Inquiry-based Start-of-School Meetings (that people actually love)

‘Walk the talk’ of inquiry with the following staff meeting ‘winners.’ Each experience is designed to reconnect staff, build reflection and questioning skills, and set everyone up with a support network for the year. They can be adapted with a little ingenuity for classrooms of all ages and subjects - and used on a regular basis (just switch out the prompts or add a twist). For more exercises, check out all 50 of them in our new book Experience Inquiry. Please let us know how it goes in the Comments section below. Enjoy and have a great year everyone. You got this!

I. Create Peer Support Systems: Five-Finger Letters

Try this simple and powerful team-building activity to get your staff actually hugging and smiling before they walk out the door and into their classrooms to prepare for the year.


• Ask everyone to trace their hand onto a blank piece of paper.

• Their name goes into the palm of their hand and then each finger has a prompt for them to answer onto each finger. Let them know in advance that others will be reading what they wrote.

• Have them fold in half and then collect them. Shuffle them up, fan them out like a deck of cards and then have each person choose another’s paper. I like to say “the paper chooses you,” like a tarot reading.


The person they choose will be their ‘buddy’; someone they check in on and support throughout the school year. Using the the clues from the five fingers, they then write their buddy a personalized letter (I give them about 15 minutes). In these support letters, teachers can share what they have in common and how they might be able to support improvement efforts. The most important part of the support letter is to send words of encouragement for the year ahead.

• Then, when the letters have been written; the great reveal! This is my favorite part and it never ceases to amaze me how much adults really love doing this. Ask teachers to hand-deliver their support letters to their ‘buddy’ and offer them with a hug or high five (that physical contact is key, so don’t skip this step). Teachers keep their ‘buddy’s’ hand so that throughout the school year they can refer back to what makes their buddy happy and surprise them with small gifts and notes (you can have one of the finger prompt a response on something that makes them happy, for example).

II. Build Empathy and Deep Listening Skills: Back-to-Back Listening

This powerful exercise comes from my brilliant colleague, Maggie Chumbley (thank you, Maggie)! I like to use a short piece of music, however, you can also opt for a piece of writing, a poem, or an image.

• Ask everyone to find a partner (ideally someone they don’t know well) and stand back-to-back, shoulders touching.

• Play a short piece of music and ask everyone to close their eyes (or look down) and as they listen. Ask that they observe the sensations, images, colors, emotions that come up for them . Some of my favorites tunes include: La Valse de Amelie, La Llorona (Coco), Papaoutai (Stromae).

• After the music ends, partners turn around and take turns sharing their personal experience listening to the music. Comments range from: “I pictured horses running through fields until that one part of the music that changed them into multi-colored carousel horses…”, ”I counted a 2/4 beat…”, or “Hearing the crash cymbal reminded me of playing air guitar in my basement…” Encourage each person to share for at least two minutes. This means that the other person may need to use questions to draw out more information, like “Tell me how you felt.” or “What happened next?” or “What did you see as you listened?”

• Partners go back-to-back again and listen to the same piece of music from the other person’s perspective. Debrief the experience as a group and ask how teachers might adapt this for their classrooms.

Photo credit: Edutopia (Summit Prep)

Photo credit: Edutopia (Summit Prep)

III. To Strengthen Relationships: Who Were Your Teachers?

Take a trip down memory road. Ask everyone to recall the teachers in their own life…yes, all of them. This takes people about 10-15 minutes (unless they were homeschooled, in which case they can take a coffee break). If they cannot remember a name, suggest they write down whatever they remember about that person or year. After 15 minutes, ask them to stop (the blank spaces say as much as the ones that are filled).

You can do many creative things at this point: ask them to circle the teacher who had the greatest impact on their life so far (positive and negative). Invite them to write a letter to that teacher. Ask what was it about that person that made them so memorable. What might your own students remember about you in X years?

Click here for a template.

IV. To Push Thinking and Challenge Assumptions: Provocative Statements Continuum

Come up with 5-7 statements that are provocative (i.e. they may seem reasonable at first but when interrogated further tend to bring up a host of questions and other perspectives). Ask teachers to indicate their level of agreement / disagreement with each (on a continuum of 1-10) and then arrange everyone in small groups to discuss (Which statement do you most / least agree with? Which statements had the greatest / least consensus in your group? After listening to others, did you change your mind?)

Below are a few examples to get the juices flowing. Click here for a template.

• Some cultures are better than others.

• Standardized tests should be abolished.

• Some people are naturally better at math.

• You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

V. To Develop Question-Asking Skills: Question Formulation Technique

This practice comes from The Right Question Institute. It’s a simple exercise to generate as many questions as possible while observing an image or text. After amassing a list of questions, you can do all sorts of things like ask people to label them as Closed (convergent) or Open (divergent), change Closed to Open and vv, or indicate the questions they are most authentically curious about. I usually pair people up for the generating part (putting a full 10 minutes on the clock), then bring people together in larger groups to share. For step-by-step instructions (and rules), please go straight to the source. Below is a photo I love using with teachers:

How many questions can you generate from this photo in 10 minutes?

