TEAM Players: Making a Culture of Inquiry

Creating a school-wide culture of inquiry and making is not the work of a single day or even several months. Instead, it is the result of purposeful practice and partnerships developed over time as a staff learns and grows. The cornerstone of a successful program lies in a strong partnership between the school librarian and principal. The librarian can be an invaluable partner in implementing best practices in support of school-wide site goals so that teachers are equipped to be innovative educators who can embrace inquiry and making.

A school librarian has the unique opportunity to collaborate and co-teach with all of the teachers in a building, allowing the librarian to act as a support for all staff as they implement both their own and the principal's shared vision for learning. The librarian can nurture relationships with teachers and administrators through consistent communication of goals, data collected in pursuing those goals, and narratives of successes and challenges along the way. While there isn't just one experience that can cause a staff to coalesce into a model of maker learning, there are practices that can support and foster a like-minded community. These include a TEAM approach, allowing a staff to Try, Explore, Apply, and Master both maker and inquiry approaches to learning.


The first of these practices allows teachers to try the inquiry and making in a low stakes, highly engaging environment. For making at my school, this meant having teachers team up to participate in a maker challenge. Our principal allowed me to open a faculty meeting with a spaghetti tower challenge in which staff members were tasked with building the tallest freestanding structure they could with a minimal amount of supplies. Groups worked together, and laughed together, as they constructed their designs. Afterwards, we debriefed on what types of learning they had experienced. Teachers reflected on how in this one activity they had applied math and science skills through collaborative learning. As this was part of an introduction to making, I explained that these were the sorts of things that would be happening in our maker area. Several teachers wanted their own students to participate in the same challenge that they had found so engaging.

While I did these initial lessons, I asked for nothing more from teachers other than their support in sending small groups of students to the library for further challenges. These students participated in maker tasks related to the curriculum, and their work was followed by a written reflection on what they liked, what went well, and what they would have improved about their work if they had a chance to revisit it. All of this was shared with their classroom teachers.

In the meantime, our principal was providing professional development on growth mindset and grit. Teachers were encouraged to have discussions in their classrooms, but most importantly it became part of our school's daily assemblies, with students viewing videos on how struggles are part of learning and that challenges are part of the process. All of this was creating support for a maker mindset free of any added demands on class time. We were building a community of like-minded people through shared experiences.

Our principal also provided for staff shared experiences as we began to implement Guided Inquiry Design® (GID) as a district. She used the framework provided in Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari's Guided Inquiry Design®: A Framework for Inquiry in Your School to shape our professional development from the beginning of the school year. Before a single lesson in the GID framework had been taught to students, our principal led teachers through the process in developing their own growth plans for the year. She bussed us to a planetarium for the Open phase of the GID process, took us to our school garden for the Immerse phase, and had myself, as the librarian, provide professional resources for the Explore phase. Teachers developed their own inquiry question for growth in Identify, found answers in Gather, made something to share their learning in Create, participated in Share as a staff, and then for Evaluate assessed their growth along a continuum. This experience provided our staff with a common vocabulary and understanding of the process before any of our teachers were formally trained. It also excited teachers to learn more about the process and led our staff to sign up for each offered training until we saw 100% of our teachers trained and implementing units.


The next practice we implemented was giving teachers time to tinker. With the help of several grants and donations, I had expanded our makerspace. I had moved beyond maker challenges and the library was able to support a fully functional makerspace. Students still came for challenges, but now I was equipped for free exploration and making that was tied to the curriculum. Increased space supported whole class participation, but I knew that a successful makerspace would require more training to prepare our teachers. My principal gave me time at a faculty meeting once again, this time to share what a true makerspace is and the philosophy behind it. I shared photos of other makerspaces to prepare staff for the mess, and I led them through a model brainstorming session to show how students transitioned from concept to creation.

I wanted students and teachers to be prepared to fully utilize the space, and this meant giving everyone time to tinker and explore. We cannot expect students to take on the dual cognitive loads of learning how to use a tool in the makerspace while trying to share newly learned content. Instead students and teachers alike need time to play and experiment in order to see possible applications. This often meant that when I taught students how to use a tool like a 3D pen or Tinkercad, my teachers were learners right along with their students. There is nothing like the gift of time, so in addition to these sessions, teachers were invited to a summer makerspace session to either try a variety of tools and gain confidence or to focus on one or two tools and develop lessons or curriculum connections they could put into practice.

