Inquiry or Inquisition?
By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

As teachers, we spend a lot of time learning how to ask good questions, how to craft those just-right words that will spark learning and meaningful connection. Some of our questions are intended to deepen student understanding of academic content; some are intended to deepen our own understanding of our students. When we ask good questions, we push learning forward. As we probe, however, we may find ourselves, if we are not careful, navigating a narrow path between inquiry, which opens doors to learning, and inquisition, which shuts down learning, and people.
Inquiry means genuine curiosity about the other person – who they are, what they’re thinking about, working on, or struggling with. Inquisition looks to reinforce assumption (What’s going on here? uttered in a demanding tone sends the message I know you’re up to no good, and I’m looking for proof!)
Inquisition can be accidental. Sometimes it’s the result of a genuine attempt at inquiry gone wrong. What are you doing? for instance, spoken with curiosity and kindness, can be a true inquiry into what a child is engaged in, perhaps how they decided to try to solve a math problem, what they chose to focus on for a science project, or even which book they have chosen to read during class reading time. However, the same words in a different tone can be an accusation – picture hearing What are you doing? as you reach your hand into a cookie jar.
There are lots of questions that can take the form of an inquiry or an inquisition, based on the tone and context in which we ask them. Those include:
  • What are you doing?
  • What’s going on here?
  • Where were you yesterday?
  • How did you get that answer?
  • Why did you choose this seat?
  • Where is your mask?
  • Are you having a bad day?
 The list could go on and on… feel free to add your own questions.
School leaders, teachers, and parents – try this with your colleagues: Team up and create two scenarios for each of the above questions. In the first scenario, use the question as an inquiry and, in the second, use the exact same words as an inquisition. How did you get that answer? – for instance – would feel very different when spoken by a teacher who’s supporting a child in puzzling through a math problem than it would from a teacher who thinks he’s witnessed a student cheating on a test. 

Tone and context matter a lot. It’s worth being intentional about both.
Words matter too. The first few words of a question, in particular, can point toward inquiry or inquisition. How come you always… or Do you seriously think…, for instance, tend to push the interaction quickly toward inquisition.
Here’s a list of question starters that lead toward inquiry instead:
  • Can you tell me more about…
  • How did you decide to…
  • What do you think you might…
  • How do you feel about…
  • Where do you think…
  • What might be the best way to…
  • When would be a good time to…
The way we start a question, the context, and the tone with which we ask it all matter. Those things determine whether we and our students find ourselves immersed in inquiry or cornered in an inquisition.
Inquiry stems from a place of genuine curiosity. And curiosity is a sign of respect.
Next week’s post will look deeper into the connection between curiosity and respect.
Until then, wishing you and your students a week filled with joyful inquiry.
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September Inspired Teaching Institute (ONLINE)

THIS Wednesday, September 22 7-9 PM EDT
This Saturday we spent time building our skills in improvisation and thinking about how a "Yes! And..." approach to teaching can inspire our students' intellect, inquiry, imagination, and integrity. There's one more chance to experience this Institute this month and we hope you can join us! Teachers AND parents are welcome and though we'll be online - it will be an evening filled with engagement. Sign up below! 
Register for September's ONLINE Institute 9/22 7-9 PM ET
Download a Calendar of Our Monthly Institutes

Listening With Someone Else's Ears

We often ask our students to imagine what it’s like to be a character in a story or a person in a particular period in history, but these exercises can often just be a roundabout way to see if they can summarize events in a plot or features of a historical moment. This new #Inspired2Learn activity pushes the act of empathy further, inviting students to step into the role of someone (or something!) else, imagine what they would say, and listen to what those around that person are saying too. In this way, students are not only deepening their understanding of context, but also building their speaking and listening skills and practicing scene building with their peers. 

Join Us Thursday for Our Next Speak Truth Session 

This week we're truly focused on inquiry as we invite student participants to help us shape the Speak Truth program in this strange new school year. How can we keep the discussion relevant and engaging even as it must stay online? What topics do students want to discuss? How does the format need to change after a year of Zoom fatigue? What components should we keep the same? If you know high school students looking for an opportunity to exercise their leadership - this is an excellent forum for doing so. Invite them to register here

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