Some thoughts around what it means to be a teacher and a learner in an early learning setting in New Zealand with Te Whāriki principles embedded into our practice…

  • When teachers position themselves as learners and teachers, ako becomes our priority and we are less likely to miss the meaning of our Te Whāriki principle, Empowerment (1996, 2017). We are learners and teachers with and alongside children who are also learners and teachers. This doesn’t mean we do not offer provocations, however, we do not expect that all children will do the same thing at the same time.
  • Instead we address the notion of children leading their own learning and teachers refraining from hi-jacking children’s ideas and their play, and focus instead on respectful, responsive relationships with a high expectation for complex learning to emerge from nurturing children’s deep seated interests. This is highly nuanced and is as far from didactic teaching as one can get. We trust our children’s energies, their passions and their spirits and their desire to seek learning through social connection. This is why we strive to build a collaborative community with children growing their characters as learners from the inside out. This is why we do not have ‘activities’ or templates, stamps and stickers. We grow competent social learners who self regulate their emotions and work hard and long to achieve their self set goals. 
  • This is why we can spend long periods of time with invested learners at the sewing machine, in the tinkering shop, at the kai table, to name a few spaces, engaged in deeply thoughtful conversations. Other children are very able to play in complex ways without interference in this high stakes/high trust kind of learning and teaching setting. 
  • We are of course ever responsive and are there, not to interrupt but to co-construct learning together as appropriate, there to add vibrancy, expressive language and there to ask questions that provoke awe and wonder.
  • Learning and teaching (tikanga whakaako) is a subtle process, forged in relationships, and this is why it is so important to ensure our Pou Whakahaere (governance) and Pou Ārahi  (leadership) is responsive – That our listening dialogue is evident across our entire community. 
  • We seek to have a richly resourced environment that invites curious exploration, with teachers who are very clearly learners and researchers, ever seeking to understand each and every child’s language, culture and identity.
  • We include our perspectives on learning, based in our considerable professional learning, both formally and through the wide range of books we all read. We write Learning Stories with quotes from researchers we value, in ways that are interesting and emotionally engaging for families/whānau. We track children’s progress and see continuity of learning as a high priority for children and for ourselves.

The Learning Story below entitled: ‘Play the vehicle for learning’ gives a further insight into the way we offer children and their families our thoughts on their learning. Learning Stories are a vehicle to make this learning visible.Lorraines Blog December 2018 - Francesca, Peyton, Mikayla Nov 2018


The 4 R’s and more

The 4 R’s that Guy Claxton first exposed us to have resonated with us ever since we began exploring what resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity (we’ve been calling this social responsibility) look, sound and feel like for children and teachers. I happened to chat to Guy at a day workshop a few weeks ago and he told me that he has expanded these 4 Rs. At first I was surprised with an ‘Oh, really’ as we have been ‘in love’ with the ideas that have arisen, from really grappling with what each of these mean for the way learning unfolds. In fact, our Inquiry question for our Teaching Practice Certificates, Staff Appraisals and Self Review are all aligned to consider this.  Our research question is:  What does inquiry look like in our learning community, where nurturing children’s identities as resourceful, resilient, reflective and responsive social learners is important to us?  Each teacher in our team has used a passionate interest to consider their individual inquiry for the Education Council, Teaching Practising Certificate evidence:  With this Team, collegial focus as a framework, how do I contribute to our learning and teaching culture, searching as it is for ways to enhance inquiry based learning? We have generated a whole new way of aligning this work together, so we contribute to the wider centre based investigation and work much more collegially, sharing the research with each other in ongoing useful ways.

However, I have to say that exploring the ‘verbs’ Guy has listed gives a very practical face to how these 4 Rs can delve deeply into the ‘face, sound and feel’ of learning and takes teachers far beyond descriptions. We are using the verbs from this list as we reflect on the way we set up learning opportunities and the way we think about ‘ways to grow learning’, in other words ‘plan’ for further deepening of possibilities. When this list of verbs sits in concert with each other I think it is impossible to present a didactic, teacher led programme. It can’t be, if we truly make certain these verbs are able to flourish. Jane Gilbert said: “Knowing is a verb….it is in process…..” Gilbert, J. (2005). Catching the knowledge wave: The knowledge society and the future of education. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press. So, we can’t fill children up with knowledge, it is much more fluid than that and it is always going somewhere. When we reflect on children’s learning as it is happening ’in the moment’ in front of us and we then write about this learning so we can track children’s progress and think about ways to deepen this further, we are using these verbs inside our Learning Stories and in our thoughtful appreciation of the way children ‘go about’ the process of ‘being a learner’. Te Whāriki’s aspiration statement comes off the wall, out of the book, and is living and real!

