Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Inquiring Minds

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the 
christening of all children, I would ask that her gift 
to each child in the world be a sense of wonder 
so indestructible that it would last throughout life.
- Rachel Carson

Inquiring minds want to know. Inquiring minds question. They wonder and are curious. Such minds seek patterns and aim to make sense of the world around them. Inquiring minds learn continuously.


All of us have minds made for inquiry. One visit to a pre-school group will confirm such a claim. We are born curious. It is through observation and exploration and discovery that we learn. We began our learning lives that way and if we are lucky such learning ignites our passions and interests in ways that engage us our entire lives.

This week at Singapore American School,  authors, Kath Murdoch and Trevor Mackenzie are working with teachers around inquiry. Their books are new to me, so I've been playing catch up with my professional reading--modeling reading during independent reading time in class and continuing my own learning reading and thinking at home. They are working here at school to deepen inquiry practices across campus.

In the two sessions I sat in on, Trevor Mackenzie, discussed stages of inquiry (structured, controlled, guided, and free) as well as how teachers' current practices can act as scaffolds to inquiry later in the school year.

Today I am thinking a lot about those scaffolds. How do my current practices structure opportunities for student agency? How do I give students voice and choice everyday in the classroom? What language do I use or can I use that will help kids develop inquiry mindsets as Murdoch says?

Today in Catalyst class [Catalyst is a semester long inquiry course where students delve into an interest--the course takes them or gives them space to create from pitch to product to presentation.] a student was working on an idea around putting on a course for young children on financial topics.

He had completed a self-assessment of his strengths and interests and he was working on what the course developers call a "Squid diagram." This thinking tool aims to get students to flesh out the who, what, where, when, how much, how and so what of an idea. The student had drawn a squid diagram on the whiteboard wall and he called me over to review it.

"So, talk me through your idea," I said to him.

"Well, essentially, I want to share information about finance with kids... uh, you know like create a syllabus of things I could teach to kids. I'm not sure what age, and I'm thinking of all of these finance topics, " he gestured to his diagram.

I borrowed his marker and wrote on the wall's edge: so what? for whom? how?  "Can you tell me a little more about these ideas: so what? for whom? and how?"

He reviewed his "for kids" whom and the importance of financial literacy and his interest in finance and then a bit of magic happened. When he looked at the how, he pointed at the word "syllabus" he'd jotted in his diagram and he replaced it with "course."

"Ah, a course, so how would you deliver that content? what would that include?" I asked.

From there came more ideas: video, an age-appropriate book, course handouts or modules kids could use to learn. He gestured to those ideas, I'd scribed for him and said, "ah, that can move over here... " to grow the "what" and "how" of what he wants to accomplish.

In another part of the room a student was working out several ideas. She was considering large topics: personal defense, the environment, ceramics and tolerance.  They seem so disparate at first glance don't they? I asked her, "where do they intersect?"

She drew a four-circle, Venn diagram showing the overlaps. I offered an example: ceramic water filters that people carry during trail hikes or when wilderness camping.

That example did stretch the tolerance aspect of her interests in a direction that may not have been true to her first thoughts (I was modeling on the fly). She understood my thinking  and started to brainstorm possible intersections. Another boy wandered by and asked us what we were doing.

"Thinking. Trying to figure out an idea," she answered.

"We're looking at the intersections of her interests," I said.

He looked down at her table drawing, pointed to the overlapping center of the four circles and said, "It would be really cool to design a project that would fit right in there."

Wouldn't it?

In sharing one of those moments during Trevor Mackenzie's session this afternoon, he suggested that, that moment with the how? and so what? questions would have been a moment when he stopped the class for a mini-lesson. He said he would have shared the student's thinking and ah-ha around the question stems in order to demonstrate for students how to think about their topics in generative ways in order to focus on a viable product (to use Catalyst  language) or a unit of study or idea (to use Mackenzie's words).

I can see where stopping the class and sharing that moment could work. It would not have worked mid-class in that Catalyst class period though. My co-teacher and I had 38 students spread across several spaces -- some not in shouting distance. Context matters. We had a good chat about how I could use that moment next class to focus on students' individual ideas and the work ahead. Work flow and routines matter too and I am reminded once again of the beauty of the infinite. There are an infinite number of ways to learn and to organize or support learning.

What resonates with me right now is how I can shift my practice. How can I use the language kids need to internalize the thinking long before they will use it on their own? How can I create  instructional routines-- that sort of mini-lesson ah-ha share out --on a regular basis to teach kids the transferable thinking skills they need as they approach independence as impassioned learners?  How do you establish that sort of routine? What sort of remembering (or anecdotal note-taking) would the teacher need to do in order to insert this into the work cycle of the class?

I love thinking about the possibilities. After all, like Emily D., I dwell there.


  1. I love PD that makes you really think and grow (and had four days of such PD last week). It is so great when we can see the students doing all the "moves" to take on more ownership of their ideas. Catalyst class sounds similar to Genius Hour from what you shared.

  2. You've made this sound so accessible, Lee Ann. In my former teaching, each student chose a topic to study and with their questioning, we created a curriculum for their year study. As they first brainstormed, they went to research, then again and again returned to those first questions, expanding as well as focusing the inquiry. I love seeing your graphics, would have liked to show them off to my students! Great post!

  3. I adore the concept of the Catalyst class you described. What a wonderful concept! I think Isabelle (despite her young age) could use something like that.