Podcast for Parents: Why Are Schools Exploring Student Agency & Inquiry? - Steve Barkley

Podcast for Parents: Why Are Schools Exploring Student Agency & Inquiry?

Podcast for Parents: Why are Schools Exploring Student Agency and Inquiry?

Parent, teacher, and inquiry consultant to schools, Trevor MacKenzie, provides definitions for and explanations of why student agency and inquiry are increasingly becoming a focus for schools. Trevor connects these practices to an understanding of students’ cognitive needs and provides some areas for important teacher/parent conversation.

Send your questions to Trevor and find his resources here. 

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!


Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, and even sometimes conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.

Steve: 00:35 Why are schools exploring student agency and inquiry? Joining our podcast today is Trevor MacKenzie, a parent, teacher, author and international consultant who assists schools in implementing inquiry-based teaching and learning. As Trevor consults with schools, he’s frequently asked to speak with parents to provide an understanding of why the school is implementing this focus on inquiry learning. I asked Trevor to share his knowledge and experiences with us, So I’m glad that he’s here. Welcome, Trevor.

Trevor: 01:16 Thank you, Steve. Thanks for hosting me. Looking forward to our conversation. This will be great.

Steve: 01:20 I’m wondering if you can start with some definitions for parents on both student agency and inquiry.

Trevor: 01:29 Well, let’s start with inquiry. When we talk about inquiry, we talk about students being curious about their learning, finding personal relevance and contextual kind of meeting in the learning. And we also look at what it means to be a, a partner in learning with our students. The teacher partners with the student to co-design and co-construct learning experiences. And in that, what we have to keep in mind is what we call student agency, which is the initial point that you referenced there. Student agency is students having control over their surroundings. Students having to a certain extent decision making responsibility of voice in the learning that is occurring. And so if we want an inquiry classroom and an inquiry experience or an inquiry school, we have to nurture the conditions for student agency, which comes with a whole other bag of tricks.. Like, what are the skills our students need to foster to be successful in taking on more agency over learning? What are the things teachers can do to cultivate classrooms of curiosity? What are the structures we can engage in so all students feel confident and comfortable and safe in having a voice in their learning? So when we get down to the nitty gritty, we really look at some of those components when it comes to implementation, but more broadly speaking that’s kind of an overview of inquiry and agency, if you will.

Steve: 02:45 So we can be pretty comfortable saying that students who are learning to handle agency, students who are learning to take an inquiry approach, are developing a a set of life skills that have lots of application outside the content area that they might be studying in that particular classroom.

Trevor: 03:08 Yeah, absolutely. I would say that’s one of the benefits from teaching from an inquiry stance and if you have children who are engaging in inquiry, they’re actually harnessing or they’re sharpening a series of skills that transcend context. They’re skills that will be used in a classroom setting, a sports setting, a hobby setting, perhaps an employment setting one day, relationships. These are all skills that in the learning experience that they’re authentically engaging in and then over time, they’re gonna sharpen these skills. These are skills, Steve, that you and I are still sharpening to the day. These are lifelong skills. I think of collaboration – I’m a very different collaborator today than I was last year, than I was 30 years ago, right? So these are not things that we check the box and we say, okay, we did that thing with our kids or as a parent, I nurtured that thing. This is something that we are constantly sharpening, we are constantly reflecting on and in turn, I think we’re more aware and more competent people because of these skills. They kind of create a more holistic learning experience for our kids so they can take these skills to any context.

Steve: 04:12 It kind of matches the understanding that we don’t master parenting .

Trevor: 04:18 Bingo. Absolutely. Yeah. I have a 13 year old and a 10 year old, and it’s a different ball yarn every single day.

Steve: 04:27 So Trevor, since you’re teaching high school, give parents a little picture of what this would look like in your high school classroom.

Trevor: 04:37 Yeah. Well, it looks like not kids sitting in rows. It looks like kids sitting in clusters in small groups. And you’ll see me at the front of the room, but you’ll also see me in the room with the learners and collaborating with them. I ask a lot of guiding questions to get them talking and safe ways and their talk, their thinking, their learning informs our next steps. So you hear a lot of talk, a lot of collaboration, a lot of communication. You see a lot of movement. You see kids up at boards, white boards, maybe on Chromebooks or iPads contributing to different spaces. And all of this is what we call being evidence of learning. Evidence of where we’re at and where we need to go to next. And so, to be quite
honest, like I need to know my curriculum very, very well.

