Viral handshakes and icebergs


The iceberg is a useful metaphor to explore complexity.

I often use it with my students as a way to help them develop a more nuanced understanding of a difficult concept.

For instance, spelling and handwriting are at the tip of a writing iceberg. Surface writing errors are easy for adults and children to spot and often simple to fix. With support, children learn to start thinking about their ideas, audience and structure. Features hidden below the surface but integral to good writing.

And also good learning.

Teaching is like an iceberg.

To the untrained eye, a room of quiet learners is a productive classroom. Good teachers know this is not always the case. If you dip below the surface, a classroom on the verge of chaos could be full of children deeply engaged in their learning. A well-designed learning engagement represents many hours of pinpointing key concepts, developing engaging contexts, and most importantly developing a classroom culture of inquiry in order to add intellectual depth to children’s learning. This world is largely hidden to most non-educators. Conversely, actions that non-teachers get excited about are often ones that have little impact on student learning.

Like viral handshakes.

If we look beyond the meme:

  • Is the handshake the start of a day where the children are active or will they be sitting in their pre-assigned seat until home time?
  • Are the children going to be collaborating with each other or are all interactions moderated by the teacher?
  • Are the children learning to identify their next steps or do they spend time waiting in line for the teacher to check their work? (HT @whatedsaid)
  • Do children get a chance to pursue their individual interests and inquiries or will they all be following a textbook for the rest of the day?
  • Is the learning engaging and meaningful for the children or is it content that is going to be quickly forgotten after the test?
  • Does the teacher talk more than he or she listens?
  • Do the children ask questions that develop their understanding or procedural questions at the tip of the learning iceberg?
  • Do we as teachers take time to look below the surface of ‘good news’ education stories and reflect on the deeper features before hitting share?


What is your new year question? #oneword2017

Over the last few years, I’ve committed myself to the same resolution when the calendar changes to January 1. I will go to bed before 11.This is a simple goal and has a noticeable impact on my well-being.

Yet here I am mid-January wide awake and typing away on the computer at 11.30 pm.

Holidays lull every teacher into thinking we have superhero stamina. The enforced downtime enables time for reflection and results in a desire to don a cape on return to the classroom.

The result?


  1. Do less talking and more listening to my students.
  2. Set a timer on my watch to make transitions smoother.
  3. Email class parents with positive anecdotes about their child at least once a week
  4. Set aside time each week to make awesome wall displays of student learning.
  5. Sort out that pile of papers sitting in my filing cabinet by Friday.
  6. Get back into the habit of blogging at least once a week.

The first week of teaching reminds teachers we are mortal. By Thursday I’d broken resolution 1 and 2. Those papers will be mocking me from filing cabinet at the end of the year. By the end of the next holiday, I’ll come up with a similar mental shopping list of SMART targets.

As an inquiry teacher, I wondered why do we routinely make resolutions we don’t keep?

  • Procrastination.  Why did I wait until the holidays to decide I needed to take action?
  • Direction. What might this action achieve? Is it really worth spending my precious time on?
  • Practicality. What’s stopped me from taking action in the past? How might I achieve this goal? What might I need to stop doing?

Then the answer came to me.

Cellar Door.

Drawing on Kath Murdoch’s one word intentionally and Amy Burvall’s visual metaphor, cellar door is a euphonious metaphor for my new year question.

How might I ask more beautiful questions?

What is inquiry, if not the art of creating a more beautiful question?




The language of inquiry

We’re taking time to read a poem. There’s some difficult language.

“I see ‘faux pas,’ I am curious what it means..” muses one boy.

Several classmates immediately pipe up.

“It’s French..”

“Pas means not, so it’s not something…”

“I wonder, what is ‘faux’?”

In the background I ponder the first student’s use of language. He didn’t say “I don’t know” he saw something and was curious. He invited a conversation not about the right answer, but on making connections to prior knowledge and opening up further questioning.

And now I had a question.

How often do teachers hear the phrase “I don’t know” each day?

  • “I don’t know how to spell …”
  • “I don’t know where my book is.”
  • “I don’t know how to put a title on my iMovie…”

Did you spot the pattern? It’s of dependence, not curiosity. It’s a child looking for a fix, usually from an adult. What has the child learned by asking that question? When they sound the “I don’t know” alarm all they need to do is wait for the firetruck to show up.

Today’s interaction made me wonder.

As a teacher am I both arsonist and the firefighter by quickly answering the “I don’t know..” alarm with a “how might we find out…?”

“I am curious” invites conversation and genuine collaboration. The phrase creates an environment for children to make connections to their ideas and those of their peers.  It enables children to be an active participant in constructing meaning rather than relying on the teacher for the answer.

As an inquiry teacher I used to think that inquiry meant harnessing the power of the “I don’t know.”

Now I think developing a culture where children take time to see and reflect on what they see before they think and wonder breathes life into that PYP attitude of curiosity hanging on the wall.


What does your blog really say about learning?

I need to blog.

After spending nearly 18 months forcing myself to update daily, I haven’t posted in 5 months.

Like Royan, I don’t quite feel right when I’m not blogging yet I also struggle with putting my thoughts out there for others to read.

I could blame being busy with teaching, masters study, lack of ideas etc. but the truth is I had a big case of writer’s stage fright.

The nature of the online edusphere has changed in the last few years. Less conversational and more personal branding.

  • Quotes in stock images.
  • Pinterest worthy infographics.
  • Auto-tweets of content.
  • 5 quick steps to classroom bliss.
  • Instagramworthy learning moments.

Sharing online feels more like it needs to be more polished. Conversational thoughts of ‘I tried something and this what I learned’  are often tempered with ‘if I’m asking someone to give me their attention, the content should be worth it…’

And even that word, content, sends shivers up my spine.

For me, teaching is a craft. A constant work in progress, not a series of beautiful updates. We should be telling our stories but also questioning our practice. Not just in our heads but also in the online sphere.

  • When was the last time you shared a #teacherfail and what you learned from it?
  • How do you document the shifts in your practice? Do you take the time to share the bumps or just the successes?
  • When did you question another person’s practice online?
  • What does your online presence really say about learning?


Using visible thinking to inform reporting


Another round of reports over and done with.

One of the easiest parts of the reports to write this session was our unit of inquiry.

In the past I’d be pouring over rubrics, student work and tearing my brain for memories of classroom conversations.

This year I used the data the children had gathered through doodlecasting and they were the easiest comments to write.

No longer was I just using artefacts of what the kids have ‘done’ but what the kids think about what they’ve created. Hearing the children explain in their own words about the concepts gave me a really clear picture in my head of the child when writing their comments.

I wish I had a way to link the comments to the evidence of the children’s learning directly into the reports to add an extra dimension to my observations.