“to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society” (Ministry of Education 1996).

Here is Guy’s list.

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What happens when the unexpected happens?

This is often a real insight into the character of a learner. Curiosity, creativity, persistence and camaraderie require vulnerability. Putting yourself out there, being brave in every sense of the word, is a way into exploring something new and not giving up, even when the ‘new’ is tricky. Whether learning is inside the intricacies of making and being a friend, writing letters that at first are so difficult, exploring our natural world with the wonder that comes from deep within or when an ‘actual’ spider falls into your gumboot, how we respond keeps us open to further inquiry or not…. hearing the language of learning helps to build resilience, resourcefulness and reflective inquiry, three of Guy Claxton’s learning power words. And the fourth, so very powerful for learning, is wrapped up inside social learning where we bump ideas around together and come up with innovative, collaborative efforts that are far more than individuals can muster on their own. Addie’s learning, captured by Bridget in the Learning Story Archaeologists, gives a glimpse into this kind of learning. Archaeologists

If energised learning starts with dreaming and wondering what happens next?

I often think about how a baby’s brain is fully driven by learning, not development as we once thought. Brain research has given us insights that we could only surmise and guess at 30 or more years ago. And the research shows this baby’s learning can only be realised through relationship with a dyad, an incredibly strong relationship with a main adult, where a dance partnership unfolds. The very beginnings of conversation, of respect and mutual trust happen here through skin to skin contact and eye to eye connection – and love ensues. The adult and baby listen to each other’s voice, their emotions, their heart beats and the biggest learning leap that will ever happen in a person’s life, in the space of one year, unfolds. The brain map begins its relentless drive for connection, for understanding, for knowledge. So too does the notion of developing working theories which ever after we constantly review, adapt, rethink, modify, query, firm up and then reconsider. The process in fact is like that of a scientist researcher as Alison Gopnik describes babies’ brain processes in her book Philosophical Babies.

Now fast forward a few years and where is that brain? I think we might need to take a big breath here because we all know deep in our own emotional brains/hearts that many things have happened on the way to being around 5 or 6. Many good things and many less than ideal connections with adults who have enormous power in the shaping of those brains. Babies, toddlers (who I have to say are the most relentless researchers ever!!) and young children negotiate a world that they are just beginning to understand, sadly sometimes with adults who have forgotten about wonder and awe. That has to be tragic. Imagine being in an early learning setting for example, where institutionalising babies is disguised as routines and rosters and the uniqueness of those unfolding lives is sublimated inside expectations for the group. Ratios are often the root cause for this and adults who actually like order and orderliness. Oh, heading into deficit feels uncomfortable, so let’s think about the fabulous side of being connected to adults who care deeply for those babies. A baby cries, there is a listening adult who responds to the cue within seconds and the baby learns that this world is a place that cares. A growing child has ideas and plans, that perhaps they can’t as yet articulate verbally but deep inside, they are driven to experiment, pursue with depth and personal investment and find answers. Adults who enable this to happen, nurture learning intensity, offer curious environments, time and space and help to shape those brains in ways that communities long term; the world long term, celebrates as innovative, creative, hard working, diligent, socially ethical learners (how long could that list be?) who contribute to their communities and beyond.  And yet we can see these characteristics, those we generally call curiosity, creativity, determination and persistence, as two edged swords because when a child is relentlessly pursuing an idea and an adult is trying to corral them, limit this exploration  in some way – well good luck with that!

Much of this learning happens inside a social world where learning to work with and alongside others is a growing ability. Adults who understand this, work in partnership with children, modelling prosocial behaviour, rather than offering bribes, rewards or punishments to modify behaviour.  Barbara Coleroso (Her book ‘Kids are Worth It) thinks of rewards, punishments and bribes as the same thing, all limiting the notion of intrinsically doing something because it is the right, fair, reasonable, family thing to do.  Nathan Mikaere -Wallis has talked at length about growing learners and fabulously so.

