When are you more of a managerial leader verses an inquiry leader in the classroom? There are important times for each. What do students learn from your approach? How conscious are you of the practices you are implementing? Jessica Vance, the author “Leading with a Lens of Inquiry: Cultivating Conditions for Curiosity and Empowering Agency,” describes why “inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning that honors the learner.”
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley ponders out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’M delighted you’re here.
Steve: 00:32 Using Inquiry to set the stage for Student Voice and Choice. Our guest today is Jessica Vance, an experienced teacher, instructional coach, workshop leader, and the author of “Leading With the Lens of Inquiry: Cultivating Conditions for Curiosity and Empowering Agency.” Welcome, Jessica.
Jessica: 00:54 Thank you so much for having me, Steve.
Steve: 00:57 Jessica, when I read your book, in chapter one, you make this statement: “inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning that honors the learner.” And I’m wondering if you could use that statement and kind of lead us into your teaching experiences that led to your understanding that statement.
Jessica: 01:20 Yeah. I think we’re all in education for the kids, right? We love kids and so our intention is to do what’s best for them. And unfortunately, the systems that we have in most of our modern and current education is one that doesn’t necessarily honor them in that sort of way. And so I love how inquiry is a stance and mindset and way of being that really puts our learners back at the center. And what does that actually really mean? It means actively seeking, actively listening. I love how Ron Rechart says we need to be vigorously listening to our learners. That language is just so beautiful. So with the seeking and the listening, we’re also taking action with the interest and needs and curiosities of our learners. And so what does that mean? That means something as simple as allowing our students to make choices about where it is that they’re sitting or where they need to sit when they’re walking into our rooms, but then cultivating a reflective experience for our learners to reflect on whether or not that actually worked for them.
Jessica: 02:27 I remember when I was teaching third grade, and I noticed that my kids needed different things, and so I set up my room to be able to meet their needs where there was pods of tables or single desks or some pairs coupled up together. And every day my students would come in and they’d set down their backpack, and then they made a choice about where it was that they needed to learn. And when I stood at the door, I would say, “what do you think you need today? What kind of learning do you think might best help you of how it is that you’re feeling?” And in that very moment, the students were able to learn a little bit more about themselves and the things that they needed. We know as adults every single day wake up and we need different things too, and why aren’t we not being really intentional with cultivating, creating those spaces and those moments of opportunities for our students to be able to learn a little bit more about themselves?
Jessica: 03:14 And it doesn’t take much time. It’s just setting up a system and creating a space for students in order to do so. There was another time where I noticed that my kids were not engaged during math stations, and I was racking my brain and trying to think about all the things. I was talking to our math coach and I was trying to come up with all the solutions. And then I remember that I went to a workshop with David Langford and in his work with quality learning tools, and he said, “did you ask your kids”? And I was like, bing! Light bulb moment. And so the next day I went back to my class, we sat in a community circle and I said, You know what? I’ve been noticing that during math stations, you guys aren’t really engaged or you’re just wanting to play around.
Jessica: 04:01 And I lifted up some of the things that I was noticing. So I was modeling some reflective thinking, my observations, and I said, “I really am really curious, like, what would make this work for you guys?” And they had this huge list of things that they wanted and that they needed. And of course, games were on there like, what kid doesn’t wanna have fun and play games? And so instead of saying, well, we can’t have games, or we can only have one game, I said, “tell me more about the games. What is it about the games that’s interesting to you?” And so I really leaned in and asked for more feedback, and then they helped me redesign all of the math stations, and I never had a problem again. And we so often think that we need to have all the answers as teachers, when in fact, if we’re just flip it around and ask the learners, the ones who are receiving what they need, then they’re doing the heavy lifting for us, giving us more time and space. And then, man, what an amazing opportunity for our learners to be able to critically problem solve with you and really showing them that we value and honor their agency. And then they’re more engaged, right? Because they know that it’s meaningful for them.
Steve: 05:12 Well, I had a question I was gonna ask you next, but I think you answered it. So let me check and see see my answer. I was gonna ask you about the environment, but as I was listening to you, I think I heard three things. Ask, listen, and act upon what you heard.
Jessica: 05:28 Yes. And I wanna add one more – is evidence the learning to show that you value the process in the learning environment. I’m really big on what I call learning walls and we’re not just putting up anchor charts that are connected to the learning of things that we’re talking about. Yes, those are very valuable and yes, those are of course anchoring the learning and resources for the students. But I love creating a learning wall to show the process of learning as like a learning journey. So that is putting up student questions or the observations or the ideas that are happening as the learning is unfolding together. But if you put it up in a space with a lot of intentionality, these are artifacts or evidence of the learning that then invite your learners to connect, to share. It anchors their thinking of where it is in the learning and you can go back and reference it.
