Inquiry for Students Teachers and Administrators

I found a great article, School as Inquiry, by Steven Wolk in the October 2008 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.

The article matched some thinking and presenting that I have recently been doing.

Wolk uses the terms Transmission Teaching and the Illusion of Learning. He asks, “When students sit at their desk as teachers talk, are they really hearing what the teacher is saying? Are they intellectually engaged?”(pg 117)

I’ve examined this as the struggle between being focused on teaching and being focused on learning.
The biggest change that has occurred in my work with coaching over the last 15 years is an increased focus on observing the learner vs the teacher and studying the teacher’s choices as they impact the learners’ choices.

Wolk has a great statement that captured the observation of the learner for me.

“Teaching through Inquiry considers our work a failure if students do not leave the school filled with questions and the yearning to explore them.” (pg 117)

I’d suggest that school administrators, coaches, and staff developers could voice a similar goal; we consider our work a failure if teachers do not leave our conferences, conversations, and workshops filled with questions and the yearning to explore them.

Wolk provides an inquiry process including, plan reflect, discuss, debate, ask more questions, make connections, and rethink inquiry. Wolk adds that having questions that guide inquiry is key, but behind the questions are “big ideas”. (pg 118)

Again, Wolk’s comments fit for instructional leaders’ work with teachers. “Big Ideas” about teaching and learning should connect with coaching questions that promote teacher inquiry. Here is a diagram I use to illustrate teacher and coach inquiry conversation:

I suggest that the coach works from inside this circle, asking questions and providing input that increase a teacher’s observations (often the coach sees, hears, and feels, things not obvious to the teachers). Coaching questions and conversations increase teachers’ thinking (inquiry) that generate a desire to produce or create an idea. When teachers engage their students in a learning activity, they are experimenting, then identifying if the activity is producing the learning requires observation and thinking, which leads to the teacher’s next decision.

Wolk captures the importance of a culture of inquiry:
“The best teachers… live a life filled with learning, thinking, reading, and debating. Because inquiry is an important part of their lives, inquiry becomes an essential part of their classroom.” (pg 119)

As instructional leaders, we need to be “teaching” in ways that cause our staffs, our students, and ourselves to be living a culture of inquiry.

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2 Responses to “ Inquiry for Students Teachers and Administrators ”

  1. Glynda Johnson, Fairfax, VA Says:

    Stephen, I thank you for the many times I have been honored to witness you living out this belief in promoting inquiry. Each time I attend a session facilitated by you, I leave bubbling over with new ideas, fresh perspective, and plans for shifts in my own consulting, facilitating, and coaching practice.

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    Thanks! Your comments made my day!
    I believe that my use of inquiry is motivated by teachers like you who are anxious to learning and willing to share.
    Happy New Year

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