It’s funny. There is much talk of inquiry-based learning in schools, but very little of inquiry-based leadership.
Neither is there much of it in practice.
I pondered, for some time, where to begin this series of posts about the evolution of a school in which innovative, even revolutionary, ideas like Studio 5 could become a realistic possibility.
But, looking back, it is clear that the habit of school leaders perpetually asking questions is the very first ingredient in the soup of change.
Why is it like that?
Could it be like this?
What is the purpose of that?
Do we need to do this?
In 2013, the International School of Ho Chi Minh City leadership team – an entirely new group of nine – had no choice other than to ask questions like these. The school was starting a new era, a clean slate… and it was exciting.
These habits of questioning didn’t fizzle out though. We didn’t rest on our laurels, we didn’t allow practices to fossilize or thinking to congeal. Adrian, our Head of School, just would not accept it. “School is broken” he would say “what are we going to do about that?”
This approach permeated everything we did and, Kurtis, the Primary Principal opened up as many aspects of running the school as possible to debate by adopting an inquiry approach to things that, in many schools, are not even remotely that way. Here are a few examples of what this looks like
Primary leadership meetings
The intention was that these were always thinking meetings, where issues, challenges or opportunities were put on the table and where input was actively sought, captured and acted upon.
The appraisal process
While still jumping through the hoops of a mandated process, teachers were invited to give their feedback about the direction of the school – things they’d like to see changed, implemented or taken away – and these thoughts were documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.
All too often, these are one-way information delivery meetings dominated by the person with the most authority. Our meetings were, as much as possible, the opposite. All subject and grade level coordinators, in weekly 30-40 minute meetings, were frequently invited to help make decisions about the day-to-day running of the school. Ideas, thoughts and questions were gathered, documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.
The Green Hat Room
It was made explicit that the primary office was a place in which “Green Hat Thinking” (de Bono) was both promoted and expected. Anyone who came in with a problem, a dilemma or an idea was invited to be part of the thinking around it. This goes against the limited view that leadership means “you give me your problem and make it my problem”. People struggled with this, at first, but grew into the intention behind it. The office was always busy with the sound of problem-solving and idea-generation.
Trust is an essential ingredient in inquiry, and inquiry is an essential ingredient in trust. To be able to trust someone, we cannot micromanage them. We must be curious about what they might do, what we might learn from them and how they may shift our thinking. This trust is, of course, not blind – there are always those upon whom trust is bestowed more easily than others. However, the intention was that trust was the default.
When you deliberately put students, their needs and their learning first, there can be no definitive answers. Education is a behavioural science, not a formula. When it is clear that students are suffering, or not flourishing, questions must be asked of ourselves, our pedagogy, our environments, our culture and our school. It is in asking those questions, and in how we respond to those questions, that school leaders show themselves to be inquirers, or not.
“Let’s try it”
This is a crucial mentality if there is to be any change in education. While it is a good idea to base your practices on established research when possible, sometimes you are the research. This does not mean leaders glibly saying “yeah… go for it” to every idea under the sun. Quite the opposite. It means encouraging disciplined thinking and planning, data collection and reflection, i.e. inquiry.
There’s a book in this, as well as many consultancy opportunities, so I’d better stop here or Kurtis will kill me!
Please feel free to share your thoughts about what inquiry-based leadership looks like in your your school context, or what you wish it would look like!
Although meetings are a context for collaboration, they are not collaboration itself. It is totally possible for collaboration to exist without meetings, and it is also totally possible for meetings to exist without collaboration.
True collaboration becomes part of a school culture when educators are inclined to be collaborative. Not because they have been told to collaborate, but because they can see the value in it for learning.
This inclination to be collaborative involves a number of habits. Here’s my take on what 7 of them might be…
- Friendliness – Highly collaborative educators are basically friendly. They enjoy chatting with people, and this opens up a myriad of possibilities to enrich learning. Because they are friendly, other teachers like hanging out with them and this makes it much easier to work together. Pretty simple really.
- Being curious – Highly collaborative educators are naturally curious, always asking questions and always interested in what is going around them. This curiosity is infectious and invites other teachers and students to get involved. Curious people are more likely to stick their head into other classrooms, more likely to probe in order to find out what people really mean and more likely to take an interest in what other people think. They are learners and are highly aware of how much there is to learn from their colleagues, students and community.*
- Looking and listening for connections – Highly collaborative educators want to be collaborative and are, consciously or subconsciously, alert and actively seeking out connections and relationships with ideas, knowledge, talents, skills, thoughts, places and people. Because of this natural connectivity inclination, highly collaborative people become more receptive to coincidence, serendipity and good fortune that can make learning rich, complex and real.
- Continuing the thinking – Highly collaborative educators don’t switch their brains off when they leave the school campus and back on again when they arrive the next day. They’re still thinking late into the night, jotting down notes, sharing ideas on social media, reading blogs, contacting other educators and collaborating with a wide variety of networks. In addition, they generally like to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues over coffee the next day and don’t feel ashamed about “talking shop”!