Jessica: 06:24 Here’s what we used to think three weeks ago, now where are we thinking? Or now, what questions do you have? And so I’m a really big proponent of learning walls because of the invitation that it extends to our learners. Of course, there’s mindfulness that we have as facilitators and teachers, but also then it creates a space for the students to make connections that I might not have seen and that I may have missed. And so I love utilizing learning walls within classrooms in order to be able to do so.
Steve: 07:00 I smiled as I was listening because I went to the word evidence before you got there because it’s one of one of my favorites to guide reflection. Evidence or lack of evidence or evidence that you weren’t expecting, whatever that is. So I was trying to play it back – when you described going to your students with the issue about the centers, it’s striking me that there’s evidence that we need to look at with the students because they offered up ideas for what would what would improve the process. So now a need to be able to look for evidence that says, the choices we
made did improve it, or the choices we made didn’t necessarily improve it.
Jessica: 07:54 And then following it up with a question, and then, now, what do you think? Or then, now what do you wonder? Yeah. And inviting student voice in order to analyze and take a look at evidence. Why are data meetings – oof, that sounds like such a scary and ugly word – only these things that we engage in behind closed doors when our students are gone? Why instead, could we not be a little bit more playful about our approach at looking at evidence? And it have it be this, again, this invitation that invites and provokes a conversation. Provocation is synonymous again, with inquiry and, and provokes thinking and wonder and really has us evaluate what could our possible next steps be with one another.
Steve: 08:36 I’m wondering if you’d just kind of reinforce for us that connection of inquiry with the concept of student voice and choice. I know a lot of people are reading and getting messages about student voice and student choice. I’m not sure that inquiry is frequently connected to it. So strengthen the connection for us.
Jessica: 08:58 Of course. So student voice and choice doesn’t mean asking our students the things that they’re interested in or the things that they wanna learn about at the start of the year, and then sticking that into your file cabinet. Really honoring the voice and choice of our learners means to be, again, actively engaged and seeking the feedback from our learners in the form of questions. How do we invite questions and create space for questions from our learners, not as a way of checking for understanding necessarily, but as a way to really leverage the learning and empower our learners in regards to what it is that we’re gonna be discovering and exploring with one another? And I know you might have some listeners who then say, yeah, but I have to teach the standards. There’s no space for our students to be able to have a choice because I have so many expectations.
Jessica: 09:56 And of course, depending where you are around the world and what’s valued within your education system, I know and feel that pressure. But I’ll push back and say, there is space if we’re really intentional with how and what kind of thinking we wanna provoke within our learners. So a lot of the work that I do with educators is designing really meaningful and connected provocations in order to nudge our learners thinking in the direction that we need to “go” as it relates to our standards, but then also invite some space for students to be able to be curious about something. So we’re able to lift up their questions and to connect it in with our curriculum in a meaningful way. And so we’re honoring their voice and we’re giving them choice, but again, we’re still teachers and we’re still facilitating in the learning and the way that we know is best. And so again, it’s that collaborative learning piece that comes together as it relates to learning and choice isn’t just a seat. Choice is so much more powerful in, again, with the example that I gave you when I coupled it with reflection and questioning and giving my students an opportunity in order to determine what it was or is that they need in order to learn best.
Steve: 11:11 Jessica, in your book, you share a continuum of moving from the teacher as a managerial role to the teacher as an inquiry role. And I’m wondering if you’d walk us through a little bit of that from a classroom perspective.
Jessica: 11:28 Yeah. So again, we think that we need to know and do all the things because if we don’t, what would happen. And so that’s where we get into these managerial spaces where we have to set up the design of our room and we have to tell the students what all the rules are, and we have to go through the exact systems in order for things to function well. And while those things are necessary in order to have a learning space in which that functions, I often will ask teachers and educators to consider, I wonder where you could give a little bit. I wonder how your students could do a little bit more of the heavy lifting. So if we are setting up our classroom, instead of setting up in a way that meets our needs, is there a way for us to invite a conversation?
Jessica: 12:18 So getting feedback from our learners about the things that they need. And sometimes our learners don’t know what they need because they’ve never been asked. And so if they don’t give us an answer, man, that’s feedback right there that they don’t have the skills in order to do so. But could our students co-design what our learning spaces look like? I’m a really big fan of essential agreements, how we are co-designing and co-constructing those with our learners, and then they don’t like sit there and never get talked about for the rest of the year. We go back and we look at them and we reflect and we say, okay, how are we living up to these essential agreements? Is there a way that we need to redesign them that’s gonna best fit who we are now as learners? And so we’re shifting, or we’re moving along this continuum, as you’re saying within the book of being managers to being more of an inquiry leader because we’re inviting space for our students to be able to direct the learning. And we can still do it in a way that makes us feel like we have control.