How many questions can you generate from this photo in 10 minutes?

Letting go


Much has been written about how teachers and parents tend to loosen up or let go in these final weeks for the school year.

My favorite musings on this topic come from Jen Hatmaker, a mom who unabashedly titles her late-May post as: “The Worst End-of-School-Year-Mom Ever".

Learning never ends. But school certainly does. Rituals and ceremonies reinforce this unfortunate logic. School (learning) ends. Summer (play) begins.

I like to try to shift this logic by playing in school as much as possible. How can we demonstrate and model that learning in its highest, most productive form, actually is play…and never stops.?

Education consultant Elena Aguilar suggests allowing students to dive into a project of interest. I think Aguilar has the right idea. How can we offer students time & space to explore their own curiosities, passions, and interests as they head into summer? How can we truly ‘let them go’?

1) Start with brainstorming questions

Go outside and sit with a journal. Look around and make a list of all the questions that come to your mind in 15 minutes. No editing allowed! Let it flow.

Question Focus (QFT). Show an image or a phrase (What I really want to know is… or If I had an entire weekend alone with no one telling me what to do, I would…) and let them write questions / ideas based on this prompt (again, 15 minutes is usually enough time).

Spend 15 minutes on The Wonderment site. Is there a project that calls to you?

2) Offer structures for narrowing down questions

Help students narrow down their lists (have them work in teams or with partners on this step). Encourage them to then list all the sub-questions that come from the original question. Perhaps you share ways of designing the project or have them post their project questions around the room so everyone can get a sense of what people are up to.

4) Let them go!

This is arguably the most challenging part: not micromanaging the process. Are you OK with the letting go of a specific product so that students are truly free to explore…and keep exploring? Can you allow some students to ‘goof off’ for an hour a day? What might happen if we let go of an expected end result?

But, what if…

…students just use this time to do homework?

…students aimlessly wander about and never land on something exciting to them?

…students spend the entire time on the monkey bars / a single website / drawing / reading the same genre, etc.?

…students play games the whole time?

Well then, it would seem they are acting like every adult I know!

Talk about it. Reflect together on what’s happening (meta-cognitively). How do people balance responsibilities and interests? Is there a ‘right’ balance to achieve? How do we cultivate interests over time? What does it mean if we just can’t find something interesting…or are over-interested in just one thing? Do we work better in teams or alone when pursuing certain interests? What is the role of motivation?

If you do decide to take a risk at the end of this school year and offer students time (I like the 20% rule) to just explore something of interest, be sure to continually reflect about what they are learning. Their learning will be expressed through the reflection (and, if you’re a bit of a control freak like me, will help provide some loose outcomes for the time).

We hope you have an exciting, play-filled end of the school year. Stay in touch and let us know how ‘letting go’ goes for you! Also, don’t forget to join us for our final Twitter chat. We will be practicing the Question Formulation Technique together. Details below!


Extend Thinking Time


How do we create environments for wonder and inquiry to flourish?

“I always know who the teachers are,” quips my friend. Curious, I lean in to hear more. “It’s not how they look or what they say,” she continues. “It’s how they walk. It’s fast, even on vacation!”

Schools (and teachers, generally) are set on high speed. This doesn’t just apply to stride, but also to speech, hand movements, decision-making, reaction-time, and heart rates. No wonder we have an ever-growing industry in education devoted to lowering stress levels through mindfulness, meditation, and yoga.

Here’s the thing: deep inquiry is really hard to do in a rush. It’s a challenge to be curious when you’re stressed, afraid, or distracted (unless that curiosity leads you to feeling less stressed). I find myself frequently needing to recalibrate my speed. The energy of my students combined with time constraints and my lesson plan create a “perfect storm.” If I’m not careful, I become manic. I forget things, speed through instructions, overlook students, and forget that…






We’re not all like this, of course. Much of our speed is nurtured by culture, personality, and upbringing. My husband, Tim, for example, teaches middle school PE. This is arguably one of the most potentially frenetic teaching environments around. But Tim is the most chill person I’ve ever met, even at work.

His calm disposition pays dividends, too. There is something different about his energy, and they crave it. When he speaks, students really listen. There is a level of trust implicit in a lower speed. A slower speed communicates beliefs like: “I don’t need to micromanage you,” “I will take my time and I know you can handle it,” “I’ll make space for you and your questions,” and “taking our time is important.”

Schools, as they currently operate, may be the worst possible environments for developing critical thinking, problem solving, creativity skills (for students and teachers). But schools are human-made. And, as humans, we can change them!