- Putting learning first – Highly collaborative educators automatically generate more work for themselves by putting learning first, they can’t help themselves! When you put learning first, you remain open to all possibilities and are always keen to explore them further to see if they will have an impact on learning, and these possibilities frequently involve collaborating with other people.
- Making time – Highly collaborative educators do not allow themselves to use time as an excuse not to collaborate. If there’s an idea they want to share with a colleague, they make the time to talk to them. If someone needs or wants to talk with them, they make time to listen generously. If an idea demands more time to become fully developed, they make the time to work on it. Most importantly, they don’t wait to be told what time they can collaborate, they just do it instinctively.
- Making thinking visible – Highly collaborative people invite others to join them by putting their thinking “out there”. They are honest about what they think, they make crazy suggestions, they verbalise possibilities, they expose their vulnerabilities, they take public notes and draw visuals in meetings, they offer to help, they leave their doors open (or remove them), they stick post-its on the wall, they display quotes, they write, they share. Far from being about attention-seeking or self-promotion, these tendencies are all about looking for like minds, allies and the desire to be better educators.
Would you add more to this list?
Thanks to Chye de Ryckel for asking the question that prompted me to write this blog post!
*Thanks to Alison Francis for adding more to the Being curious habit.
Artwork: Totem Pole by Ken Vieth
In today’s world of multi-tasking – managing work, your family, your home, social media, etc… Life has become ever so complicated!
There isn’t a single moment of “quiet time” that we can afford for ourselves during the day, week, or sometimes even in a month. Life just goes by, with us spinning in place, putting out fires and living everywhere but in the moment. In order to get focused and move forward, we need to quieten the noise!
How do you quieten the noise and get focused?
Step 1: Reflect on the following questions
- What are your top 3 priorities?
- What are your top 3 distractions?
Step 2: Note down & pay attention to the following
- Do you multi-task?
- If you answered ‘yes’ to the previous question, does that truly
make you more productive?
- Pay attention to where you can say ‘no’ more often. Saying ‘yes’ to too many people or things often means saying ‘no’ to something in your own life.
- Understand what boosts your focus and use it when needed.
- Pay attention to when and where you can do a little extra to finish off something important.
Step 3: Outline your plan in small, achievable and measurable
- Devise a plan to consciously block your distractions for chunks of time during the day.
- Focus on your priorities and ensure everything you do, every single day, is moving you a step closer towards achieving them.
- Start with a one-week plan, follow through on it and assess your success on the weekend.
Step 4: Start working towards the new YOU
Are you ready to take action and make changes in your environment, habits and life? If yes, make a note of 3 actions to create more focus in your life.
Knowing about your strengths and weak links – and consciously working with them – can put you way ahead of yourself. If you find yourself wanting to learn more about the cluster of emotions and experiences you’ve become, please do reach out to me and I can conduct online life-coaching sessions with you. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, through my website at
www.innersensecoaching.com, or via LinkedIn or Facebook.
Do you know your weak link/(s)?
All of us have weak links in our lives. For some of us it’s the things
we do to sabotage ourselves. Do you know what you do to
How do you sabotage yourself?
Step 1: Reflect on your life
Think through all the times you have led your life as you desire. Now
think through all the times you haven’t.
Step 2: Note down any patterns in your behavior
- Was there a similarity in the way events played out?
- What was the difference between successful and unsuccessful
- What patterns did you notice in the events that weren’t a
- Did you knowingly or unknowingly sabotage yourself?
Step 3: Outline your plan in small, achievable and measurable
- How can you anticipate patterns in your life?
- How can you intercept those patterns and use them to your
Step 4: Start working towards the new YOU
- Create an achievable plan and start working towards it.
- Now that you’re starting to be more aware of yourself, how can
you continue to help yourself?
Knowing about your strengths & weak links, and consciously working
with them, can put you way ahead of yourself. If you find yourself
wanting to learn more about the cluster of emotions and experiences
you’ve become, please do reach out to me and I can conduct online
life-coaching sessions with you. I can be reached via email at
email@example.com, through my website at
www.innersensecoaching.com, or via LinkedIn or Facebook.
I caught myself again.
The last time was in 2013 and I wrote about it then too.
What did I catch myself doing? Rushing my children… and, by doing so, denying them countless opportunities to learn.
We’ve just moved to Paris. Everything is new. At the moment, the newest things are christmas decorations in the streets and the increasingly intense cold. Every morning, my children just want to look, talk, feel, experience, ponder, notice, appreciate and wonder. But, I have caught myself rushing them. Hurrying them up towards some imaginary or completely unimportant deadline – the need to be early, on time or not late.
It doesn’t really matter if I’m early, on time or not late. My children matter. their experiences of the world matter.
It’s shocking for an educator to do this to his own children. But, we do it to our students every day. We hurry them from lesson to lesson. We dictate their agenda all day. We reduce break times. We don’t give them enough time to eat. We decide if they can go to the toilet or not. We treat “inquiry” as a stand-alone subject that we do in the last period, if they’re lucky. We make their lives busy, indeed we teach the art of “busyness”, as if we don’t trust them to do anything of value if we don’t.
