Balancing Inquiry & Support in Professional Learning: A Lesson from Bean Dad

A little while back, a dad took to social media to pat himself on the back about the lesson he’d taught his daughter when she wanted to open a can of beans but didn’t know how to use the can opener and the Twitterverse collectively cringed. In case you were lucky enough to miss it, the gist was that he thought this was an excellent opportunity to let his daughter either figure it out or go hungry with little more support than the belief that she could do it. The thread spanned several hours, and it was infuriating to say the least. 

In an earlier post, Hattie made connections to Bean Dad’s lack of feedback by exploring how teachers’ comments can both support and challenge students in the classroom – without frustrating the heck out of them. Today, in a rather unconventional move in a blog for writing teachers, I’m inviting my good friend and math educator, Samantha Keesling to co-write today’s post with me about balancing inquiry and support in a professional learning space. 

Even though we taught in the classroom at opposite ends of the spectrum (I was secondary English; she focused on elementary math), she and I had a similar approach to instruction. We were recently reflecting on how when a student asked us a question, and our response was often something like, “you tell me.” On the surface, that might sound just like what Bean Dad was doing, but what you’d miss was the support and instruction that goes along with an answer like that (and that was wholly missing from that terrible can opener escapade). 

Now in our role as consultants for our local ISD, Samantha and I have been doing a lot of thinking about balancing inquiry and support when it comes to professional learning. EdCamps and the UnConference model where teachers nominate topics and problem-solve in loosely facilitated discussions have gained popularity and stand in stark contrast to an auditorium filled with teachers listening to a national speaker in a sit-and-get PD. But if you’re trying to move people, whether a class of students or a department of teachers, toward a common vision, we’re finding that we should be somewhere in between the two. You can’t be Bean Dad, leaving learners flailing to figure it all out on their own, but you also can’t take the figurative bean can from their hands, do the work for them, and then expect them to be able to do it themselves the next day.

We’re finding that, whether we’re working with a group of adult learners or students in a classroom, in order to find a balance between support and inquiry, we need to plan for 3 things: 

1. Connect to an Overall Vision or Purpose. We’ve probably all been teachers in a setting where it seemed like each PD day offered a new topic of learning or initiative. It can be dizzying, to say the least, and it can result in learners wondering why they should even put the effort in when something new is right around the corner anyway. In classrooms, we’d never dream of switching topics so quickly; instead, we design our units in arcs toward an overall goal. The same should be true in professional learning. Whether your session is designed for teachers to engage in inquiry or listen to a webinar, it’s tough to gain traction if it’s not part of an overall arc of learning that balances introducing ideas, exploring them in context, and applying them with feedback and support. 

2. Design the learning around questions worth asking. In math and ELA classrooms, we talk about making our questions relevant and authentic. We strive to ask questions that don’t necessarily have just one prescribed outcome or path to get to the answer. In a classroom, we want students to develop thinking skills that will allow them to transfer their understanding beyond our classrooms, and in professional learning, we want the same thing. Rather than designing professional learning around explicitly teaching the steps of how to do something, we’re learning that it’s important to ask the kinds of questions that will help teachers to explore content more deeply and find solutions that work for them. When we ask questions like:

How can we make rhetorical analysis more engaging for our students? 


How can we allow access for all learners when teaching multiplication? 

we open up the opportunity to look at research, learn about what others have done, and try out different approaches to a common problem. 

3. Plan for scaled supports. Bean Dad and his daughter had a vision (she was hungry and wanted this can of beans), and they had a question worth asking (how does this can opener work?). But what made the interaction so excruciatingly frustrating was that there was nothing in between not knowing and the vision. Whether in the classroom or professional learning, the role of the teacher or facilitator isn’t to tell everyone all the answers, but instead to connect learners with their own experiences as well as new resources that can help them to determine the answers they need. When we were working in the classroom, we found that planning for prompts and cues that gradually increased in their level of support allowed us to help students access solutions themselves and so we could only step in with just enough help as needed. Now that we’re working in professional learning, we’re finding that many of the supports that we planned for with math and language arts students are the same as we can use with adult learners. 

