Promoting Inquiry in Early Childhood Education: An Inservice with Barbara Henderson and Daniel Meier

By Todd Erickson, Teacher

Teachers who undertake inquiry…demonstrate to themselves, the families they serve, their administrators, and their colleagues that they, as ECE [early childhood education] practitioners, understand and act upon the trust placed in them to support children’s learning and development.—Daniel Meier and Barbara Henderson, Learning from Young Children in the Classroom: The Art and Science of Teacher Research

Teacher inquiry, in its various forms and functions, was the invigorating topic of the Feb. 17, 2012 Bing staff inservice session with San Francisco State University professors Barbara Henderson, PhD, and Daniel Meier PhD. Henderson and Meier head San Francisco State’s early childhood education concentration for the school’s master’s of education program, co-edit the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s peer-reviewed journal Voices of Practioners and have authored many books about teaching children. Their most recent book is Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting, and Learning from Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers), co-edited with Gail Perry, PhD.

The speakers brought their estimable experience and passion to Bing to discuss classroom-based inquiry. The process of inquiry, which challenges teachers to question their practice and pedagogy, creates a springboard for reflection, professional development and mutual knowledge. During our morning together, Henderson and Meier focused on two distinct inquiry paths: oral inquiry and narrative inquiry.

According to Henderson, oral inquiry found its origins in the work and writing of John Dewey, PhD, an early 19th century educational reformer who promoted teachers as “knowledge workers and creators, not technicians.” Dewey created and espoused a caring and democratic educational philosophy where teachers work alongside children to problem-solve, scaffold/support learning and challenge and change ideas.

This progressive educational stance eventually birthed a qualitative, inquiry-based process that came to be known as teacher research. As described by Henderson, teacher research is an educator-led process that “addresses teachers’ practices, is systematic and intentional, amplifies child voices and finds important truths through depth of documentation.”

Henderson focused largely on oral forms of teacher research, most specifically on a collaborative oral inquiry form known as descriptive review. Descriptive review, which emanated from Patricia Carini and the other teachers at Vermont’s Prospect School in the 1960s and 1970s, created a protocol for oral inquiry that offers deliberate and exacting observation of and reflection on a question or challenge. The protocol is largely employed by small groups of educators as a means for off-hours professional development and might feature a question such as, “How is it that [specific child] always seems to slip by me? How can I get a clearer picture of where she is making her presence felt in the group?” As in the above example, most often the question focuses on something specific, such as a child or a child’s work. However, a descriptive review can also address topics as general as a teaching practice or an entire school.

Descriptive reviews draw their significance, said Henderson, from the “equal and accountable roles of the participants in searching for nuance, intentionality and human capacity in the child, work or process under consideration. By observing through a lens of strength, new connections and understandings can be reached.” When a teacher focuses on a child’s strengths, or competencies, the trust and capability generated creates significant opportunities for the child to address developmental hurdles and for the teacher to consider that child from a wider perspective. Given Bing’s pedagogical respect for children and their competencies, this type of oral inquiry drew the interest of Bing’s teaching teams as a means to deeper conversation concerning classroom teaching.

Meier then followed Henderson by introducing the staff to narrative inquiry. As the name suggests, this methodology focuses on observing and exploring an essential part of our human nature: the narratives of children and teachers. As opposed to quantitative research, with a specific problem and definitive answers, Meier noted that narrative inquiry is “more like a puzzle, where you might end up with more questions. It’s cognitive, analytic; a sense of search and re-search.” While formerly the domain of academia, narrative inquiry moved into early childhood education as a way to “break down that gap between child stories and teacher stories. It’s contextual, historical and cultural.” Examples of educators who employ narrative inquiry to chronicle classroom stories for deeper professional connections include Meier and the iconic Vivian Paley, a longtime kindergarten teacher, winner of the 1989 MacArthur Fellowship and author of 13 books on the world of young children, including the seminal Wally’s Stories.

To demonstrate a few of the techniques available in this expansive form, Meier introduced The Diary of Laura, a thoughtful chronicle of an infant’s first year in an infant-toddler center in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia. Laura’s teachers employed written journal entries and photographs, along with narrative inquiry, to demonstrate the girl’s subtle but powerful interaction with peers, adults and materials. Through regular, careful documentation about Laura’s steady growth, the teachers applied a narrative inquiry tool Meier termed a “story arc,” which allows teachers to express change through relatable storylines that “mirror children’s and teacher’s learning and development.” A question or challenge can also sometimes provide the impetus for narrative inquiry. Laura asks and solves many of her own questions throughout the diary including, for example, the origin and purpose of her reflection in the mirror. Photographs and documentation show Laura stretching out her hands and watching carefully as these motions are captured simultaneously in her reflection. Meier also demonstrated how a well-placed and provocative question or opportunity might “thicken the plot” of the narrative and deepen the children’s growing understanding in the example of Laura and the watch. As Laura was looking at a catalog with pictures of watches, the teacher identified her own wristwatch to Laura and allowed the young child to listen to its tick-tock sound. This prompted Laura to return to the images of watches and confidently put her ear next to the page, expecting to hear the same sound.

Henderson and Meier provided the Bing staff with an array of meaningful and effective tools to challenge and examine our own practice and pedagogy. Using oral and narrative inquiry to widen our lenses and deepen our reflection, we can become, as Meier described it, “co-discoverers and co-explorers” with the children and families we serve.