CULTIVATING THE CONDITIONS FOR INQUIRY WITH JESS VANCE

INTRODUCTION 

Today I’m delighted to be talking to educator, facilitator and newly published author Jess Vance about her work. We’re talking about how questions are her superpower and how we can cultivate the conditions for inquiry to thrive.

Jess and I met on Instagram a while back when we were discussing the importance of the question ‘what makes you say that’. Since then we’ve chatted regularly and I’ve watched her journey to becoming a published author with loads of interest. 

I was honoured to be involved with reading some of the early chapters and thrilled to be asked to write a recommendation for the book too. I couldn’t wait to invite Jess to be on the podcast as I think we can all learn so much from her practice. It just so happens to coincide with the publication of her book too. 

Jess Vance is an enrichment and environment coordinator with a thorough teaching and leadership background – she’s a former IB PYP (International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme) Educator & PYP (Primary Years Programme) Coordinator. 

After about a decade in the classroom, Jess moved into leadership roles. And she’s taken the things she learned inside of the classroom – such as her approach to questioning and listening as an inquiry educator into her role as a leader. 

In her newly released book, ‘Leading with a Lens of Inquiry’, she outlines the ways in which we need to support and facilitate teachers in the same ways in which we want them to engage with their students.

Her book is for teachers, leaders, coaches, coordinators, and anyone basically who is invested in cultivating the conditions for authentic and meaningful inquiry to thrive.

In today’s chat we talk about the values that drive Jess’s work and the connections we can find between her work and ours. What can we learn from her practice? We discussed how questions are her superpower, the role curiosity, listening and reflection play in her work and how mindfulness is the thread brings everything together. 

We had so much to talk about. So, here it is – enjoy!

LINKS 

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Support the Show 

Jess Vance’s website— downloadable resources, coaching and other professional learning offerings

Leading with a Lens of Inquiry on Amazon

Jess’ Instagram— giving you an insight into her professional practice and offering tangible ways to infuse curiosity and an inquiry mindset each and every day

TRANSCRIPT

Claire Bown

Hi Jess and welcome to the Art Engager podcast.

Jess Vance 

Thank you so much for having me, Claire. It’s so wonderful to be here today.

Claire Bown 

Well, I’m delighted we could find a date when we could chat. Could you tell us a little bit about what it is that you do?

Jess Vance 

Yes, of course. So, um, I have pretty much the best job in the world, I get to facilitate and support educators in their professional practice. As it relates to teaching and learning in the classroom. I’m currently on an elementary campus right now. And so my role is to support them in curriculum implementation. So I do a lot of group work with teams and one on one coaching with teachers. I also have the wonderful opportunity of supporting our students and developing their interests and passions and designing programming for enrichment opportunities, from anything related to coding to arts, to being outside in nature, we have some really amazing outdoor spaces here on my campus that are so our students get to go and learn outside and make some real world connections. And then outside of my regular nine to five, I get to work with inquiry schools around the globe and leaders and support their implementation of nurturing cultures of inquiry within their classrooms and schools. And most recently, have authored a book called Leading with a Lens of Inquiry geared towards leaders and educators, instructional coaches and helping them lead with a lens of inquiry. Because if we know that it is best practice for our students in the classroom, it is best practice for us as adults as well. And so I’m super excited to be here with you today, because the book just came out yesterday. So

Claire Bown 

I know what amazing timing.

Jess Vance 

Yes, it’s my book birthday, if you will.

Claire Bown 

Well, congratulations. I’m delighted you’re here. And it’s coincided with the publication as well, because I’ve been very excited about your book coming out in the last few months. Could you explain a little bit how you came to be doing what you’re doing? So it’s such a fascinating role, combination of roles, that you’re doing? How did you end up here?

Jess Vance 

Yeah, so I was a former elementary classroom teacher and have always had some amazing leaders. And even from when I was at university and had a mentor teacher, they’re just learning how to be a teacher and getting my certification. I’ve always looked up to leaders and other mentors and knew that I wanted to be that for other educators as well. So after about a decade in the classroom, started to dip my toe into wanting to do so and thought I wanted to be an instructional coach and ended up landing a role as an IB (International Baccalaureate) Coordinator at a PYP (Primary Years Programme from IB) school. And that was my first taste of leadership and that supportive leader role outside of the classroom and just have loved it ever since. Following that role, I’m currently a coordinator of another programme, although not IB, but holds inquiry as a strong value. And so have been able to take the things I learned inside of the classroom as an inquiry educator into my role as a leader, and the same moves and thinking and approach to questioning and listening that I did with my students I do with my adult learners as well. And so that’s been so wonderful to be able to embody each and every day, and then through the nudges of some really great critical friends ventured into authorship, and started writing a book last year and doing some coaching last year. And so it’s just been this amazing, wild ride. And I’ve met some amazing people such as yourself, we found each other on Instagram, sharing ideas, and challenging one another with each other’s thinking. So yeah, it’s it’s been quite something. And I’m super grateful to be here.

