How we teach – and what we think about our teaching – matters. In fact, the quality of and approach to our teaching is regularly cited as the most influential factor in determining learners’ success (Hattie, 2003, OECD, 2005). How we teach not only influences learner achievement but also shapes the way learners think about themselves and the way they think about the nature of learning itself. (Claxton 2018, Johnston 2012).
Discussions of inquiry, often characterise the role of the educator in rather passive terms. Phrases like “guide on the side” and “student-driven” can be misinterpreted to suggest the educator’s role as arms-length and non-interventionist. The reality is that nurturing the inquiring minds of young people requires very intentional and sophisticated teaching. Far from passive, the pedagogy of inquiry requires acute alertness and a repertoire of strategies that are employed in response to ongoing observation, listening and analysis of student learning.
Inquiry-based teaching repositions the dominant role of the educator as an ‘instructor’ to one that is more complex and nuanced. Telling, demonstrating, modelling, and explaining remain elements in the inquiry educators’ repertoire, but are used far more judiciously as we continually nurture the learner’s competence and confidence to manage and drive their own learning.
The metaphor of artistry has long resonated with me as an inquiry educator. Viewing pedagogy as an art takes it beyond the mechanistic, technical, and formulaic, and recognises that teaching is a responsive act. It requires a willingness to receive as well as give, to be spontaneous as well as planned and to be always open to new ways of thinking and being in response to what we observe and hear. On the surface, equating teaching with artistry can be interpreted along more performative lines. While there is indeed an element of performance in teaching, the strength of the metaphor lies much more in its connection to experimentation, iteration, careful observation, responsiveness, and the visceral nature of the experience that we have when we are in deep flow as we work with learners.
Building on the artistic metaphor is the parallel many have made between inquiry and improvisation. Margie Carter and Anne Pelo discuss this in their stunning book “From Teaching to Thinking” (2018). They argue that just as improvisation is the opposite of scripted performance in theatre, a culture of inquiry also requires a willingness to improvise rather than follow scripted lesson plans. Like the skilled improviser in theatre, the inquiry educator understands the dance between offering and receiving and accepts that teaching and learning is a co-constructed experience. This teaching requires a ‘nimbleness of mind and alert curiosity’, non-attachment, and a willingness to let go rather than forcing a predetermined storyline or outcome. They go on to remind us that, like the best improvisers, we must be fully present and accept the silence. We must be willing to slow down, trust and allow creativity, inventiveness, and curiosity to thrive.
I would add that great improvisation is highly disciplined and sophisticated, and that to improvise well, you need to have a solid foundation in your art. This is particularly true for inquiry-based teaching and critical to supporting learners in inquiry. I can be at my most responsive, present, and creative when I have invested time to get to know my learners, know the curriculum and feel I have a strong repertoire of practices to draw from. Like the jazz musician who knows the melody intimately, I can move on new, unexpected pathways without completely losing my way.
In 2019, after many years of observing inquiry-based educators at work, I identified a set of ten pedagogical practices used regardless of subject area or age group. These include Cultivating Curiosity, Noticing, Questioning, Releasing, Keeping it Real, and Collaborating. The teaching practices are designed to position the learner as an inquirer. Embracing this pedagogy means creating expectations and routines that allow learners to become comfortable with taking risks, sharing their thinking, receiving feedback, and taking an active role in their learning. Thinking about the moves we make as teachers and considering the impact on our learners as we teach, helps us bring an inquiry stance to all we do and continually grow and refine our repertoire as active, engaged, thoughtful educators.
Adapted from. Murdoch, K. (2022) Getting Personal with Inquiry Learning, Elevate Books.
Carter, M. and Pelo, A. (2018) From Teaching to Thinking: A Pedagogy for Reimagining Our Work, Exchange Press.
Claxton, G. (2018). The learning power approach: teaching learners to teach themselves. Corwin.
Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Building Teacher Quality: What does the research tell us ACER Research Johnston, P. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Stenhouse.
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