What 3 to 7 year olds need to learn – Nathan Mikaere-Wallis         Updated at 12:00 pm on 8 May 2014 

The link to Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon will take you into these talks and I promise, you will keep looking for more because they are engaging, funny, and make so much sense. Of course we ought to create the thinker, not the skilled rote learner who can parrot 1 to 100 and then feel inadequate when asked “and what comes next?” Instead, consider  the learner who gives things a go, will take some thoughtful risks building on past learning, asks for help, gets on with his mates and relishes the tricky hard things that take you out of your comfort zone yet feel so satisfying. Learning to learn in essence.  And then these learners are at school! What happens next? Parents, early childhood teachers, primary school teachers – we’re all in this together because  children’s learning should never be about what we’ve always done, how we were brought up, what the tests say we ought to be teaching. Surely, we ought to use  research and theory to think about possibilities. What do modern learning environments at their very best look like? What are the Principles of Te Whāriki and the Key Competencies in the New Zealand Curriculum offering us?  Enjoy the attached Learning Story and decide.

Chelsea fashion Designer

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What if learning in early childhood settings and school started with wondering and dreaming

What was it that we loved as children?  My best guess is that it would be hands on, practical experiences that kept us intrigued, curious and made us want to come back for more. These were often challenging, tricky and required lots of problem solving and talking with friends to figure out possible, practical creative ways to find solutions. They were very often nothing to do with ‘easy’ or structured learning that was sequenced from easy to hard. It was something that mattered to us emotionally, personally, socially.  This means we really need to think about the kinds of learning experiences we offer our children and make sure they are not ‘activity based’ or ones that are based around simple, closed questioning. Any question we ask where we already know the answer, is a test. Children know we know the answer. However, raising ideas in conversations where there is a real sense of wondering, of needing to find out, keeps curiosity alive. Carol Dweck writes fabulously on the power of a growth mindset. It’s about relishing the hard, tricky problems, enjoying the process of learning, not just the reward where children will often choose an easier task to appear clever or sit compliantly to get the sticker. Compare asking “What colour is this block?” to “ I can see you’re choosing red blocks. I wonder how many red blocks you’ll need to make your plan work?” Children indicate they know ‘red’ by choosing the correct blocks but it is not a testing question. Much more about connecting to the child’s intentions for their building, estimation and solving a problem set by the children themselves. In any case how many shades of red are there and how many names do we have? You only need to see a paint colour chart to see how imaginative some of those names are. Why do we limit ourselves so narrowly to a list of the colours of the rainbow when if we could only see the infinitesimal colour spectrum we could be almost paralysed by the wonder of it all.

Lorraine Sands

What does inquiry look like and sharing this with children, families and colleagues

As teachers see inquiry in action, writing narrative assessments, known in New Zealand as Learning Stories (professor Margaret Carr, 2001) gives families, children and teaching colleagues insights into children’s learning in the context it happened. As teachers track learning progress over time, an in-depth understanding of their learning identity is formed. Families and children contribute to this and a strong identity that learning is inquiry, as children pursue their interests with energy and commitment, hardwork and effort, reinforces learning characteristics that lead to learning success life long.

The link below will enable you to read a Learning Story from the Tinkering workshop at Greerton Early Childhood Centre. Enjoy!

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From theory to practice……. why?

Ever been in conversations where it feels like it’s a ping pong ball? He said… she said… and so it goes on. When we start down this track, in terms of our cultures of learning and teaching, we risk the possibility of becoming stuck in ‘invested practice’. We’ve done it like this and it’s always worked; or this has always suited us; our parents and children like it this way. We end up in the ring at opposite corners, waiting for the bell before going head to head again. It often becomes a discussion about personal preference and justified from personal belief and ends up ‘personal’. What happens then if we shift this ‘invested practice’ to the side and think how theory and research offer provocations for deeply reflective practice?

This is ‘growth mindset’ in action –

Motivated to improve; at the edge prepared to work hard      with deep commitment to practice and stretch our abilities  AND accept and offer feedback that leads to improved outcomes for children.

Understanding what theory and research can offer us gives us more thinking space to thoughtfully review what we currently do, feel and say.

