Better Than Telling

Anything that jolts me out of the discomforts and monotony of flying is welcome to me these days; an extra bag of peanuts, an empty row, a surprise upgrade to first class (never happens). But nothing could have prepared me for this recent experience.

Seated right behind passengers in the exit rows, I could overhear the flight attendant’s instructions about their responsibilities in the unlikely event of an emergency landing. Upon listening to the flight attendant, each passenger affirms his or her understanding and commitment with a simple head nod. But this drill didn’t take place as I usually see it happen.

Instead, the flight attendant asked everyone to not just listen but follow along with the brochure (meaning, they were asked to hold one in their own hands). Then, they were asked to turn to the person sitting next to them and verbally share the plan. Finally, they were asked to shake hands on it. Wow! In the unlikely event of an emergency landing, I’d much rather have these folks springing into action.

Brain science is on this flight attendant’s side, too. Talking reinforces the learning. The cognitive demand of understanding the procedures were placed squarely on the shoulders of the passengers, not the flight attendant. The physical connection of a simple handshake fires up all sorts of neurons and establishes trust.

This flight attendant applied the most powerful teaching strategies in a non-classroom context. And it got me thinking:  If inquiry-based teaching is superior to traditional teaching, could or should it replace the way we teach everything to everyone? How would it change our communication style? Our hierarchies? Our relationships?

In inquiry teaching, the learner constructs meaning from new information (the brochure) and experiences (thinking through a scenario). This is not radical. This is actually how most people learn best. Traditional teaching, however, relies on the teacher constructing meaning and telling. Telling isn’t good teaching and yet it persists, like a stubborn habit. It is easy and efficient, but less effective.

Changing a habit requires baby steps and discipline. There are three simple steps any of us can implement right away, whether you teach physics, coach soccer, or instruct passengers in how to help out in the unlikely event of an emergency landing.

I.              Ask More; Talk Less

This is the golden rule of great teaching and Socrates was the master of this practice. At their best, great lectures capture the interest and imagination of the learners (usually in the form of stories). At their worst, they induce sleep or feel agonizing. Talking continuously without pausing for a reflection activity, to ask questions, or to solicit questions, misses important opportunities for the learner to integrate and deepen the learning. Ideally, the learners are the ones doing most of the talking, especially after absorbing new information through listening, reading, or experiencing something. By asking questions and periodically asking learners to turn and talk with a neighbor to answer these questions, we greatly increase the chances of the information sticking and being activated.

II.            Encourage Questions

We take much better care of our own cars than we do rentals. Why? Because they are ours, we own them. It’s the same with questions! When we are truly invested in something, we are more interested. What are the learners interested in? Ask and allow them to follow their interests. It’s important to give people a little information before asking for questions and some reflection time, however. A great way to exercise questioning skills is through the Question Formulation Technique (developed by the team at The Right Question Institute).

III.          Connect the Learning

It’s not surprising that the mindfulness movement, standing consciously in the here and now, is a popular trend today. Our work in formal education settings is future-focused and imbalanced towards feeling like a chore rather than a pleasure. Learning is survival and joy! Mastering skills to enter the workforce is a survival skill. Translating letters to words and ideas on a page or coding something for the first time is joy. And often, they are one and the same. What is the purpose of the lesson or activity, besides a final grade or a test? How can we root our activities and learning in the present while connecting it also to the future? Every lesson provides ourselves with the opportunity to answer the big picture question: Why should we care and How does this connect with who and where I am right now?


Changing the way we instruct, whether it is in a formal setting like a classroom or an informal setting like the family dinner table, will take time before it takes hold. It will require a different set of skills on the part of the ‘teacher’ and a radical new set of expectations on the part of the learner. More than anything, it will require teachers to stop talking so much (there is a time and a place for a lecture, of course, but here we are woefully out of balance in most classrooms and certainly in higher ed). Changing up our teaching methods has the potential to radically improve learning. Are we willing to take some risks and try it out?