And yet, we all know that the most powerful learning happens when we slow down, when we give them sustained periods of time, when we don’t interrupt and when they’re making choices about why, how and what to learn.
Old habits die hard. How much of modern schooling is still “old habits”?
We’ve always stated that meaningful learning is flammable. It starts with a spark and then ignites! You know when learning has caught fire….. agency ensues and the student drives their learning and not too much can get in their way. The difference between a flame and incendiary learning can be categorized quite easily in terms of duration, desire and determination.
A flame burns during a specific period of time (unit of inquiry) and usually reduces to embers, just like a typical fire. The student was empowered and energized, yet there was a point that they moved on to the next thing.
Incendiary learning catches fire and stays burning bright, long after a unit of inquiry. The student is empowered and energized, and they are still in the fire taking their learning even further, long after the next thing.
A stark contrast. One is perishable and one is enduring.
The subtle difference between ‘was‘ and ‘is‘ has a remarkable difference at the same time. This changes the whole complexion of learning as the ‘energy of learning’ has been sustained and has the learner enthralled.
Last week, I visited a previous School I was at and a number of the students I taught literally, hunted me down. One of those students was Nicole.
This is Nicole as a Grade 5 student chatting with the Head of School (Adrian Watts) and explaining the message she is trying to communicate through her art piece. Her art work is incredibly personal and powerful as she is expressing the importance of finding her voice and expressing who she is. The mouths in the background are all those who have told her that she can’t do anything. With Nicole at the center of her art work, her positivity is radiating out and drowning out the negative and judgmental voices. This was a real turning point for Nicole in developing her self belief. She had a teacher who saw something special, and it was all about allowing her to see that too. This was Step 1 in Nicole’s journey of finding herself.
The next learning experience pushed her even further. Enter the PYP Exhibition. Nicole’s artwork was the first step she needed to take and this naturally led her to explore and better understand her next self-discovery…. putting her new transformative experience of who she is becoming into action and finding direction in the process!
This is Nicole during the Exhibition selling her ‘FABTAB’ (comes in different sizes and colours) at a market at a funky local cafe and skater hangout. This is the moment that shaped her to be a confident and articulate communicator as she interacted with dozens and dozens of people interested in her entrepreneurial idea. Incendiary Learning! Students, parents, teachers and customers were truly astonished!
As I mentioned above, I saw Nicole last week. We got talking and she said that she just made her first nternational order to Ireland of 100 FabTabs….. Nicole is still producing, refining and taking orders, now international orders, for her FabTab. What a journey she has been on and is still very much on. It all started from her artwork, that was the first step she took in believing in herself, because she had someone who believed in her. We must believe in all of our students. Personalize learning, individualize learning, whatever form it takes or looks like, choose the right approach at the right time to connect, develop and strengthen their identity of who they are. Work from that point, work from within! Let students determine their own identity and not the other way around! It is our role to play a hand in nurturing and nudging them in positive ways to see their own potential.
This is exactly what I mean by Incendiary Learning! The fire is still burning bright and Nicole has stretched in ways where she can confidently talk about the learning experience….. long after ‘the unit.’ Nicole has led her learning and is proud of what she has achieved. Agency…… yeah, true Agency at its very core! This is Nicole now in Grade 7 doing a photo shot for this very piece. The relationship and connection seems just like yesterday, still very much alive too!
Again and again…. keep our eye on the ball!
Kath Murdoch says that inquiry teachers “let kids in on the secret”, and I totally agree.
Far too often, we keep all of the planning, decision-making, assessment data, idea-generation, problem-solving and thought-processes of teaching hidden away from our students. Because of this, teaching becomes something that we do to students, not with students. As long as we are doing all of those things ourselves, behind closed doors, education will retain its traditional teacher-student power relationship and, no matter how often we use fancy words like “agency” and “empowerment”, students will continue to participate in, rather than take control of, their learning.
PYP teachers take simple steps to “let kids in on the secret”, to collaborate with their students.
They begin by showing students that their thoughts matter – they quote them, they display their words, they refer back to their thinking and they use their thinking to shape what happens next. When students become aware that this is happening, their relationship with learning instantly begins to shift.
Then, PYP teachers start thinking aloud – openly thinking about why, how and what to do in front of their students and not having a rigid, pre-determined plan or structure. This invites them into conversations about their learning, invites negotiation about how their time could be used, what their priorities might be and what their “ways of working” might be. There is a palpable shift in the culture of learning when this starts happening, from compliance to intrinsic motivation.
Finally, PYP teachers seek as many opportunities as possible to hand the thinking over to their students deliberately – not only because they have faith in them, but also because they know their students are likely to do it better than they can themselves! It’s shocking how frequently we make the assumption that students are not capable of making decisions, or need to be protected from the processes of making decisions, or that getting them to make decisions is a waste of “learning time”. As soon as we drop that assumption and, basically, take completely the opposite way of thinking… everything changes. Hand things over to them and they will blow you away! I still love this video of my old class in Bangkok figuring out the sleeping arrangements for their Camp and doing it way better and with more respect than a group of adults ever could!
So… today, tomorrow, next week… look for ways to let kids in on the secret, and let us know what happens as a result!