Teaching as inquiry in action

For me teaching is inquiry in action. That doesn’t mean I’m always in that space, but that’s the aspiration. Perhaps it’s similar for you. When I go into a class I do not know what is going to happen, even when I have a plan. I cannot even be certain who will be there. I don’t know what the students will make of the challenges that arise, or what I will need to do to respond creatively in the heat of the moment. I cannot count on my ready-made responses being effective, even if they ‘worked’ last time.

A group contains multiple private lessons

I know that everyone in the class has their own private lesson going on, trying to learn and makes sense in their own ways. And that while they are students of the language, at the same time I am a student of what’s going on in them, trying to ‘see’ their learning so that I know what they need, and what I might do. It’s a kind of dance for two, It’s like a moment of living interactive conversation. This means that the students and myself are both learning at the same time. It’s not that I know and they don’t, We’re all on the same side of the learning fence

An inquiry mindset in teaching pronunciation

So, let’s apply this mindset to teaching pronunciation, which provides a good illustration. Inquiry depends on my active attention. And I find it helpful to think of my attention as like an arrow with two heads. One looking in to what’s going on in me, and the looking out to the person or people I’m working with.The part of my attention that’s looking in towards me may be attending to things like:

– What is my purpose right now. What am I trying to do?

– In the case of a sound how do I produce that sound in myself?

– What is the physicality required by that sound that the learner will need to explore?

– What intervention could I make that might be sufficient without interfering?

The part of my attention that is looking out to the learner/s might be attending to things like:

– What is the student’s attention on?

– In the case of a sound is she connecting with the muscles that will make the difference?

– Is her inquiry focused in the most productive place? What could help her in taking the next step?

And so on.

Double headed arrow of attention

Of course these are not two separate attentions, but part of one larger attention that tries to cover several of the moving parts of the total learning event simultaneously.

The attention towards myself puts me in touch with how I am deploying the four muscle buttons in the making of this sound or word. And this tells me in physical (rather than theoretical) terms the kind of muscle connection the learner/s will need to engage with in order to discover sounds which they have not made before, which are outside their L1 set.

On the other hand my attention towards the learner/s helps me see how they are engaging with muscles and breath, how their ear is working with the four muscles buttons in a neurological learning feedback loop, and what intervention could help

Most pronunciation work is not about sounds

I have used teaching a sound as an example. But most of pronunciation work is not specifically about sounds. It’s mostly about a stream of sounds which modify and change each other, and about the energy distribution across that stream which lengthens and shortens things and speeds up and slows things own, and stresses and unstresses things highlights features or disappears them, and introduces feeling, attitude and relationship between speaker, text and listeners.

Inquiry is transformational

And this work is not merely transactional – you do this so I tell you that – but transformational – your acoustic / muscular system learns to do something it could not do before. And I learn something too. Something has changed.

You may think this is obvious, and you may be right. But I’m not sure that our methodology is always very good at spelling out this inquiry process in quite the detail I am attempting here. Either way I think it is useful to become more able to see and to articulate the processes of inquiry as it takes place in the heat of the teaching moment. Because by developing the inquiry discourse we can get batter at it and develop our “inquiry muscle”.

Icing on the cake; an inquiring class

Finally. a little icing on the cake: I have found, and other teachers say the same, when the teacher is able to exercise more inquiry, this helps create an atmosphere which encourages learners to do the same. And gradually something in the class changes. As if it is contagious. And it can work the other way round too, starting with student/s and affecting the teacher.

You probably recall times when this has happened to you. That this can happen is not surprising as an inquiring outlook is a natural human learning faculty linked to curiosity and creativity. But with all our contemporary complexities it needs attention to keep it in play. It needs reflection and lots of talking about in the training room, the classroom, the staffroom and in the literature.

Inquiry is a life project

An inquiry approach to teaching is probably a life project, a work always in progress. When we start out as teachers we feel bombarded with uncertainties, imperatives and distractions and may have less room for inquiry, even though that is the state we are thrown into. Later on we may be more inclined to inquire and to look at how we look at things. Nevertheless since inquiry is a core orientation to learning, to relationship and to the unknown, I feel that it has to be in the mix from the very beginning. Not as another imperative or another topic for the new teacher, but at least in the manner and attitude of the trainer, supervisor, mentor, or colleague. And also deeply embedded in the training syllabus and materials.

I wonder what your experience of inquiry has been in the way you got your training, though it may not have been called inquiry. And in the context of pronunciation, how an inquiry outlook fits with the never ending physical/cognitive/auditory challenges you face in every lesson….