We all bring an energy, or ‘speed,’ into our work with us. How might you describe your speed? What contributes to this? How does your speed support or hinder student inquiry? How can you change your speed?

Like most inquiry moves, extending thinking time is all about balance and harmony. There’s something to be said for speeding up and slowing down. When we’re on supersonic speed 100% of the time, however, it can backfire on learning.

Below are several micro- and macro-level ideas for you to consider as you extend thinking time for you and your students. Let us know which ones work and add others that you’ve tried in the Comments section below.

Micro-level Adjustments 

Rate of Speech (“Talk Speed”)

Are you fast talker? Do you slow your speech at critical moments to keep students engaged? Are your students able to follow your speech, especially ELL students? Do students ask you to repeat things, or have they given up and now just tune you out like white noise? Do you pause to allow students a few more seconds to absorb information, make sense of it, and/or construct new ideas, before moving on? Check out these resources to calibrate your speed!

Teach Teachers How to Create Magic

In Professor Chris Emdin’s brilliant 7-minute talk, he shares ways to engage audiences (students) and ‘create magic’ by adjusting voice, tone, and gestures.

John Hattie’s Visible Classroom

How can we measure things like talk time, wait time, and even talk speed? Hattie and his team at the University of Melbourne offer an app that allows you to record a class lesson and get feedback on these very questions.

Wait time

Questions are the heartbeat of inquiry classrooms. How much time do you wait between asking a question and soliciting an answer? Do you call on the first hand up or can you wait until most hands are up? Are you OK with a little silence? Check out these resources to help remind you to wait a bit longer.

Teach Like a Champion

This one-minute video beautifully drives home the importance of waiting just a couple more seconds than we normally do (3-5 second being optimal; .7 being typical).

Wait Time Tally (Download the Wait Time Tally PDF on the Inquiry Partners website)

Not sure what your wait time is? Curious about who you tend to call on (i.e. first hand up)? Invite a colleague in (or ask a student) to track it for you using a stopwatch or smartphone. Then, average out the number of seconds you typically wait.

Rate of Movement

What are your gestures like? Are you dancing the Hula or blitzing through the Charleston? Do you speed-walk through the hallways and around the classroom? Are you speed-walking through your life? What do your gestures and movements communicate to students? How about parents? Are you making time for yourself? Are you breathing? As funny as that last question might sound, hyperventilating students and teachers are more common that you might think. Here are a couple exercises to help you inhale and exhale.

Take 5 Breathing

A simple exercise for students to focus on their breathing, using their hand to track their inhales and exhales.

Mr. Rogers

Revisit Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. This guy has the optimal rate-of-movement thing down pat. He’s not annoyingly slow, but methodical, intentional, calm, happy, and un-rushed. He takes time to change into a sweater and sneakers. He addresses the camera with questions…and pauses. It’s actually relaxing watching his show.

Macro-level Adjustments


Kath Murdoch in her TEDx talk “The Power of Ummm…” describes her car as a “wonder bubble” for her two children. It was a place in which inquiry thrived. It provided a time for pause and reflection. She says it was “a chance for us to pick up loose threads…to let big ideas come in.” How can we create these kinds of environments in our classrooms?

The Walking Classroom

Similar to car rides, walk & talks provide students (and teachers) with new environments and the chance to be in the company of others without having to make eye contact. This is a powerful routine, especially for ELL and students who are feeling marginalized or shy.

Choice Stations

Setting aside areas of the classroom for choice activities is a feature we expect to see in pre-school and lower elementary grades. What about middle and high school classrooms? It’s time to reconsider!


The school year and day may be out of your immediate control, but how can you reorganize class time to breathe in more reflection opportunities in the time you do control?

Spiral Journaling

Artist, Lynda Barry, offers this unique way of centering students of all ages on the power of reflective writing. I use this with my undergraduate students several times a quarter to unleash and generate new ideas before writing a paper.


There is no shortage of advice for helping students extend thinking time through creative mindfulness techniques. My personal favorite though is #12: Spidey Senses (great for all ages).

Your turn! How do you extend thinking time for yourself, your students, and your colleagues? Share in the Comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


Encourage Evidence

Imagine you ask a group of young students to illustrate how our solar system works using their bodies. As you maneuver around the room, you notice students acting as planets, stationed at different spots, rotating themselves at different speeds, all in a circle. Students are clearly pleased with their interpretation. You walk up to the student standing in the center of the action and say, “Ah…and you must be the sun!” “No,” you hear. “I’m the Earth!”


Now what?!