This quote from Diti Hill altered our teaching and learning lives as we began to think more deeply about how to enable learning to flourish: “children do not live their lives in curriculum fragments” (Power, Passion and Planning in the Early Childhood Centre. The First Years: Nga Tau Tuatahi, New Zealand Journal of Infant and Toddler Education, Volume 3, Issue Two, 2001).

We began to tap into children’s natural rhythms and think about the dispositions driving their learning and in doing this we found we were more able to engage in meaningful ways with children’s energies, passions and spirits and as a result, learning stretched. We realised that when this occurred inside collaborative  communities, where adults and children were able to explore surprising, convoluted pathways, we began to notice children’s huge capacity to persist with difficulty, keep practicing, and then perfect their skills through their efforts. This energised our thinking and we turned a corner into a learning vibrancy that would, into the future, revolutionise the way we saw learning: As possibility, as imagination, as effort and hard work, as conversation, as inquiry. 

Welcome to the inaugural post for inquiry based learning particularly around early years education.

I ought to introduce myself, yet this hardly seems like a literacy hook that will keep you reading. However, I’ll give it a go. Lorraine Sands is my name and I work for Educational Leadership Project as a professional learning facilitator across New Zealand and beyond.

Our website, worth going to for all manner of things connected with life long learning is:

I’ve set this word press up to offer a forum for ongoing discussion around inquiry learning in the early years, particularly to encourage cross sector discussion between early childhood teachers and primary school teachers. Any and all actually who would like to contribute, hence the public nature of this site. The intention is to offer references, articles, books and  research to invite conversation. Yet, more than this, to actively stretch ideas around what makes learning environments fabulous ones. Ones that take that spark that is the essence of all beginning learners, their birth right, and nurture the flame, inside families, in early learning group settings then on into school and beyond.

Why inquiry learning? It’s such a fascinating notion. It conjures up all manner of explorations coming from the inside out. What makes the sky blue? Where does that ant trail lead? Tell me that story. How does it end? And why?  It’s what drives  babies to look at those wriggly things at the end of their arms and wonder what they can do? It intriguingly invites connection between people. Where does that ant trail lead and let’s find out together. Rarely does learning happen in isolation from others and when we see learning as connection, we realise the way relationships are the blanket that warms that spark so it dances as flames across time and space. Learning is energy that finds its will to keep pursuing the quest when we often don’t even know what this means at the beginning, long past the easy bits into practice and effort, inside what is imaginable and therefore possible.

I love reading the way people write about learning and teaching. That’s the thing about reading other people’s work, we get to share the intimacy of someone else’s thoughts and make them our own as we wonder what might work for us, adapt the ideas and trial them out. They often end up quite different from the original but I think, only rarely as learning ‘light bulb moments’, more aptly as smouldering ideas awaiting opportunity. Most often out of a relaxed sleep at one in the morning with the problem solved, a wish for a more civilised time say 8.00, and action.

Two writers that I familiarly call favourites  have influenced my thinking about inquiry based learning, causing me to re-consider the ways I connect with children to affirm and stretch their learning.

David Perkins makes these comments:

“It’s never just routine. It’s about thinking about what you know and pushing further. It involves open ended or ill-structured problems and novel, puzzling situations. It’s never just problem solving it involves problem finding. It’s not just about right answers. It involves explanation and justification. It’s not emotionally flat. It involves curiosity, discovery, creativity, camaraderie” (Making Learning Whole, 2009, p.29).

It’s not emotionally flat, really resonates. When I think of children immersed in something of great interest to them, they are so clearly emotionally connected. Their whole bodies vibrate with interest. If we use this as a framework for the kinds of learning and teaching environments we help to co-create with children, the scope for inquiry learning,  fuelling a passion for ‘learning to learn’, becomes limitless.

These further comments by Michael Fullan imbued with surprise, wonder and awe catapult learners into what Michael describes as the  ‘Stratosphere’.

“Learning ought to be irresistibly engaging” (2013).

When these notions sit inside our ‘moment by moment’ conversations with children, we shift children into the driving seat where they take responsibility for pushing to the edge and beyond. The determination for practising the hard bits comes from them. We don’t have to think of learning outcomes. In fact when we do, these so often fall short of children’s imaginative energy. In connection with children though, everything is possible and ‘irresistibly engaging’ is what it is!