The Personal Inquiry Conundrum

At the beginning of this year, the KG teaching team struggled with what to call our personal inquiry time – the time in our schedule that we dedicate to wholly student-directed inquiries. Through our discussions, we unearthed a much bigger issue to unpack: what IS personal inquiry time? What does it look like, consist of, and entail in our particular learning environment? We definitely didn’t have clear answers, let alone consensus, and we needed to inquire further. The big ideas we kept coming back to were:

  • Play vs Inquiry – What is the difference between the two? Is there a difference? Should there be a difference? Should it be ‘vs’ (probably not!)? Do we need separate times for each?
  • Value – What do we and our students value about this time? Is it the same thing? Do we all value this as much as other parts of our learning?
  • Perception – How does what we do and how we do it in this time impact our students’ perspective on their learning?
  • Guidance – How much do/should we as teachers get involved, intervene… interfere?
  • Impact – How do we make this learning time more purposeful, impactful and rigorous? And, of course, the swift counterquestion – should we?

For someone who has been advocating the importance of inquiry, free play and student-directed learning her whole career, I sure had a lot of questions and uncertainty. Welcome, Nelle, to the learning pit!

Exploring this idea was becoming one of those wonderfully frustrating experiences where, the deeper you dig, the muddier things become. Attending Kath Murdoch’s workshop “Nurturing Agency in the Inquiry Classroom” in September only stirred up the sediment even further (as you would hope!). The provocative prompts from Kath and the rich discussions with other professionals at the workshop left me with more puzzles:

  • We should encourage students to identify their own learning. How do we do that?
  • Should we set learning intentions for the day or session?
  • Maybe we could identify a skill to work on at the beginning of personal inquiry.
  • Is all inquiry guided inquiry? Is guided inquiry the opposite to free inquiry?
  • Adding structure (purpose, goal-setting) to independent learning can help to increase clarity.
  • We should be framing what we (teachers) do during personal inquiry time as conferring and conferencing.
  • Would our learners benefit from using creation journals or wonder journals?
  • Am I expecting learners to develop inquiry skills without supplying the structure or scaffold on which to build them?
  • Using the language – inquiry – when that is not exactly what is happening can/could be confusing and promote or devalue other learning.

I was deep in the learning pit, and the only way to start working my way out was to begin taking action. In my mind, I needed a definition to move forward, and so made peace (for now) with some temporary ideas about free play and inquiry. I realised the tension for me was in the ‘goal’, and at what point it was identified during the play/inquiry process: at the beginning as a learning objective, or at the end as an outcome of the learning. I arrived at a view of free play as having no structures imposed on it at the start, and the goal or intention becoming apparent towards the middle or the end through exploration: I didn’t have a plan to practice or learn a specific skill, but through my play, I learned and developed this skill. Inquiry, on the other hand, starts with a goal or intention to be actively worked towards throughout the inquiry session: this is what I want to do, find out or achieve and I’m going to work towards it through this play and exploration. With absolutely no pretensions that these should be considered accurate or full definitions in the slightest, which one of these scenarios was right for us in our learning context?

In the end, I fell back on my most fundamental educational beliefs, as I so often do, and the next steps were obvious. Observe the learners: what do they need and want? Model desired behaviours. Encourage students to identify their skills and learning by doing a better job of identifying and documenting it myself first. Differentiate. Don’t impose a structure on everyone, but offer opportunities and scaffolding for the learners who need and want it. One single method rarely works. A combination of strategies is almost always the way to go. And, maybe most importantly, accept that what works now might not work later. Stop looking for that single magical way of doing things that doesn’t exist.

With all that in mind, we began to trial and implement a number of ideas to strengthen our personal inquiry time. Some worked, and we immediately saw an impact on learning, and they were easy to keep up because of that . Some weren’t right for this context, and fell away naturally. And there are more ideas that we want to try out in the future.

Things that haven’t yet worked:

  • Breaking down our social skills into concrete observable behaviours.
  • Students setting a social skills goal or intention for the day. The little stick people that were supposed to go into the pockets made wonderful puppets, however.

Things that are working right now:

  • Building a bank of skills and knowledge we’ve developed during personal inquiry time.
  • Implementing student-led workshops.
  • Introducing educator-led workshops.
  • Conferencing more purposefully with individuals and small groups throughout their inquiries.
  • Incorporating a kind of workshop structure in personal inquiry time. We’re starting each session with a very quick ‘mini-lesson’ – sharing a resource, skill or material we’ve noticed students might find useful – then students are free to try it out if they wish. We are working on doing the reflection and sharing part of the workshop model more consistently.

Things we still want to try:

  • Wanted Ads – To compliment our student-led workshops, we’d like to have an area where students can advertise for another student to teach them a skill or activity that they are working on or want help with.
  • Skill Documentation – We want to improve how we identify, name and document the skills students display during personal inquiry time. My colleague Zoe had a brilliant idea to tag ATL skills and key concepts on student learning recorded on their digital learning journals. This is a simple way for the teaching team to quickly identify and label the skills they document.
  • Self-Identification of Learning – We are hoping that as the teaching team gets better at seeing and naming the learning happening, students will also begin to develop this reflective skill. The early years ATL cards that Sonya Terborg has created, and how her early years colleagues intend to use them, could be a great way forward here.
  • Choosing a Purpose – Of course, this may not work at the start of the year, and may not be right for every student, but these brilliant prompts from Taryn Bond-Clegg would definitely provide great support for some of our learners, and are so much more helpful than ‘what’s your goal for today?’.

This is where we’re at after nearly an entire school year’s worth of thinking, confusion and experimentation. Sharing it like this has really helped me clarify and consolidate my thinking, and enthused me to get working on some of those next steps. This experience reminded me that I’ve never ‘got it’ or have it all worked out when it comes to education, and that’s why I love what I do. It also made me remember the importance of context – what works for one learning space or learning community won’t necessarily work in another.

How are you supporting personal inquiry in your learning spaces? Any experiences, feedback, knowledge or advice you could share would be greatly appreciated!

4 thoughts on “The Personal Inquiry Conundrum

  1. Hi Nelle,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on something I have also been wondering about. I am curious to know what kinds of resources/materials are available for your students during their personal inquiry time?


    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Our students have the run of the classroom during personal inquiry – creative areas, maker space, construction, pretend play, maths and language materials, musical instruments and more. Our space is set up so students can independently access as many resources as possible, and whatever they can reach, they’re pretty much welcome to use. How does it work in your context?


      1. Hi Nelle,
        In the morning as they arrive and during the last 30 minutes of the day, our students have “free choice” time. Just as in your class, they can choose from any of our classroom materials. This year’s class is heavy into building. It’s so funny how every class has its own favorite games or toys. Over the course of the school year, they have been building ever more complicated structures and learning to collaborate while doing so. I enjoyed your take on inquiry during these times. I haven’t taken the time to reflect on my own class’ journey in quite the same way, so your blog post has moved me forward a little bit. Thank you!


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