Trevor: 05:18 Like, what my kids have to know and do in order to live in that experience of co-designing with them. And again, I want them to be engaged. I want them to be curious. I want them to feel like the learning is relevant. So those are all kind of hallmarks. Those are things that I’m very mindful of in the experiences that I’m planning for. And then also in the moment, the feedback, what I’m noticing, what I’m observing, if that’s the outcome – I hope, then I’m always looking for the conditions of which that’s pretty clear to me that that’s occurring.

Steve: 05:47 So give us a snapshot of if we were in an elementary classroom, what that might look like and sound like there.

Trevor: 05:57 Well, it looks like a whole bunch of different things. I’ve seen amazing elementary colleagues get their kids out of the four walls
of the classroom and onto the land, into nature or outside and becoming observers, questioners, documenters of context, of space, of place and having that be accessing prior knowledge in the building blocks to new understanding. I’ve seen amazing elementary teachers harness something that we call provocation, Steve. And provocation is a really mindfully planned experience and the intent of the provocation is to get your kids full of wonder. Get them curious about an idea or a concept or something in your curriculum. And provocation, it can be many things. It could be an image, it could be a picture book, it could be a guest speaker. It could be a really interesting video.

Trevor: 06:42 It could be a really amazing text, a story or a poem even, or a song. So provocation essentially is a tool in the inquiry teacher’s toolkit and we use that tool when we try to spark curiosity and wonder. And those are things, if I can be frank, Steve, a little pokey, if you will, curiosity and wonder – all kids come into our schools full of curiosity and full of wonder. They all enter kindergarten in their primary years, they’re full of curiosity. And then something happens to said curiosity, right? Like somewhere along their schooling experience, they become a little bit more complacent, a little bit more “hoop jumpy,” if you will and that just simply isn’t good enough. Not only is it not good enough for me because we want curious kids, but those skills that we were referring to earlier, they’re more likely to bubble up. If we have curious kids. They’re more likely to be willing to collaborate and be critical thinkers and be highly communicative and self regulators if they’re curious kids. And so, when I see curiosity dwindle in a schooling setting, that’s highly problematic and that’s need for a strong word, is what we call intervention. That’s where we come in and support teachers in doing something different. So curiosity is something that is a benchmark in the schools that we work with and the work I do with teachers.

Steve: 07:57 So I was smiling as you were talking there because in my mind, it’s kind of natural if I go to the preschool program. Is that a fair?

Trevor: 08:09 Yeah.

Steve: 08:10 And I sometimes describe that that a preschool teacher doesn’t have an option because the kids won’t put up with you teaching .

Trevor: 08:21 Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

Steve: 08:24 They’re walking in the door ready to learn and get out of the way and create the opportunity for their curiosity to to unfold and it’s a matter of putting the right right materials and options and possibilities down in front of them and supporting them in that process. And somehow we we end up teaching them to take a more compliant, complacent role as things go on on.

Trevor: 08:56 Yeah. And I don’t fault teachers in that. I really don’t, Steve, I think throughout the last number of decades, what has been our teaching intent? It’s been for the most part, broadly speaking, to get kids to produce and retrieve something, to get them to create something really specific and get them to remember something. And now the landscape of education has shifted absolutely. It’s not shifting. It has shifted. And now teachers are charged with developing competencies in their students certain skills that, again, they transcend context. They’re kind of life skills, aren’t they? And so it’s not just about what we’re learning and what we can remember about what we learned, it’s also now about these really, really important skills. And many districts, many organizations are actually trimming some of those content standards specifically, to lift up more of these broader competency standards. And so, I can’t fault teachers. If we were trained to teach towards retrieval and memorization, then of course, the easiest thing to do, Steve, is me talk at you for 30 minutes and you regurgitate and remember. But the landscape of education has definitely shifted and now we are charged with something, I would say, more holistic and more important and more helpful for our kids.