Jessica: 13:19 I know as teachers, we wanna make sure that we have control because we feel like it’s a reflection ourselves if we don’t. Of course I know that then there are our leaders or other managers that we’re responding to and that we need to make sure that we’re doing the things that they’re tasking us with. But I love this idea of a continuum that we don’t always live in one space, and that there are times where maybe safety, we need to tell our students where it is that they need to go if we have a fire drill or there’s something else that’s happening that’s not very safe. But then there’s other times where we don’t need to be the managers in telling our students all the things, and that we can use questions as a tool to invite the voices from our learners.
Jessica: 14:06 And so questions are my superpower, Steve. And they’re ones that I lean into time and time again because they help me stop and pause and move and shift a little bit more towards the right of that continuum. But then also, they show what I really value and I value curiosity and I value a collaborative space where we’re all working together. That continuum is been a really fun one to explore with educators and leaders and there’s actually this exercise that I invite your learners to kind of consider. Is it okay if I share it today?
Steve: 14:41 Sure.
Jessica: 14:42 So I ask educators to jot down 10 things that are on your agenda for the day or from your schedule for the day. And then I’ll ask them to look at that continuum, the managerial leader on the left, and the inquiry leader on the right.
Jessica: 15:00 And I’ll say, now let’s sort them. Where are these things on this continuum? And that activity alone invite such a conversation and a discussion about where it is that it goes along this continuum. Does it lend itself towards being a managerial leader or an inquiry leader? And then what I’ll nudge educators to do is let’s just choose one and let’s really zoom in and look at it. And I wonder what would happen if we were to lead more with a lens of inquiry with this one task. So if we were designing our class schedule for the day, or we were creating essential agreements, I’ll kind of go back to that. I’m at the start of the year, so of course that’s where my brain is at right now. Where could we lean in with a little bit more inquiry or curiosity or honoring the agency of our learners?
Jessica: 15:48 And that activity is just such a great reflection and eye opening experience because sometimes I’ll have teachers realize, I’m literally telling my kids what to do all the time. And that’s not their intent, but that’s just what’s happened because they’ve fallen into some habits. And of course, the system.
Steve: 16:07 Getting stuff done.
Jessica: 16:08 Yeah. Getting stuff done cuz their list is so long. And so even if you’re able to shift one thing slightly towards more of an inquiry lens, that in itself is such an amazing, amazing way for us to be able to honor the agency of our learners and then also of ourselves too as inquiry and leaders and educators.
Steve: 16:28 It it really connects – these past couple weeks I’ve been working on, on podcasts and blogs about the management start of the year. I’ve been zeroing in on the fact that kids are watching us and they’re learning from us. So if I made all these decisions and that managerial role, it’s not only how did feel the kids, but the question is what are kids learning about that? What are they learning about the concept of power and control and authority versus what are they learning about community and responsibility. So it’s a great spot for inquiry.
Jessica: 17:11 Yeah. I love that. I love that you lifted that up. And you know what, it makes me think of a question, Steve. If students are asking us, is this right? And that’s the question we’re hearing from them a lot, then right then and there, that’s a moment for you to stop and pause and consider, are you really cultivating a community of learners? Are you leaning more towards that managerial side? And if so, what can you do differently and how can you let go?
Steve: 17:37 Powerful? Well, Jessica, I really appreciate it. I know there’s gonna be people listening to this that wanna follow up with you. So tell them the easiest way to do that.
Jessica: 17:46 Yes. So they can find a lot of resources actually on my website, leadingwithinquiry.com. Actually, this managerial and inquiry leader sketch that you’re talking about in the book is there. So teachers can download and perhaps engage their own reflective exercise that I’ve outlined here very briefly. They can also find me on social media, really active on Instagram and also on Twitter. My handle @jess_vanceedu. I share a lot about my learning about my learners and the things and work that I’m engaged in and would love to connect with your teachers and listeners there as well.
Steve: 18:20 Well, thank you so much and I can promise you I’ll be following you on those sites and I’d love to follow up and come back and look at another another podcast.
Jessica: 18:32 That sounds so great, Steve. Thank you so much.
Steve: 18:34 You bet.
Jessica: 18:34 It’s always wonderful to connect with you and learn from you.
Steve: 18:37 Have a great day.
Jessica: 18:38 Thanks, you too.
Steve: 18:42 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love 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.