We are the "light guys"! Guest author Jen Breen

Two weeks ago I was in Mexico with a wonderful group of yogis and writers at the "Light in the Jungle" retreat (Mar de Jade) located at the end of a tiny smile shaped beach town called Chacala. Our time writing with Claire Dederer and practicing yoga in the El Templo yoga studio left me feeling nourished and connected by the time spent inside of my creative well and outside in the warm, salty air, bath water sea and around the table with friends leisurely eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. I came home feeling elevated, enlivened, relaxed and inspired.

After a few days back in the groove of my life as I know it, I observed how quickly I went from one activity to the next, how much of my down time is in front of lit screens and how meals are interrupted by the comings and goings of my kids and their activities that run late into the evening. My internal rhythm from a week in retreat and mostly unplugged was noticeably different; calm, contemplative, sensitive and dare I say - joyous.  But, it's funny how just a few days back at it-the groove and habit of my life-can feel the tinge of isolation and shallowness. 

I spent a few mornings sitting and watching the sunrise through the windows of my treehouse living room wondering and inquiring. How can I weave the necessity of soulful retreat into my life at home? How can I be that "light in the jungle" for my family and community? And, how can I draw better boundaries so that there is time daily looking into the eyes of my fellow human beings or walking in the fresh air with a friend or feeling my bare feet on the wood floor as I listen to my whole body breathe in and out. And, how about listening to those around me; their stories, their joys and fears? What is going on inside of them? How many of our unique, colorful stories are shared and known through our common laughter and tears? I wonder...

And, then ...POOF! Power out! Was it an answer to my questions from some higher source or mother nature's wisdom blowing in healing medicine? Or was it just a windstorm? A power outage. It doesn't matter...a retreat and wonder came through my home. My kids and their friends took shelter in our dark home lit from the outside by the bright full moon. We lit candles and a fire. We circled around the coffee table and played rounds and rounds of Old Maid. All of them, engaged, laughing, looking in to each other's eyes. Little fingers touching each card, bodies flailing around in hysterics when the old maid was passed around, body language spoken and heard. Then a massive feast for dinner-boxes of mac and cheese that I had stored up from a trip to Costco prepared on the propane stove. We talked about living in the dark and how candlelight makes our faces look funny. After dinner the kids created some version of tag/hide and go seek with flashlights. And, my teenager and her friend ended up in her room playing hours of Battleship by candlelight. As the friends went home we nestled together on the couch reading by flashlight and falling asleep before 9pm. As cold and dark as it was I felt like all of our lights were on. I was grateful for the warmth of togetherness and hours of human interaction and creativity.

As I kissed my youngest goodnight she said to me, "Mom when are the light guys coming?" 

I smiled and said to her..."WE are the light guys!"

Wishing you all-  Beings of light-  a joyous holiday season whatever jungle you find yourself in.

With gratitude



Are We All Seeing The Same Thing?


The room was packed. Twenty-five ninth graders and their teacher, a three-person camera crew, fifteen parents of incoming eighth graders and the principal stood flat-back against three of the four walls. For a while we all occupied the same space together. We observed the same lesson, listened to the same voices, and breathed the same air. But we all came away with very different conclusions about what we witnessed.

The principal guided parents of incoming ninth graders in and out of this classroom all day. It was one a few classrooms in her building that she could “bank on” to be a hit with visitors (and the one she suggested we film).

When the principal opened this classroom door she could depend on seeing engaged and well-disciplined students. The teacher was passionate about her subject (English literature) and it showed. She recited passages from the book they were all reading by heart and spoke with enthusiasm and authority. The curriculum was 100% aligned with standards, the learning objective written neatly on the white board.

My companions, film professionals, gave the class rave reviews. “She really knew what she was doing in there; the students were so well-behaved,” I heard them say.

What none of them knew, not even the camera operators, was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.

Our cameras were trained on a single, randomly selected student in the front row. We “dummy mic'd” several students giving students the impression that our objective was to film the teacher’s interaction with all the students. But in reality, only the teacher’s and this one student’s mic were operating. We trained a tight lens on this student for 90 minutes (it was a block period, ostensibly to allow for deeper work and project-based learning opportunities).

After filming, we calculated the amount of time this student was reading, writing, listening and speaking academically during this 90-minute period. The results are heart breaking and stunned the teacher.

