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ECE Resources

Developing an inquiry mindset for curriculum and professional learning

By Vicki Hargraves

In our webinar, Bridgette Towle (Director) and Shirlene Murphy (Education Manager) at Kids’ Domain in Auckland discuss their experiences of building a culture of inquiry in their centre. They explain how they view inquiry as a tool for both children’s curriculum and teachers’ professional development, and offer the insights they have gained through reflecting on and continually redesigning their approach to collective research and inquiry.  

Inquiry takes place at Kids’ Domain every day and is both spontaneous and sustained in investigations over time. The team view inquiry as interrelational and living. Everyone engages in inquiry as a community endeavour. It is a natural and lifelong process of discovery and renewal that generates new meanings and new understandings about ourselves, others, and the world. Positioned as inquiry, both curriculum and teachers’ professional learning are co-constructed and co-designed.  

Inquiry is not so much a process as a mindset or way of being. It involves teachers in nurturing their capacity to be open, curious, experimental and deeply reflective. To do this, they need strong, trusting relationships and the support of management and leaders. They also need freedom, agency, voice, and the ability to act as a community. At Kids’ Domain, teachers examined their image of the teacher and of the child and moved beyond an image of the teacher as the knower and expert towards a new dynamic in which children and teachers are co-researchers and co-thinkers. They draw on their values of whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, aroha, ako and whakamana to create this culture of inquiry.  

Inquiry is often difficult to navigate and will generate a range of emotions. Teachers need to be bold, courageous and tenacious, and to share their moments of vulnerability as well as their interest and excitement. Engaging in inquiry can be scary, exhilarating, frustrating and delightful! Looking for the magical moments help teachers get passionate about something and generate momentum, and makes it easier to navigate through the inevitable challenges. Support from peers and leaders is also important. 

Inquiry is deeply intentional. At Kids’ Domain, teachers start with a clear intention in terms of the values underpinning an inquiry and the lens they want to look through, but inquiry is not pre-planned and pre-determined: rather, teachers follow the path that the inquiry creates for itself, allowing each inquiry to grow and sustain itself. Teachers also find that inquiry is best facilitated by a ‘hearty’ inquiry question based on the core fundamental concepts that make up the centre’s philosophy. As the group engages in self-directed and self-generated learning, it informs and enriches their philosophy of teaching and their understanding of themselves as individuals and as a group. Inquiry is iterative and the continual spiral helps to build the culture of inquiry in the centre. 

First steps include learning to listen, to think, to question and to talk. Teachers at Kids’ Domain started by storytelling about their own lives: this helped them to engage in critical thinking and move out of black and white thinking into the ‘grey spaces’ of inquiry. As they moved into inquiry as a curricular focus with children, centre-wide topics helped teams to learn from each other and their different approaches to the chosen focus. Then they focused on learning to listen, making notes and observing. They considered both the content of their inquiries and the skills and knowledge involved in enacting inquiry. They ensured that everyone had a shared and active understanding of what inquiry looks and feels like across different teams. 

Developing a culture of inquiry takes time. Kids’ Domain have been developing their practice around inquiry for 15 years. Every year and with each inquiry, teachers reflect on what they have layered into their practice, and what else they might need to add or encourage in the following year’s investigation. Over time, leaders mentor each other and the teaching team to take on lead roles in the inquiry, drawing on everyone’s strengths and talents.  

Intentional documentation has facilitated Kids’ Domain’s inquiry process. Pedagogical documentation is seen as a living dynamic process that not only assesses and communicates learning but generates and activates it, helping to shape the community of learners. Teachers stopped using solo non-contact time to write stories about individual children and individual happenings, and tried instead to focus on documenting broader stories about the interrelational experiences among children and between children and materials, children and spaces, and children and teachers.  

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