Before we explore this scenario further, let’s dig into a move we call “Encouraging Evidence.” Sure, inquiry classrooms are bursting with student questions, but that doesn’t mean that answers are off the table. Building a strong knowledge-base of information is important, too. When we encourage evidence, we ask students to be aware and careful consumers of information. We don’t always need to do this for them. They have access to information! So, in an inquiry classroom, instead of immediately correcting or judging, we can ask the students to reflect on their information, using questions like:

“How do you know that?”
“Where did you find that information?”
“How do you know that information is accurate?”

Ok, back to the planets.

There are dozens of possible responses to this scenario [By the way, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments below]. What is certain is that a major misconception about the solar system needs to be addressed.

The default reaction would be to immediately stop the action and tell students that the sun is actually the center of the solar system, not the Earth. This is certainly an efficient way to correct the misconception; but is it the most effective way?

An immediate teacher correction does work in some cases, but let’s think about what cognitive scientists at Neuroleadership Institute have say about integrating and retaining new concepts and information as applied to this situation: Attention (Are students really able to hear you in this moment, not just physically but intellectually?); Generation (Do students have the opportunity to create something new given your correction? Will a new simulation in the same context help solidify this concept, or inadvertently concretize incorrect theories?); Emotions (Are students feeling something positive? Or, are they feeling like they just failed at something? How will these feelings impact learning?); and Spacing (Do students have ample time to fully absorb their misconception? Do they need some time to reflect and think a bit more?)

When, how, where, and by whom the misconception about the solar system gets cleared up are the variables we have to work with as teachers. Rarely do we really consider all of them, however.

Why is it so hard to let the inquiry continue before we step in and “correct”?

We’ve been conditioned by media and our own past experiences to define teaching as essentially “telling.” If students don’t know something, we tend to correct them…immediately. Inquiry asks us to confront and redefine this definition. (For a compelling look at why telling students their ideas are incorrect is often ineffective, watch Annenberg’s brilliant video: A Private Universe.)

Students learn best when they can discover fallacies on their own. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene. That would be irresponsible. It’s just that intervening doesn’t always have to look the same.

What if…

What if we played with the variables, for example:

When: What if we allowed students to believe that the Earth is the center of our solar system for another hour, or another day, or even another week as we guided them into a deeper inquiry about how this couldn’t be true?

How: What if we said “yes” to their (incorrect) ideas? In other words, what would happen if we went along with their theory of the Earth being the center, and played it out with logic questions or specific scenarios? How could you design the next lesson so that students come to the realization on their own that this couldn’t be the case?

Who: What if it wasn’t you who corrected? What if you debunk their theory with a photo, an article, a video conference chat with an expert, an older student at your school, a Socratic Seminar, or a podcast?

What does building this “encouraging evidence” skill DO?

Encouraging evidence builds critical thinking skills. When students (yes, even pre-schoolers) are encouraged to back up their claims with evidence, they have to think about where they got their information; maybe it’s something they experienced first-hand, something a parent told them, a conversation they overheard, a YouTube video, an Instagram post. Heck, maybe even a book they read! Everything we know comes from somewhere, right? The more we are asked to regularly reflect on where information comes from, the more aware we are as a consumer of information.

Encouraging evidence also requires us to be cognizant of and search for multiple perspectives. Where does our news come from? Is there a bias or point of view being pushed? Are we seeing all sides of an issue?

Finally, encouraging evidence requires us to be rigorous and thorough. What’s the copyright date? Does it matter who funded the research? Is it a government-funded or privately-funded paper? Are we sure this is a ‘real’ image or video? Who stands to gain / lose from this publication?

How do we encourage evidence in our classrooms?

We’re glad you asked! Here are some of our favorite “Encourage Evidence” resources today (please suggest others in the Comments below).

1) Renee Hobbs’ Media Literacy Lab

I kinda fell in love with Dr. Hobbs when she came to the University of Washington last year and challenged the audience to look at propaganda (old and new) with fresh eyes. There is a section on this site exclusively for Educators. One of my favorite tools is the ingenious “Media Literacy Smartphone” which are simple paper cards that introduce a structured approach to help students learn to critically analyze any media text. One side of the smartphone displays the various "apps" for analyzing a media text and the other side displays the "five critical questions" of media literacy.

2) Alan November and November Learning

Dr. November is one of the original media literacy experts. I first heard him speak at an International Baccalaureate conference back in 2014 and have been a fan ever since. Check out his Web Literacy Resources and listen to one of his many great TED talks.

3) Common Sense Educator Toolkit (News and Media Literacy)

This nonprofit was established to provide educators and parents with independent reviews of edtech products but offers so much more for educators, including Digital Citizenship resources, EdTech ratings, and Advice.

4) compiles political news from all perspectives (Left, Right, and Center). Encourage students to combine this resource with various Fact Checker sites.

5) Teach Thought: 4 Phases of Inquiry-based Learning

Author Terry Heick has some great advice about guiding inquiry in this recently published TeachThought article. Pay close attention to Phase 2 (“Clarification”) where he suggests apps for students as they begin to research answers to questions (MindMeister, WordPress, Quora, reddit).

