At the end of the conversation every Form Teacher acknowledged that it was worthwhile.
  • One teacher reflected it was actually worthwhile because it was positive. Ultimately 90% of the feedback was positive, 7% was reflective questions for further thought, 3% addressed concerns. I was a bit annoyed with this comment though, because part of the effect of creating the system was it opened the door to providing opportunities to address negatives or performance issues. The comment was refractive, rather than reflective. If I was in their seat (as I was a week later with my own Dean’s Appraisal) I would be looking for – not necessarily negatives – but certainly next steps.
  • The word appraisal caused an enormous stir in the staffroom. There was significant negativity around the idea. It was generally found to be overstepping the mark of what the appraisal process was and not appropriate. In response, it was certainly wrong to use the word appraisal – that has confrontational connotations and an evaluative stigma. In retrospect a better title would have been “Form Teacher Debrief”.
  • A lot of people suggested it was at the wrong time and it wasn’t appropriate timing. I reject this entirely. The end of the year is the perfect time to have these conversations. It took me about 6 hours to prepare for them, but that is time well spent. The Form Teacher only has to appear for the 15 minute meeting.
  • The student voice I gathered was spectacular. Another reminder of how insightful and on to it students are when you provide them with the right opportunities and forums to contribute reflectively.

At the end of the day a recommendation will go through to the other Dean’s to run the same system. Hopefully this pushes us closer to the point where we will embrace Form Teacher time as contact hours. This is the ultimate goal of the agenda I’m pushing.

Follow up reading: George Couros – The Principles of Change: One Step at a Time.

My suggestion for people wanting to change what they do?  Focus on one thing at a time.  Look at something you currently do, and ask how you could do that better, and improve learning opportunities for kids.  Once you have seen success, move onto another thing.