Five Ways to Encourage More Inquiry with Staff

changing minds

"How do you get teachers to start teaching in a more inquiry-based way?"

This was the final question during the Q&A at the end of our "Curiosity Not Compliance" workshop on Monday (where I had the pleasure of co-presenting with Mary Beth Cunat, Principal at Wildwood Elementary in Chicago and Anne Gillespie, Principal at Academy for Global Citizenship Public Charter school also in Chicago). All three of us share the experience of leading IB schools, where "inquiry" is the default or primary pedagogy in classrooms. Of course, the reality is that we still see an imbalance of teacher-directed over student-centered instruction happening even within the IB community. This question was followed by deep sighs. We didn't have enough time to get into the details, so I thought I'd share my thoughts here.

First, it's probably important to examine why we don't see a lot of inquiry happening in our classrooms. Teaching inquiry is extremely challenging within the constraints of bell schedules, tests, curriculum expectations and school leaders who may not understand why the teacher isn't "teaching" in the classic sense (standing in front of the room lecturing). The other reason we don't see a lot of inquiry is that inquiry requires a change of mindsets/attitudes as much as a change in skills/behaviors. It also requires adults to do something really scary (at first): give up some control.

Now the question becomes How do you change teachers' mindsets? Which, as I write it, sounds creepy and slightly subversive...and yet, I don't know how else to put it. After developing and presenting inquiry for over 15 years, I want to share what has worked best in my experience (not necessarily listed in sequential order...but this is usually how I go about the process with schools):

1)Simulations: If the medium is the message, then explaining inquiry is best done by simply modeling it. I didn't start my inquiry workshops this way until a very shrewd teacher directly challenged me to "show what I know." [I thank you now, shrewd, wise teacher]! Thus began my journey as a very different kind of workshop presenter. I now start by simulating an inquiry lesson with staff (and parents) on topics as diverse as nuclear physics, taxation and Shakespeare. A simulated experience of an inquiry lesson helps people understand how it feels to be a student in an inquiry classroom. Many people love this experience and "get it" after just an hour or so. However, be prepared. Many are uncomfortable with this experience, too (and I'm honestly still working out ways to make it less uncomfortable).

2) Demonstrations: This is something we all know is important to do, but rarely find the time to do it. Demos are simply teachers observing a peer (or a consultant) modeling inquiry in a real live classroom. I typically have participants first engage in a short 20-minute pre-observation discussion (usually no more than 8 people participate) then we all follow the demo teacher down the hall and into his/her classroom with observation collection sheets and clipboards and a pretty good sense of what we're looking for (starting with the "inquiry five" strategies). After the lesson, we immediately (or, as immediately as possible) regroup and have another structured discussion, listening to the teacher's reflections and sharing what we observed and what questions we still have.

3) Real-Time Coaching/Analysis: If I had a "vulnerability rating" for each of these sections...this one might be the highest. It involves someone coming into a classroom and coaching teachers in the moment. For example, the teacher is about to send students off to do group work and instead asks the coach (usually one coach) if they agree it's the right time. The coach may respond...or the two of them have a one-minute discussion analyzing the pros/cons of that decision. The students are prepped in advance that the adults will be talking with one another throughout the lesson...and perhaps even soliciting their feedback, depending upon the age of the students. The coach might also interrupt (there are ways to do this subtly so it doesn't feel obnoxious or overbearing; trust is key here) and suggest things like, "This might be a great time to do a Turn & Talk. What do you think?"

4) Student Perception Videos/Surveys: I LOVE this one. My team and I recently conducted student interviews on camera at a local high school (yes, requiring image release forms from parents, but the hassle was well worth it). We made sure to select a diverse range of about fifteen students representing all grade levels and academic/social backgrounds and asked them the same three questions (using the guidance from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project student survey). We then pulled it all together into a 10-minute video for the staff to watch at a meeting. It was so powerful for teachers to hear what their own students most appreciated about their instruction (as well as what didn't work so well for them)! Who is going to argue with our primary clients and their perceived needs?! We will go back to the same students every three months to 'check in' using the same three questions to gauge whether or not they've noticed their teachers' practices changing. Getting students to "meta-cognate" on instructional strategies was fascinating - and challenging.

5) Research and Case Studies: I always make sure to supply a fairly robust list of TEDx videos, blogs and research articles to help make the case for inquiry-based instruction. Some people need this foundation before feeling ready to open up to something so radically different from what they experienced as students - and what might indeed be "working well" for them in a traditional school. Anticipating the questions that will arise ("Is this 'discovery learning' or 'What about prepping students for the tests?' or 'When are their understandings corrected?') is all taken into consideration as I curate. I try to make sure the good, the bad and the ugly are all on the table and out in the open. I'm not the world's foremost expert on inquiry, but I so spend a lot of time studying it and I want to make sure I give people a well-rounded slice of the research. Let me know if you would like me to send you a copy of what I suggest people watch and read: And please, share your best resources on inquiry as well! Let's keep the conversation going together.