6) PBS NewsHour

There are many terrific resources here related to encouraging evidence. Check out this interview (also available as a transcript): Why we believe what we read on the internet? Carve out time with students to discuss the implications of this at the beginning of the school year or before a research / passion / PBL project.

The upshot of Encouraging Evidence

Halting the motion of a great conversation, research project, or simulation to double-check information is, no lie, really tough. Another is that stopping some one or some process to ask, “How do you know that for sure?” can come off as rude, or impertinent. Whatever the reason for avoiding this question (and questions like it), we need to get over it. We need to encourage our students to ask one another (and their teachers, ahem!) how they know what they know.


Join us!

Let’s keep the conversation going on Wednesday, March 20th from 5-6 PM PST #ExperienceInquiry Twitter Chat

“Inquiry in the Google Generation”

Ask More; Talk Less

When students are talking academically, they are also (usually) thinking academically. I try hard not to out-talk my students because I don’t want to be the only one generating new ideas and critically thinking through issues in class. Of course, the beginning of a course or unit is an exception to this rule; setting up norms and routines requires me to talk more than I usually do. But once these things are in place, I try to step back and allow my students to lead. Giving them time and space to talk (and ask their own questions) is one of the most important ways I can get them to think deeply and critically. They know they cannot rely on me to do this for them.

Teaching isn’t telling, Ross!

Teaching isn’t telling, Ross!

Our historic, unspoken understanding of teaching is “telling,” or transmitting information (typically from one person who ‘knows’ to those who ‘do not know’…yet). This practice, however, out of step with the profession today, and our desire to prepare students to tackle serious local and global issues in the decades ahead. How do we avoid defaulting to the idea and practice of “teaching as telling”?

1) Set Up Norms for Talking & Listening

Ask students to reflect on and practice active listening skills

Students are asked to pair up (finding people they don’t know or rarely speak with) to share a story about a time when they weren’t heard, seen, respected

Students are asked to pair up (finding people they don’t know or rarely speak with) to share a story about a time when they weren’t heard, seen, respected

We really cannot assume our students know how to talk with each other. Engaging in civil dialogue is a complex skill, one that requires explicit teaching and practice. Even adults need reminders and examples of things like sharing air time, active listening, and asking important questions.

Take time to front-load, model, and practice these skills before using discussion structures like: Turn & Talks, Socratic Seminars, Harkness Discussions, and Spider Web Discussions as vehicles for understanding content.

One of my favorite ways to get started with promoting a healthy ‘talk culture’ is a simple, 35-minute exercise called Heard, Seen, Respected from Liberating Structures. Students pair up and take turns sharing a story about a time in their life when they didn’t feel heard, seen, or respected. Each person shares for up to 7 minutes while the listener practices, well, listening. It’s worth noting that for this particular exercise, listeners are asked to simply be attentive and attuned (see chart above). The listener’s job, in other words, is not to verbally probe, solve, or soothe (at least in this exercise). Afterwards, everyone in the class discusses the commonalities of the stories they heard. It’s worth noting that these conversations should be held in strict confidence; no bringing the story back up with one another, even after class.

When students understand the full, emotional impact of not being heard, seen, or respected, they become much more conscious of avoiding this situation in the future. I use Heard, Seen, Respected now at the beginning of every course I teach. It’s great for staff meetings and PLCs, too.

2) Ask Questions That Deepen Thinking

The classic image of an inquiry classroom is of a teacher asking a thoughtful series of convergent and divergent questions leading students elegantly (and sometimes subversively) to new understandings and insights. How can we channel our inner-Socrates? One of my favorite books right now is Think Like Socrates by Shanna Peeples. In it, she shares ideas on how to develop and apply “leveled and big questions” in content-specific ways. She also includes samples of student-generated questions throughout the book.

For non-content specific questions, I like to keep this Questions Reference handy. I’ve either videotaped or asked colleagues to come into my class to check off which questions I’m asking a lot, or not enough, of. I’ve also seen this Reference taped down on student desks, so that students themselves can remember to use them during discussions.

3) Get Students to Ask Questions

In her talk about the Origins of Human Curiosity, Williams College Professor, Susan Engel, concludes that Kids learn best when they’re trying to get the answer to their own question.” Unstructured time (like recess) is a great opportunity to catch a whiff of authentic student inquiry. What are kids asking when no adult is listening? Which questions do they truly own? What do they truly care about knowing?