Claire Bown 

Oh, yeah. And we’ve met, we’ve tried to work out when we met, but we met on Instagram, possibly lockdown-time, 2020-2021. And we’ve kind of kept in contact since then. And we met through a shared, shared interests, shared values, shared topics that we were talking about, and enthusiasm. So I’m really interested to hear the values and the principles that you bring to your work to your practice.

Jess Vance 

Yeah, I’d say my three core values are connection, which clearly that’s what brought us together. creativity and curiosity. And you know, now that you say that, Claire, it was the question ‘What makes you say that?‘ it’s a post that I did that connected us and you really challenged my thinking and we engaged in some really great conversations. And so yeah, I’d say being curious is something that continues to drive me in my role as a leader and growing as well.

Claire Bown 

Fantastic. Yes, I remember now it was that post about ‘What makes you say that?‘. And we were talking about alternatives to that. And also situations in when you might use alternative phrasing. Yes, very interesting. So delighted to connect with you there and to continue to be part of your professional learning network. I’m fascinated by learning from others outside of our specific field. I think it museum education, heritage education, we have lots of amazing people we can learn from, but we can learn so much from people outside of our direct sphere as well. So maybe you could share some of the techniques in your work that might cross over into the work we do with groups in museums or in heritage what can we learn from you.

Jess Vance 

So I think, of course, we have both have in common of being a facilitator of learning. And of course, our context looks a little bit different. But I think one of the things that really connects us is that in our roles as facilitators, we really have to tune in to our learners or those that we’re interacting and engaging with, and be really curious what it is that they’re sharing with us or asking of us. And so I find that the more that I learn about the role of facilitating inquiry or facilitating learning, the more that I just continually to ground myself and being curious about my learners and about the things that they’re sharing.

And, of course, thinking routines is something I think that we’ve connected on, and how those really provide an equitable space for learners to share their thinking and share their ideas in a way that is not judging and allow space for exploring and inserting ideas. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I knew something.

And then of course, engaging with a critical friend or thought-partner or another educator, my mind and thinking has changed and shifted because they allow that safe space for me to explore my thinking and ideas. So, you know, I feel like that’s something that we definitely really aligned in. And about.

Claire Bown 

Definitely, definitely, and mentioning that curiosity as well, a curiosity to continue learning, to learn new things from each other as well. So, so important. And I’m thinking about, you mentioned also questioning, facilitation, these really important parts of our work. What role do questions play in your work?

Jess Vance 

So those of you who follow me on social or if you don’t, you’ll quickly see from my feed that questions are my superpower, and I love questions. Of course, curiosity being a value, but I feel questions are such a great way for us to assess where our learners are at. And so I view questions as almost a provocation and a form of assessment for me to decide what my next steps are with my learners, and helps me learn about my…

Claire Bown 

So you’ve got some alarm going off there or a clock. Yes, yes, don’t worry, we’ve had church bells and all sorts on this podcast before, so let’s just go with it.

Jess Vance 

Okay. Yes. So, questions really allow me to assess where my learners are at. What thinking or possible misconceptions that they have, what skill gaps do they have, and instead of me going or approaching their questions in a way that judges where they’re coming from, if I continually remain curious about what it is, or where I can help them or how I can facilitate their knowledge and, and take their questions to guide our next steps, is really the way that I view questions. I know that not every education facility views questions in that way. Um, and they often times will say that questions only need one sort of answer. But I definitely love to keep questions as the forefront as a form of assessment. And I’m continuously curious about them.

Claire Bown 

Yeah. And I think, Oh, you mentioned it being a superpower as well, I’m fascinated by the power that a single question can have and where it can take a discussion or a conversation, and how it can either open up a discussion or close one down and just sort of being very open to experiment and play with your questions is at the heart of what I’m fascinated with just having that sort of playfulness and being able to try things out and see what effect it has on the group. Would you say you kind of approach your questions in a similar way?

Jess Vance 

Yes, of course. You know, I do a lot of coaching with educators and leaders about how do we even start with questioning? And that’s one thing that I say is let’s be playful. Let’s try things on her size and see how it impacts the group and see how it makes you feel? How can we be really mindful of our tone and our body language? And how can we be authentically curious about the questions that we’re asking? Because we’re seeking to understand and open to seeing where they take us together?

Claire Bown 

Yeah. And the listening as well, that listening plays such an important role in this cycle of asking questions, and really listening to the answers. So what role does listening play in your work?

Jess Vance 

So listening to me is such a great mindfulness exercise. I know mindfulness is definitely pretty trending in a lot of conversations today in regards to mental health and space. And I feel that, the more that we’re able to be aware of how we listen, and what it is that we’re listening for, is this wonderful mindfulness practice. And through meditation, it’s actually helped me become a better listener. Of course, listening is a skill just like any other, and we have to put some time and attention and focus in on it. But I love how the more than I’m really intentional with listening, the more present and aware I am with what’s really happening in this very moment, and I’m able to experiencing it in such a better way or more complete way than if I was half in so to speak.