In their book Who’s Doing the Work? Burkins and Yaris offer a synthesized version of Marie Clay’s Scale of Help by outlining levels of supporting reading instruction in terms of a prompting funnel, where the first level of prompting offers the least amount of support and the last offering the most teacher-supplied support. The idea, then, is that you start with the least support, and if the learner is able to move on with only that prompting, you stop and let them continue; if the learner is still stuck, you move down into further levels of support so that you aren’t over or under supporting. 

Although these tools were originally intended to be used with early reading instruction, we first expanded the concept to include math as well so that, rather than just referring to a passage of text, students may also refer to anchor charts, manipulatives, or other resources. Now, as professional learning facilitators, we have found that we can extend this level of support into the space of adult learning, too. 

  • Prompt to the learners’ past experiences and success. Working from the belief that teachers are coming to the learning with experience and expertise is fundamental in designing professional learning that will not only help educators to transfer the concepts into their practice but that will also build a culture of adult learners that is energized by the opportunity to learn and refine their practice with the latest research. And this is what we want with our kids, too: a hunger for learning and a belief that others’ ideas help to grow your own. When teachers are a part of this culture themselves, we believe they’re more likely to be able to build the same for their students. To do this, we might ask questions like: 

What do you think?

What have you tried?

What could you try?

What do you already know that can help you?

  • Prompt to a Resource. In classrooms, we know that tools like anchor charts, mentor texts, and manipulatives are helpful for students to find enough support to make choices within their learning. Tools like this are still important for adult learners, too. Just like with students, referring back to a resource can help adult learners to put a tool in their pocket that they can continue to access after your PL session is finished. When we’re planning for professional learning with a fair amount of inquiry around a juicy question, we might pair it with reading research, doing a book study, and studying student work or data. Then, when new questions crop up, we can lean back on those tools by asking things like: 

Is there a resource or tool that could help?

When you watched that lesson, what did you notice that might help us think about this?

How might this connect to the data? 

What might the author of … say in response to this question? 

  • Prompt to an expert. The last line of defense is to give more explicit help. Anyone who’s ever worked with students knows that there are varying levels of frustration when they can’t figure something out. There’s the kind that lights a spark to try to figure it out and the kind that shuts down all curiosity. If your learners are reaching that shut down and the less-scaffolded support isn’t helping, stepping in with small answers can help avoid unproductive frustration. In Bean Dad’s situation, it still wouldn’t have been helpful if he’d taken the can and opener from her and said, “oh nevermind, I’ll do it for you,” but if he had shown her a small piece of the solution, she might have been much more poised to figure the rest out on her own. The same goes for professional learning. We can’t imagine taking the whole figurative can of beans away and saying something like, “let me tell you how to teach this lesson,” but offering smaller supports can be helpful. Those might include: 

The research says … is effective… 

Try this tool/strategy

Let me show you how I get started…

Bean Dad’s escapade was fueled by a figure-it-out-or-don’t attitude, but I hope we all want more for our students and the teachers we work with. In a community of inquiry, learners’ motivation is built around a shared desire to grow – not just get by. Whether we’re working with students or adults, how we balance support and inquiry can determine whether our learners are surviving or thriving. 

What are you finding to be supportive when it comes to professional learning these days? How do you strike a balance between inquiry and support with the learners you work with? We’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below, on facebook, or on Twitter @megankortlandt and @Keesling_Math.

– Megan and Sam 

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1 Comment

  1. I found this post very helpful. I have been leading equity Inquiry Teams at my school site and found myself flailing in the gap between doing the work/learning for my group as the facilitator and learning alongside them to support my own inquiry. It can be difficult when we are trying new practices and strategies because I am not sitting on “answers” I can provide. Instead, I have found it helpful to have some moves and ideas in my pocket, which supports the idea you provide about a “prompting funnel”. While I have come to some of these understandings in an organic, and very messy, way, your ideas here are clear about some of the pathways that might help someone supporting adult learners navigate that gap between facilitator and learner. Thank you!

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