The QFT: Students generated these questions in 10 minutes while looking at an image of striking teachers

The QFT: Students generated these questions in 10 minutes while looking at an image of striking teachers

What about eliciting authentic student questions in the classroom though? One of my “go to” activities is the Question Formulation Technique developed by The Right Question Institute. Students are asked to observe a provocative image or sentence for a period of time (10 minutes or less, depending on the students’ ages) and record all the questions they can about the image. Then, they systematically analyze the questions together, such as: Which ones are open and closed? Where do they cluster? Which question(s) would they most like to answer? While I love the QFT, I don’t always feel that it generates the most authentic list of questions, especially given the time constraint (students often get ‘competitive’ with who can generate the most in the shortest amount of time). Authentic questions need time and space!

The readings are on the left and space is provided on the right for students to read one another’s questions and record the question they “loved” most from their list

The readings are on the left and space is provided on the right for students to read one another’s questions and record the question they “loved” most from their list

Inspired in part by Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, this quarter I’ve asked students to purchase a Comp Book and turn it into a “Query Book.” Students are asked to write down all the questions that come up for them as they read a text or listen to a podcast for class. We then use these student-generated questions to engage in small group discussions. At the end of the quarter, students read each other’s Query Books, appreciating the questions they read and then choosing their favorite for each assignment. Not only has this practice helped create some accountability around preparing for class, but it’s also strengthened and vastly improved students’ question-asking skills.

4) Create discussion structures you can use in any context

If you and your students are getting tired of using the same discussion structures, mix it up a bit. For some great ideas on new structures, be sure to check out these fantastic resources:


Students share out their reading annotations before placing them into a Venn diagram or “cyber sandwich”

Students share out their reading annotations before placing them into a Venn diagram or “cyber sandwich”

Be sure to visit the EduProtocols website to download free protocols (including) adaptations for younger learners). EduProtocol authors’ “field guide” is where you get access to all 16 of them (highly recommended). I recently used the Cyber Sandwich activity, where students talk together after reading the same text to discuss what stood out for them. They then complete a Venn diagram illustrating what observations they shared in common and what really differed. Fascinating!

Liberating Structures

Students get up and find a partner to discuss a reading-related prompt for four minutes (there were 90 undergraduate students in this class and we did five rotations)!

Students get up and find a partner to discuss a reading-related prompt for four minutes (there were 90 undergraduate students in this class and we did five rotations)!

Liberating Structures offer a goldmine of ideas for helping students (and adults) reach decisions and expand their thinking. There are 33 different structures offered with the goal of “unleashing and including” everyone in the room. The one I am using most frequently right now is called Impromptu Networking. This is a very simple yet powerful structure that invites students to stand up, move around the room, find a partner, and have a short, reciprocal conversation together based on a prompt or question. Impromptu Networking is a great way to warm students up at the beginning of the day or center them after a break. It’s also an ingenious way to help students review content or whittle down topic choices. There are many ways to “change the dials” on this activity (new prompts, less or more time for discussion, number of rotations, etc.).

Pecha Kucha

Have a lot of content but want to avoid “death by PowerPoint”"? You must check out this rapid-fire approach to presenting content in a concise and aesthetic way. A Pecha Kucha is 20 slides each one lasting only 20 seconds. I usually model it first for students (it’s more challenging than you think!) and then unleash them to use it as a way of synthesizing, organizing, and presenting content to one another. They love both the freedom and structure it gives them to be creative. You can also turn the 20x20 format into a 10x20 format (10 slides each lasting 20 seconds) or any other configuration that works.

The Big List of Classroom Discussion Strategies from Cult of Pedagogy

Jennifer Gonzalez has a treasure trove of highly-readable and relatable blog posts on instruction. The Big List of Classroom Discussion Strategies post is one of my favorites as it offers 15 different ways to get students talking.

I will conclude this post with a quote from my friend and colleague, Kath Murdoch, who reflects in the foreword of Experience Inquiry on her student teaching experience. In this beautiful piece, Murdoch reflects on her student teaching experience, and her mentor teacher, Frank Ryan, someone she “didn’t recall saying much,” but inspired true curiosity in his students by asking questions and nudging on their conversations.

“I wanted be someone who could teach without telling, someone who would truly listen to students and encourage them to think deeply.”

How do you teach without telling? How do you ask more, and talk less? Please share in the Comments section below!

Please join us!

Please join us!

Stay Curious: In Celebration of "Madness"


My children may be past the age of trick-or-treating, but Halloween is still celebrated with gusto at our house. Vampires, princesses, and ghosts make their way through our smoke machine, ringing the doorbell throughout the evening. I make them linger a few seconds after they grab their candy so I can fully admire their costumes. This year, I was thrilled to see a “mad scientist” at our door; a first! She had a poof of untamed wild hair, a white lab coat, and taped-up glasses.

And, it got me thinking about Strategy #2: Stay Curious.

What is the mad scientist archetype after all than the most comically curious person alive?!