Steve: 10:10 My my way of putting that out when I get a chance to work with new teachers is that because of my age, I can take you back a whole lot of years. But I actually was trained to prepare lessons that had a single learning outcome. So, at the end of this lesson, you can add these two numbers, or you can write this sentence. And the idea that you were supposed to be learning collaborative skills or critical thinking skills, or communication skills, none of that was on the table. As soon as you put those things on the table, then, the teaching learning process has to change when you’re looking at multiple outcomes.

Trevor: 10:54 That that’s just it. If we are asking teachers to engage in crafting learning experiences where students are experiencing collaboration and critical thinking, et cetera, well, we have to teach the way we teach, right? Like, if we want them to be better collaborators, we can’t stand in front of the room for an hour and talk at them. We need to create conditions for them to turn and talk and feel safety and have, really, a deep understanding of what it means to be collaborative. And so definitely what you propose there, that shift in your practice and where you were at and where you are now, that reflects the landscape of education that has shifted beneath us. And many teachers are finding themselves a part of this shift, like yourself and myself included, I started teaching in a very different reality, a very different series of expectations and assessments and now I find myself in a different space.

Trevor: 11:40 And so that’s challenging. Undeniably. I think including parents as part of the stakeholders and having a voice in the conversation is deeply, deeply important. And so this podcast helps, but I think, yeah, having those conversations with parents about why we’re making this shift – the skills matter, but it also cognitively, there are some reasons why we teach from this stance. There’s some reasons why we are doing these things different to support our students’ cognitive development as well.
Steve: 12:10 Yeah. And so parents can be coming from that same confusing background of a way that school “was for them” and what they walk away with and it can be looking different if if my son or daughter’s school is making a shift in the teaching learning process.

Trevor: 12:31 Absolutely. So, one example that I often see, especially at the middle years, because cognitively, at the middle years, we know that students are craving opportunities to take risk. Cognitively, all kids want autonomy and ownership and responsibility over something. And that’s why they break rules, right? This is why they challenge you in the middle years, because cognitively their brain is saying, you know, jump off that edge, throw that thing, kick that thing. So cognitively, it’s not their fault. Cognitively, it’s what their brain is saying, “do, do, do.” So I’m curious then, for middle school teachers, what are we doing that limits risk taking or penalizes risks or stifles failure or says, failure’s bad? Of course, when I’m thinking about as a teacher, I’m thinking as assessment, right? The minute you put a number on something, it tells a kid, well, don’t take a risk because you’re gonna be, you know, labeled as this number or this letter, or this percentage.

Trevor: 13:19 So one thing schools are doing to align the assessment practice with the cognitive needs of our students is they’re going anecdotal, feedback, descriptive, heavy. They’re like these vignettes that they’re painting of where students are at and where they’re going to. It’s so rich and clear, and it’s celebrating growth. It’s celebrating success, rather than strip all that rich language away and just give it a number, right? So gone are the days in many schools that I support, where in the middle years there are numbers and grades, and it’s mostly these beautiful vignettes, but of course, parents listening, what are they used to? What do they want? Maybe not what they want, but maybe what do they anticipate schooling is like? So a teacher will come in and say, or a parent will come in and say, “hey, why isn’t my kid at an A?”

Trevor: 14:09 Or, “why aren’t you giving A’s and B’s and C’s?” This is an important conversation for us to have. Just because we experienced it, Steve doesn’t mean it was best for learning and we know different now. We know different now about where our adolescent brains are and how we can do things differently in our teaching practices to support our students and being confident in feeling like they’re safe in their learning rather than judged or ridiculed or compared. So parents listening, if you’re seeing that assessment shift in your child’s schooling experience, that’s probably why, and that would be a great conversation to have as a school, as a leader or coach or coordinator. And as parents, talk about the purpose behind some of these decisions so you can see the mindfulness. It’s not just a simple decision schools have made. It’s very, very based in research.

Steve: 14:57 So closing us out here, I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit as a parent with with your kids involved in inquiry within school – kind of what’s your parent response to that? If you weren’t the inquiry consultant?