During the 90-minute period this student sat and listened (mostly to the teacher) for 86 minutes. He participated once, to ask a clarifying question (taking less than 10 seconds) and read for a total of 3 minutes. He never wrote. According to the students we spoke with and the teacher herself, this was a typical class and this student is a good student.

The teacher spent the evening before re-reading the chapters and preparing for a discussion. But the discussion was really only between herself and 4-5 students. The remaining 20 students were passive listeners. Those who did participate were only marginally active and engaged. They responded to the teacher’s questions rather than asking their own. They were rarely pressed to back up their claims with evidence or take on a different perspective or explain in great detail. These were cognitive activities that were taken on by the teacher.

What happened in that classroom that people missed? Taken together, it looked lively and engaging. But a closer look, a tighter frame, revealed something very different. The students were compliant, not curious. They knew exactly how to “do school” but it was a classic example of how “learning gets lost.”

What does engagement look like then? If you were to witness true engagement in action, what specific things would you see, hear, or even feel?

Here’s my initial Take. What Might You Add?

• Students are doing most of the (academic) talking

• Students are asking the majority of the questions

• Teacher moving in and around students rather than rooted at the ‘front’

• Students physically leaning into their work

• Happy buzz of discussion/conversation distributed among all students

• Students groaning when it’s time to conclude


Want to keep talking? Join us! #GiGTeacher (Global Inquiry Group)

Every second Tuesday of the month at 3:00 PM Pacific Time




Measuring Student Engagement with the ABQ

The ABQ (Answering • Building Upon an Idea • Questioning) is one of the most powerful and simplest ways to better understand student engagement and analyze engagement patterns in a classroom.

Here's how it works:

Ask a colleague or administrator (your "data collector") to come in and record student voice data during a group-based discussion period (at least 20 minutes, so you get enough data to draw some conclusions). Before the class begins, simply sketch out the physical classroom layout on a blank piece of paper, writing student’s names inside each ‘desk’ or box in advance, if you have assigned seating.

The data collector listens to and notates everything students say during the period, categorizing them in the following way:

A (Answers given to direct questions from teacher or other students)

B (Building upon another’s idea or question with comments)

Q (Questions they ask) PS - It’s helpful also to note what kinds of questions students are asking if there is time (using Bloom’s revised Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, for example).


The data alone will speak volumes on where to focus attention and will lead to further questions that you can reflect on alone or with a PLC/PLN. There is little need for the observer to do much more than the share the data with you after class. Some questions to guide your reflection might include:

What does participation look and sound like?

Who is doing most of the talking and questioning? Why?

How can you inspire more students/different students to question/participate?

How might you share this data with students?

Letterboxing: Outdoor Inquiry Perfected

It’s crisp fall day and I’ve dragged my reluctant 10-year old and his neighbor friend away from their computer screens. “What’s a Colorado Spruce?” is the first thing my son says after a prolonged silence in the car ride to Green Lake. He asks this to no one in particular, wondering aloud as he reads clues and we make our way through the parking lot and to the lake. A runner lacing up his shoes overhears us, moving his eyes up to join our search. "Well, I can always tell it’s a Colorado Spruce because they have beautiful symmetry and their needles are as sharp as little knives,” he instructs us. My son and his friend are intrigued. Their adventure is bringing them into contact with helpful strangers, as curious as they are.

We are on a letterboxing journey. Part-orienteering and treasure hunting, letterboxing is one of the best outdoor inquiry adventures around. Letterboxing’s primary tools are more literary than scientific, however. Our equipment requires clues (printed off from a website; often poetic), a pen, ink pad and rubber stamps (our stamps were purchased, but serious letterboxers hand-carve their own). I now keep these items in the car for spontaneous letterboxing adventures using my iPhone for the clues.

My son and our neighbor read the clue again:

At the Eastside of the parking lot is a paved path flanked by two large Colorado Spruce trees (your back will be to the tennis courts on the opposite side of the parking lot).”

I allow the two of them to bicker back and forth about the correct direction of “Eastside” and allow them to guess what “flanked” means. They read and re-read the clues, interpreting them differently each time; retracing steps and running to and from various spots. At this point, they are completely absorbed and determined to find this box. I try to disappear, but scared by the prospect of encountering a spider, they assign me the chore of unearthing the letterbox with a stick.