A mad scientist is fueled by insatiable curiosity, embodying our need-to-know and our need-to-solve. But was it really ‘science’ that fueled this madness? Does it have to be chemistry and astrophysics that drives people to abandon their hygiene and spend all day researching, experimenting, and discovering? I don’t think so. I’ve known mathematicians, lawyers, bakers, poets, doctors, archeologists, entrepreneurs, parents, gardeners, artists, and historians indulging this type of “mad” curiosity.

It’s the madness, not the science that counts.

Which then led me to think about teaching. How do we keep this madness alive when we’ve taught the same lessons year after year? How do we keep it alive when we already know ‘the answer’ or the results? How do we retain a disposition of ‘mad’ curiosity when we’re stressed out and racing to cover curriculum?

First, take a deep, cleansing breath. Then, read on.

1) Say ‘Yes’ to your students’ ideas

Mathematicians, Dan Finkel and Katherine Cook, started Math for Love to help restore our love for the beauty and fun in learning math. In Finkel’s must-see TED talk, he suggests that we say “yes” to students’ ideas, even when these ideas may be wrong. Saying “yes,” he emphasizes, isn’t the same as saying “you’re right.” When we say yes, we ask students to think critically, to take some risks, and to involve others in the discussion. We also model a disposition of curiosity. Instead of being annoyed by a student’s wrong answer, how about being curious about how they arrived there?

According to Finkel and Cook, “To have your idea dismissed out of hand is disempowering. Having accepted, studied, and disproven is a mark of respect. It’s also far more convincing to be shown you’re wrong by your peers than told you’re wrong by the teacher.”

So, how can you respond with curiosity when a student gets it wrong? Here are some ways to say “yes” without saying “you’re right”:

“Tell us more.”

“Show us how you got there.”

“What do the rest of you think about this?”

“How do you know that?”

“How could you prove that?”

2) Wonder meta-cognitively

Maybe the content isn’t what you focus your madness on. Instead, your curiosity can focus on the learning itself. According to Child Mind Institute, “[Metacognition] is the running conversation we have in our heads, mentally sounding ourselves out and making plans. Training kids to use it proactively to overcome obstacles, it turns out, can be a powerful tool.”

Stop the lesson periodically and ask your students:

“How might I teach or explain this differently?”

“What is most frustrating for you in this work?”

“How did you approach this problem?”

“Is there something a classmate said that made you change your mind or alter your thinking?”

Not only can you get students to think about their own learning, you can also bring your students in on your pedagogy once in awhile. Let them try teaching the material once they’ve got a handle on it. Ask them to develop and lead their own mini-lessons and evaluate one another’s approaches. Demonstrate your passionate madness for the complexity of teaching.

3) Learn alongside

Have you ever learned something new in front of your students? What are you curious about? Is there something you are still curious about, even though you already know a whole heck of a lot about it? Learning in the moment, alongside our students, requires some vulnerability; you’re not the expert anymore. However, it can be extremely liberating for students to watch role models learn and collaborate, not just teach and lead.

Take a few minutes each day or week to learn something new with (or from) your students. Maybe you all try juggling, engage in Chinese eye exercises, or puzzle through geometry problems.

Our own curiosity is modeled every day through our words, expressions, and actions. When our students see that our own curiosity is sparked, theirs is sparked as well.

What is working for you? How do you stay curious in your work? Share in the Comments box below.

Get Personal: The Foundation of Every Inquiry Classroom

Inquiry-based classrooms thrive on the foundation of trusting relationships and strong emotional bonds. How do we create emotional bonds with our students at every stage of learning?

Teaching is one of the most cognitively and emotionally complex professions on the planet. Not only do teachers need to plan, teach, and assess for individual academic growth, they also need to develop a personal relationship with each student. When asked about what good teachers have in common, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes emphatically that it’s not about the style of teaching that is most important to student learning, but the emotional bonds that are forged. In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? he writes: “The emotional bond between teacher and student - for better or worse - accounts for whether students learn.”

Think back to the teachers in your own life who made the biggest impact on you academically. Likely, there were strong emotions associated with that teacher. Hopefully, good ones.

At the start of each quarter, I ask my undergraduate students in my Teaching as a Profession course at the University of Washington to list all the K-12 teachers and coaches they remember. Even fresh out of K-12, this is a tough assignment. I then make it tougher and ask them to choose the one teacher who had the biggest positive impact on their life. The exploration culminates in a letter to that teacher, explaining what made the difference for them. I now have hundreds letters with some predictable patterns and common quotes:

“She took the time to talk with me 1:1. It made me feel like I mattered.”

“He told great stories.”

“She shared her life with us. It felt like we were a part of her world.”

“He got on our level and didn’t treat us like kids.”

