Personal inquiries with Kath Murdoch

I was fortunate enough recently to join Kath Murdoch for a series of workshops on personal inquiries. This type of learning experience is branded in a range of different ways, perhaps most commonly as Genius Hour or iTime. For the purpose of this blog post, I will use iTime (just because that’s the name that we use at my school).

iTime offers students dedicated time in school to explore their own passions, interests and curiosities. As they pursue their own inquiries, students develop the key skills and dispositions needed for independent, lifelong learning. They are empowered and highly motivated because their unique interests are suddenly valued by the school system, and they can discover new passions along the way.

Kath dedicated the course to the late, great Sir Ken Robinson who clearly inspired much of the content. This prompted me to finally read The Element. This book is about the wide diversity of human intelligence and the transformational impact of finding our Element. The book is not specifically about iTime but it perfectly captures the ‘why’. I recommend it strongly.

“Some of the most brilliant, creative people I know did not do well at school. Many of them didn’t really discover what they could do – or who they really were – until they’d left school and recovered from their education.”

Sir Ken Robinson, The Element

I have some experience with iTime, to varying degrees of success. Honestly, I think it’s really difficult to get right, and borders on wasted time when implemented poorly or half-heartedly. But, done properly, iTime is hugely beneficial and everybody’s favourite time of the week (including mine). Engagement is through the roof and the classroom is abuzz with excitement and authentic learning. In my opinion, it’s worth the hard work to see all children shine in their own ways.

Here are my top takeaways from the workshops with Kath:

iTime is not supposed to be easy

iTime is challenging to implement, especially if these classroom experiences are new. Both teachers and students get better at iTime with experience. Even then, it can be busy, chaotic at times and exhausting for the teacher. It shouldn’t be easy for the students, either. iTime is not free time. Any false associations with Golden Time or free play should be challenged strongly. In my experience, this misconception is the most common reason that iTime fails. It is essential that teachers are actively involved and supporting students with their challenging work.

iTime depends on – and strengthens – learning assets

Regardless of what inquiries students choose to pursue, the focus is placed on how. Through iTime, students learn how to learn and what they should do when they don’t know what to do. In IB schools, this offers a tremendous opportunity to prioritise and explicitly teach the Approaches to Learning skills and the Learner Profile attributes. In non-IB settings, it’s important to develop a similar shared language for the skills and dispositions that are needed for effective learning. iTime depends on students practicing these and also strengthens them along the way.

Shared inquiries are the backdrop of iTime

To support students’ personal inquiries in iTime, it’s important to have an existing culture of inquiry in your classroom and school. iTime is far more likely to be successful if students are already familiar with the principles and practices of inquiry-based learning. In PYP schools, our Programs of Inquiry (POI) play an important role because these shared inquiries provide modelling and scaffolding. But any teacher/school can adopt inquiry approaches and these will set the tone for iTime.

There’s no one way to implement iTime

Traditionally, Genius Hour is one dedicated hour per week (hence the name) over a number of weeks, but there are multiple ways to implement personal inquiries. What works for one classroom or school context might not work for another. Initially, teachers might need to experiment with different formats to see what works best for their students. However you choose to schedule iTime, what matters is that the time is productive and valued (see below).

iTime sessions should be valued

I mentioned earlier the most common reason that iTime fails. This is a close second. When iTime isn’t valued, it’s the first thing to go whenever the regular school routine is disrupted. This sends a powerful message to staff and students that iTime is a fluffy, optional extra (scheduling on Friday afternoons sends a similar message). However you choose to implement iTime, the sessions should be predictable and protected.

Students can support each other

In the past, I’ve found it very difficult to manage and support all students during iTime because they’re all working on different projects and have different needs. One of my biggest takeaways from the course is that students should be helping each other more. A good tip is to group the students. Even when their projects and goals are different, they can be broadly grouped by category to support each other. For example, artists, writers, coders, scientists, etc.

Skilled conferring is key

Much like reading and writing workshops, the teacher’s main role during iTime is to confer with individuals and small groups. These conferences allow teachers to check in with students and offer personalised guidance and feedback. When students’ project ideas are shallow and lack sustainability, teachers need to be particularly skilled at conferring because we must carefully guide them to take ideas further while still honouring their choices.

iTime allows for highly authentic assessment

There are two elements of iTime that make it perfect for gathering authentic assessment information: low stakes and high engagement. In this environment, students tend to thrive and really show what they can do. Furthermore, iTime allows teachers to assess conceptual understanding as well as the all-important skills and dispositions.

These takeaways offer a quick snapshot of my time with Kath, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. To find out more about this course and how to register, visit the Chapters International website.

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  1. I figure this can apply to classrooms beyond G6 too. I am tempted to go for the course but I stopped short when I saw the title was for K-6 classroom teachers.

    1. Hi Johnson,

      I agree that lots of the course content can apply to upper grades but I’m sure Kath aimed it at K-6 for a reason. Perhaps she will respond to you when she sees this post. I’ll share your comment with her.



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