ECE Resources

Practical tips for sustaining curricular and teacher inquiry

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

In our webinar with teachers Angela Hogan and Laraine Tuaputa from Kids’ Domain, we learned about ways in which teachers can use inquiry as a tool for both children’s curriculum and teachers’ professional learning. Drawing on examples of inquiries with their own teams, children, and families, Lah and Angela offered practical advice on how to weave the inquiry process into everyday practice, and how to generate ongoing momentum and energy for learning through inquiry.

Key insights from the webinar include:

Skills, knowledge, and understanding for engaging in inquiry come with time, effort, and experimentation. They require deep levels of intentionality, reflection, trust, curiosity, playfulness, and open-mindedness. At Kids’ Domain, the inquiry process is grounded by years of creating a culture of inquiry (as discussed in an earlier webinar). Inquiry is seen as a fluid process that looks different in different contexts, but that bridges past and present knowledge while enriching and shaping practice. Inquiries can take many forms, as there are multiple possibilities for interconnecting different threads of learning. It is a complex and challenging process, but high levels of experimentation lead to rich and deep professional learning, with positive impacts for children.

A shared understanding of purpose is critical. Teams need to determine a collective purpose, which might come from what is important to kaiako, children, and whānau, past inquiries, aspects of Te Whāriki, te ao Māori,or centre philosophy. It might investigate ways to make a difference in the lives of others or contribute to a changing world. At Kids’ Domain, recent inquiry cycles have examined pedagogies for listening to children and to each other, for developing an appreciation and understanding of the spirited nature of toddlers, and for designing innovative spaces that nurture mana and spark creativity for infants and toddlers. Simplicity and fun are key to success!

Questions structure teachers’ inquiries. Inquiries work well when there is a clear focal point to help draw teachers’ gaze and energy. At Kids’ Domain, teachers have wondered ‘what will we learn when we tune into the children’s ideas and theory-making about life?’ and ‘how do children make meaning about life, their world, and their place in it?’. They have queried how an exploration of Māori atua and mythology might connect to children’s walks in the Domain (a large area of parkland near the centre). It is also helpful to identify stages in inquiry such as those involved in ‘noticing, recognising and responding’ or ‘I see, I wonder, I think, I do’.

Teachers plan specific methodologies to pursue the inquiry topic. These usually involve selecting a core group of children. For the Aroha team’s inquiry about listening to children’s theory-making about life, teachers chose to go for a walk at the same time each week, to the same place, following the same route, to support the children to investigate and develop theories about life. Infant and toddler teachers decided to work in pairs, with core groups of children of a similar age, and experimented with environments to support curiosity, using video to record children’s responses. Teachers made a conscious and intentional decision to immerse themselves fully in the process with children and to focus on listening to children.

Documentation is used to support the momentum of inquiry. Teachers at Kids’ Domain have experimented with pedagogical documentation, which is carried out collaboratively and with a range of materials to capture multiple perspectives. Older children in the Aroha group engaged in documentation of their weekly walks, and teachers revisited this documentation with children before each walk, in order to recast children’s ideas and thinking.

Teachers engage infants and toddlers as well as older children in inquiry. With younger children, the inquiry process can seem challenging alongside the everyday complexities and care needs of this group. At Kids’ Domain, teachers have found that focusing on children’s ways of connecting with the world has been fruitful for their professional learning. They have focused on open-ended materials, and on relationships and interactions between children and their world. For example, the Kereru group’s inquiry focused on children’s interactions with cabbage leaf fronds found on the playground.

Professional learning meetings, held every three weeks, focus on facilitating professional development through the inquiry process. Teams intentionally create enjoyable meetings, focused on warmth, humour, and togetherness, in which teachers feel safe and can be playful and courageous. Meetings are very intentional. Teachers analyse, evaluate, engage in dialogue, and share decision-making processes about what is happening in the inquiry and where it might be taken next. Questions are important for maintaining momentum and narrowing the focus of the inquiry so that it does not become overwhelming. Teachers might ask of the data: ‘what stood out for you?’ and ‘what are you noticing?’. Teachers also formulate questions together to work on for the following three weeks, and to report on in the next meeting.

Inquiry is made a priority, so that teams do not get caught up in (less-inspirational) day-to-day routines and housekeeping. For example, the Kereru team decided to dedicate teacher-release time towards working on inquiry processes in the room and helping inquiries to gain momentum. Teachers chose to collaborate in pairs, which they find more practical and sustainable than whole team collaboration, and presented their findings to the rest of the team at their professional learning meetings. This empowered teachers to lead different aspects of the inquiry, and the shared leadership and participation was crucial to ensuring the inquiry process thrived.

Teachers find ways to share inquiries with families and whānau. Teachers include information about inquiries in their weekly or fortnightly overview of what is happening in the centre. Teachers hold whānau evenings in which they share aspects of the inquiry in light-hearted and playful ways, and offer families opportunities to connect with and contribute to the inquiry process. They might invite families to create a collaborative work of art for the children to see when they arrive the next day. Other means of inviting participation are also used: for example, the Aroha team projected large photos from their walks investigating life on to the wall, and invited whānau to participate by writing their ideas and comments on post-it notes next to the photos. Teachers often make suggestions about ways that families might explore inquiry topics at home, or send materials from inquiries home for experimentation. Participation and the shared perspectives of families help teachers to see more possibilities for the inquiry.

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