I never read a letter that complimented teachers on their well-organized lesson plans, in-depth writing feedback, or excellent pacing. Of course, these things are important, but without strong emotional bonds, they lose their power. Knowing and Teaching like Yourself, whether you are shy and reserved, an extroverted showboat, or somewhere in between is really the key to this strategy. For those looking for ways to deepen emotional bonds, we offer three ideas this month:

1) Tell Stories

Consummate storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy, at the 2011 National Book Festival

Consummate storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy, at the 2011 National Book Festival

“[Stories] teach us how to treat our enemies, how to fight our monsters, how to die with dignity, how to laugh at ourselves,” asserts Agra Deedy in her brilliant speech at the 2011 National Book Festival. Humans think in narratives, so if you want students to remember something, stories are a great way to get new information to stick. Stories don’t always have to be content-related, however; they can also be used to reveal more about ourselves to our students. Share stories about your pets (past and present), children or yourself as a child, your mistakes, embarrassments, accomplishments, dreams. Trust me, they will be riveted and won’t forget these. Your stories don’t have to take long, but they do have to be honest and honestly told. Here are three sites that offer specific ways (and videos) to help increase and improve your storytelling repertoire:

  1. The Power of Sharing Your Story (Edutopia)

  2. Build Student Trust by Sharing Stories (EdWeek)

  3. How to Tell a Great Story: Using the Science of Storytelling To Share Your Message (Science of People)

2) Create Rituals, Routines, & Rhythms

Fred Rogers (1928-2003)

Fred Rogers (1928-2003)

For anyone who needs some loving kindness in documentary form, be sure to check out Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers was a fixture in my life as a child. He was one of the few adults in my life who spoke with me as an equal, not at me like a child. He was prompt; I could depend on him. And, perhaps most noticeably, he stuck to a routine; I could anticipate his moves and join in. Whether he realized it at the time or not, Mr. Rogers was picking up the best of what we know from cognitive science about the importance of rituals and routines in establishing emotional bonds. He brought a semblance of order into a chaotic and often dissonant world. Religious schools are uniquely able to apply the rituals of their faith in a similar way; prayers, services, song, candle-lighting reassure students that there is an order, that they are a part of it, and that this order can be learned and followed.

Many use the word “rhythm” to describe their ritual or routine. A rhythm implies something beyond order, something harmonizing and vibrational. The word rhythm also reminds us of the power of music and song in learning (too often ignored in secondary classrooms). Below are some rituals, routines, or rhythms that you may want to incorporate into your classroom, if you don’t already:

  1. Routine, Ritual, and School Community (Edutopia)

  2. Student-Teacher Conference (Goalbook Toolkit)

  3. The Music Connection (ASCD)

3) Share The ‘Why’

Because students can’t help but “pay attention to the man behind the curtain”!

Because students can’t help but “pay attention to the man behind the curtain”!

Instead of stating the objectives at the beginning of class, I now share the ‘why’ behind objectives, from a personal point of view. For example, one objective in my Comparative International Education class is to draw a freehand map of the world in five minutes or less. Here’s what I say to get them invested in the ‘why’:

“In this course, you’re going learn to draw a freehand map of the world. This might strike fear and loathing in you. When I first learned to do this, I felt the same. However, I can tell you from personal experience that knowing where countries are located and where they are in relation to one another has really helped me when I read news articles or try to understand history. Too many of my friends will have to pause and review maps before moving forward when they read. So, this skill has really saved me a ton of time. Plus, it’s a great hidden talent to have!”

Sharing the ‘why’ is particularly important with older students who are starting to question the purpose of ‘doing school’ beyond getting to the next grade level. Let students in on the ‘why’ behind what you are designing and assigning for them. Narrative your thoughts about content and process. Invite students into your head a little, setting up a conspiratorial “we’re in this together” vibe. Pull that curtain aside and let them see what it’s all about. Here are some other ways to let students in on the ‘why’:

  1. Sharing Learning Intentions (Improving Teaching Blog)

  2. The Well-Balanced Teacher: Teaching with a Sense of Purpose (ASCD)

  3. What is the Purpose of Your Lesson? (The Progressive Teacher)

Sharing stories, creating unique rituals, and remembering / sharing the ‘why’ behind the work you are asking students to engage in are all great ways to strengthen the foundational relationships necessary in inquiry-based, cognitively demanding, and happy classrooms.

What works extraordinarily well in your classroom? Please share your story in the comment box below.

Webinar: We hope to see you next Wednesday (October 10th) from 5 - 6 PM PST- (  for our one-hour Webinar. Please read this Tips for Zoom calls sheet first.

Twitter Chat: Wednesday (October 17th) also from 5 - 6 PM PST for a one-hour Twitter Chat (#ExperienceInquiry) to connect with others and explore the Get Personal strategy in greater depth. Remember that by participating for the full hour, you will be eligible for one clock hour for each event. Questions? Contact Kimberly:

Thank you for continuing to explore inquiry with us!

Kimberly & Maggie