Inside is a notebook nesting the Letterbox’s own rubber stamp. We stamp our papers (serious letterboxers have their own notebooks) and place our personal stamps inside the letterbox notebook with brief explanations the terrain and how it's changed over time. The last visitor entered her stamp over two years ago, and this fact thrills these 10-year olds who realize it hasn’t been touched since they lost their last tooth.

To get involved in your own outdoor inquiry adventure (or to plant your own letterbox), check out this site:



Inquiry for Grown-Ups

Name tags, small talk, Chardonnay. The rituals of a VIP reception were in place last night, save one major item: the ritual program. Instead of a polite speech followed by cagey answers to leading questions, I witnessed a live inquiry lesson unfold. 

Let me set the scene: a swanky high-rise with big city views was the backdrop to introduce the new Dean at the College of Education of a major research university. The 30 or so attendees represented the city’s major philanthropists sprinkled with the requisite number of graduate students and alums. Valet, caterers and fine art. Got the picture?

After the requisite mingling time, wine glasses were refilled and everyone was seated on plush couches in a semi-circle; it was time for the “program.” And this is where the typical ritual ended and the inquiry music began.


Dean: “Before I begin, I would like to get to know who you are. Let’s go around the room and please introduce yourself. Perhaps you could share your connection with the university.” While it did take about 15 minutes of our time, this essential activity brought us immediately together as a community for the next hour. Every last person in the room had a chance to be seen and heard. Connections were made. And we were now all a part of the conversation. 


Dean: “Welcome everyone and thank you for coming. I want to tell you a story about what led me here. This is a photo of me in elementary school. Do you notice anything?” The Dean was the only person of color in her class. People recognized this and drew an emotional connection to what the Dean may have experienced. She went on to tell a story about how that felt, how she dealt with it and why it led her to pursue advanced degrees in Sociology.

Asking More; Talking Less

After only about 10 minutes of sharing her background and process for starting her work at the college, the Dean stopped. “I’d like to ask you some questions now. What are your biggest concerns about the future of the college? What do you think I need to know, experience or understand to move the college forward?” The hands quickly went up.

Engaging the Group in Answering Questions

Attendee: “I’ve read that knowing subject-level content is really important to great teaching. How will an undergraduate major in education be able to offer much in the way of content expertise?”

Dean: “Tell me more.” At this point the attendee was asked to reflect on how she arrives at this conclusion (undergraduates in education majors have limited content knowledge). Others chimed in as well.

Dean: Pause. “That’s a really interesting question. I have some thoughts but first, what do the rest of you think?” Again, this elicited a lively conversation about content vs. pedagogical knowledge and skills building.  

Eliciting Deeper Thinking

Attendee: “Could you tell us how you would recruit more teachers of color into the programs you offer?” 

Dean: “Thank you for this question. I’m wondering…if you were me, how might you approach this challenge. Do you have any ideas?”

Of course she did! It’s why she asked the question. The attendee goes on to share a well-developed idea to the Dean who listened intently. The Dean continued to probe more by asking, “If I were to pursue that idea, how might I start?” Again, the attendee had an answer and you could see the beginning of a real plan in motion. 

Wait Time

The Dean allowed for several pregnant pauses throughout the presentation; not enough lapsed time for attendees to feel awkward, but enough to take a deep breath and refocus away from the rain and traffic and back to the topic at hand.

The presentation ended not with polite claps and 30-feet visions, but a real sense of movement, intellectual challenge and engagement. The new Dean was modeling great teaching right before our very eyes! Turns out alcohol and inquiry mix quite well when done right (NB: I'm not endorsing the alcohol part for classrooms). Perhaps this is the best way to introduce parents and the community at large to 21st classrooms and the intent behind the Common Core?

While I geeked out at the meta-cognitive level throughout the hour-long presentation watching this inquiry lesson/presentation, I wonder how it felt to the non-educators in the room. Did they also notice how different this felt? Did they reflect on how engaged they were? Did their lower backs hurt from leaning in so far? Did the questions and ideas from our conversation continue on their drives home? Were they uncomfortable? Were they invigorated and inspired to resume (or double-down on) funding the college? 

Stay tuned as I intend to ask them!