Teachers also began to gain confidence in the inquiry process as they found methods for student question development, note taking, and reflection that worked best for their grade levels. Units were in a constant state of revision as we determined best practices within the framework. Guided Inquiry does not look the same in pre-K as it does in fifth grade. Our learners needed different structures, and teachers were supported by both the principal and myself as they developed and integrated new techniques. One example of this is in the Evaluate phase of the process. Over time teachers had tried rubrics on products, exit slips, and group discussions. By having the freedom to try different approaches, we learned that rubrics were better for our learners when they were more heavily process based. Additionally, many teachers, especially of our younger learners, began to adapt responsive circles from our principal's restorative practice trainings to encourage learners to reflect in group discussions.


At this stage many teachers began to take on more ownership of the GID process within their classrooms. Inquiry became less of a "library thing" and more of a "school thing" as teachers requested posters of the research model for their classrooms and took the initiative to build an extended learning team of co-teachers and community members. As the teacher librarian, I was still an essential part of the process, but with teachers taking more ownership, I had the freedom to implement more units across more grade levels simultaneously. It is essential at this point in the process for the teacher librarian continue to check in to ensure all collaborators are on the same page and that teachers do not need any additional supports to be successful. By only having to check in, we were successful in implementing at least one inquiry unit per semester in all grade levels.

Teachers also began to take the lead in maker projects. After seeing students complete maker challenges and giving students choice in making tools to share their learning, our teachers saw an application for the makerspace in the realm of differentiated learning. I was approached by our second grade team to take part in a project in which students would complete a pre-test and then be grouped by mastery with each teacher in a team that often included our resource teachers and principal to provide instruction at their point of need. In this first application, students were tested on their understanding of place value. I worked with students who had mastery of the concept but had difficulty applying or explaining the process. Through brainstorming and coaching, groups of students developed plans to share their understandings through making. After a successful trial, this model spread to other groups. We had older students creating stop motion videos, color coded bracelets, and posters to teach rounding. Another group set up a mock store to practice counting money and making change. Math concepts in particular seemed well suited to this new model. Teachers had embraced the maker mindset and were applying it to the curriculum standards in ways never before imagined.


Today our school is home to teachers with the confidence to combine inquiry and making with the support of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services which provided more maker tools and additional professional development. These teachers are helping to create a model for instruction that could be replicated nationally. Additionally, the story of our school's climate of inquiry along with a sample lesson were featured in Leslie Maniotes' Guided Inquiry Design® in Action: Elementary School.

Teachers now feel comfortable in taking the initiative to begin their own GID unit plans. They plan their own maker projects that take place in the classroom and are comfortable sending students independently or in small groups to create and tinker to show their learning. They also are deliberate in scheduling free time in the makerspace to ensure students have the opportunity for independent tinkering and exploration. Because we have such a positive climate and a drive to continue to innovate that stems from our principal's reflective leadership, our teachers are far from finished. Learning through making is as iterative a process as the making itself. We continue to plan, reflect and revise; modeling and practicing the very behaviors we expect to see in our students. A natural progression of the work we have done has been a shift in mindset about what true student voice and choice looks like. Students are now creating their own choice boards when they come to the library. Learner metacognition is improving as students themselves determine the best options for showcasing their learning, weigh the pros and cons of a maker tool and its fit with the curriculum, and once they have settled on that tool, make a plan for successful implementation. As our staff sees the success and drive that comes with this level of student ownership in the learning process, I can see it too spreading from the library and into the classroom. There is always more to do, more ways we can grow as educators to improve student outcomes. Developing a TEAM spirit takes time, but is worth all that the principal and librarian put into it to support innovative educators who evidence grit, determination, and a growth mindset as they continuously grow as professionals.

About the Author

Teresa Lansford is a National Board Certified Teacher with a MLIS from the University of Oklahoma and 15 years of experience in education in Norman Public Schools. She was Norman Public School's 2018 Teacher of the Year and has been the recipient of the OLA Technology in Education Award, Oklahoma Central Regional SKIE Award, the OTA Teacher of the Year: Making IT Happen Award, the OKSL Polly Clarke Award, and was a finalist for the 2019 Oklahoma state teacher of the year. Lansford is passionate about letting students make and create and has developed a thriving maker area at her school site. She presents at the local, state, and national level on best practices in both integrating technology and using data to drive practice. Twitter: @lansfordslines.

MLA Citation Lansford, Teresa. "TEAM Players: Making a Culture of Inquiry." School Library Connection, May 2019,

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Entry ID: 2148465

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