Trevor: 15:16 Well, it’s been a journey, Steve. To be quite frank, when our first son was born, and both of our sons are insatiably curious in their own ways, but when our first son was born, he was really an accelerator to this work and putting this work out there to the world more broadly. I wanted my son to have a schooling experience that was meaningful, that honored his unique characteristics and his dispositions and his curiosity. And so it kind of accelerated my work, but it also accelerated my reflection. If I want that for my kiddo, guess what I should do for all of people’s kiddos? I should be teaching more from this stance and honoring that more. And I feel for my children, I honestly do because my work precedes them.

Trevor: 15:57 Their teachers know who’s coming in the classroom and gosh, I feel for them. A little bit of pressure. But that being said, I’ve seen some beautiful things in all schools I support, but especially my children’s own schools. I think partly our curriculum here in our local area and our region really aligns beautifully with inquiry. I think, again, the landscape of education has shifted. So it’s not like my book is landed on its teacher’s desk and they feel obligated to teach from the stance. This is the way pre-service programs are actually being structured now to teach construcivism and inquiry and certain skills. And so teachers are entering the profession with a different kind of series of values and structures that they are implementing with their scholars. So I’m very thankful for where we are now in education.

Trevor: 16:43 I think obviously there are different pockets around the world. Some are further along and more innovative and the work is more accelerated and some that they’re working towards us to work more meaningfully and authentically in their local context. But my children have always been a meter for me and what I should do with my scholars. If I want that experience for them, I’m not gonna knock on a teacher’s door and say, “hey, why aren’t you doing it this way?” I’m gonna show up with my scholars and present the conditions to have them learn the way I hope my children are learning in their schooling experience.

Steve: 17:14 My guess is there’s a lot of parents that take a natural inquiry approach. I talked about how it’s kind of natural in the preschool setting at school, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of parents take that natural inquiry approach with with our young kids and it’s kind of a reminder for us as parents to keep having that extend and not to think that as a parent, I need to be reversing something because we’re now in school.

Trevor: 17:49 Yeah. You’ve hit a whole other conversation or podcast episode, Steve, which is like, we get to a point as parents where we have to understand that our, our childhood and our growth and that experience, that narrative doesn’t necessarily mean that we wanna mirror that with our own children. Like, understanding our bias and our kind of autoethnography and our learning and growth DNA, like, what has shaped us showing up through who we are today? And we as parents, of course, we reflect, we do that hard work. Do I wanna be the parent that I had when I was a kid for my children? And there’s a lot of depth to that conversation. And also, of course, inquiries the through line. If we value curiosity and agency and ownership and a sense of belonging and meaning, if that’s our through line, then we are constantly kind of responding and intentional with how we parent and how we show up for our children and how we interact with them. And so I think you really scratching the surface of some really deep parenting reflection. Do we wanna let go of our ancestral DNA in terms of behaviors and decision making, or are we gonna kind of dump that on our kids? And I know everyone listening’s gonna wanna do the former rather than the latter. But there’s a lot of depth there. There’s a lot of depth there to explore that for sure.

Steve: 19:07 We’re actually describing an inquiry approach to parenting.

Trevor: 19:11 Absolutely. I haven’t written that book yet. But, ironically, Steve, a lot of schools I support, they say, “hey, Trevor, we wanna do a book club with parents. Which of your books should we use?” And I say, “don’t give them my books. There are other amazing books around adolescent cognitive development around parenting.” One book I deeply love, parents, if you’re listening, it’s called, “The Self-Driven Child” and I love it. It’s about why we want students to have, kids to have autonomy and agency in life and cognitively again, what’s happening upstairs for them that these conditions are actually helping them grow and helping flourish. So books like that allow parents to see why schools are engaging in work that is inquiry infused.

Steve: 19:55 Well, Trevor, thank you for a really rich rich conversation. Wanna share with listeners how they might touch base with you with questions or thoughts that they have that they’d like to follow up?

Trevor: 20:08 Yeah. Thank you, Steve. trevormackenzie.com is my website. It’s kind of the hub for connecting and accessing social media and publications and news and resources as well. There’s a lot of free stuff there for everyone to engage in and be reflective about. So thank you, Steve, for hosting me. The time went by super fast and greatly appreciate it.

Steve: 20:27 Thank you for for extending my learning. Besides having fun, I think you you said that a couple times, that curiosity generates fun and I certainly experienced that in our conversation.
Trevor: 20:44 Thank you, Steve.

Steve [Outro]: 20:47 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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