Claire Bown 

Yeah, I’ve really noticed the difference in the last few months since I’ve been, I’ve been training to become a coach. And I’ve been really focusing on certain elements of the way I work and my practice. And listening has been a key part of that as well, I was very aware that some of the listening I was doing was perhaps active, but perhaps not deep listening. And I was really intrigued to see how, how I could develop this skill by really focusing on it. And I’ve really noticed the difference, the difference it has, for me, and the follow up questions I’m able to ask, and also for the people I’m working with being able to really give them that time and attention, to really listen to what they’re saying, and make sure I fully understand it as well.

Jess Vance 

Exactly. And you know, I love Ron Ritchhart. He says, We need to be ‘vigorously listening’. And I love that language. It’s so rich. And it just says precisely what you’ve noticed, in your own practice Claire.

Claire Bown 

Yeah. And so it’s an effort as well. And it’s an effort, a joyful effort that we need to really use when we’re working with groups as well. So yeah, it’s it’s really, really vitally important. So many interesting things that we could talk about. But I’d love to just touch on curiosity. We’ve covered it on the podcast a little bit. We’ve thought about how we can remain curious as educators. So what’s the importance of curiosity for you in your work?

Jess Vance 

Um, so I think in two ways, one, when I remain curious, I feel like I’m able to build some really great and deep relationships with those and I’m interacting with when I’m able to remain curious and open to who it is that they are, and what it is that they want to know or want to explore. And so the more that I continue to come from that stance, the more I’m able to connect in a more authentic way. And in regards to my own curiosity, I think that it’s just knowing that when I remain curious about myself, I know that there’s a lot of possibilities for me to grow.

And, and not always knowing where it is that I’m going to be going next. And that’s okay, too. I think that is a nuance of curiosity is not necessarily knowing the end goal, right? A lot of our modern world is so stuck on the endpoint or where this goal is going to take us.

And while goals are really important, I feel that curiosity is such a great way for us to continue to remain playful, and be those those children that we once were. I love using intentions as a way to remain curious. Each morning, I start my day quite early, and I’ll meditate most mornings or do yoga, and I’ll set an intention for myself and an intention is not a goal, rather a concept or some way of being. And, for example, my intention for today is today, I intend to remain surprised. And you know, I feel like an intention has a way of showing up for me in my day that keeps me curious and ends up showing up in ways that I never quite expect and are always so wonderful to experience as well. So I’d met your listeners to try on some intentions and see how they show up in their day.

Claire Bown 

Oh yes absolutely. And I love the idea of thinking about it as a process as well, rather than thinking about curiosity, what’s the end goal? Just enjoying the process and being playful with it. Yeah, is, is really, really important. I’d like to touch on reflection as well. So having this reflective practice, I know that’s something that we’ve discussed before as well, we’ve chatted about it on social media and over email, what’s the importance of developing of reflective practice for you in your work.

Jess Vance 

So you know, reflection, really, again, I’ll talk about just being present and in the moment, and with the busyness of our lives, I feel like that’s something that we could all use, and that we all need. But reflection allows us the space to make meaning with the things that we’re experiencing it in and with the people that we’re engaging with, and allows us to uncover some really amazing things.

You know, I really love the work of Michael Stone. He has written several books, one of my very favourite is Awaken the World and his prompts about his noticings about the world around him caused me to stop and pause and really reflect on the things that I thought that I knew, or I think that I know, and make some other connections.

And I just feel like I am a naturally reflective person. And I don’t, I know that’s not necessarily something that everybody practices. But it’s still a skill that we can all develop, just like questioning, just like listening. And when we give our space, ourselves space to reflect, again, there’s that mindfulness piece that kind of keeps coming up as a theme for us today. But I feel like it’s really important for us to be able to stop and pause.

And of course, with everything that has happened with COVID. If we haven’t learned anything, it’s to really stop and pause and really reflect on what is it that’s really important, and what really is meaningful for us.

Claire Bown 

Yeah, absolutely. Right. I wholeheartedly agree. I’m nodding into the microphone right now. So we’ve talked about all sorts of unique facets about your work, but what do you think is unique about the way you work?

Jess Vance 

Um, I think leading with a lens of inquiry is different than the traditional managerial role that leadership usually takes a stance on, of course, you know, in education, there are a lot of structures that are imposed on educators, obviously, everybody’s feeling quite tired. Right now in the world, in regards to education and teachers, there’s a massive teacher shortage in the States and across the globe, right, because we’re just tired and, and so I feel that leading with this lens, honours the whole teacher and gives them the space that they deserve, and that they need, it is the very thing that we say that our teachers should be doing in the classroom.

It gives our teachers space to remain curious and be playful. And to really rethink and redefine what education means and what schools really mean. It’s work that I’m super passionate about and love to see the impact that it’s having on educators and how they start to feel differently about themselves and their roles. And my gosh, is that ever so important right now?

Claire Bown 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think the message behind behind your book is so relevant, so relevant to leaders in other fields as well. So you’re thinking about leaders in the museum world, how they can lead with a lens of inquiry. So what can they take from your book?

Jess Vance 

I think just, there’s one of the chapters is the seven dispositions of an inquiry leader. And within that chapter, I outline different ways or attitudes that we should be embodying each and every day within our roles. And of course, there are going to be ones that are going to be our strength, and ones that are going to be our stretches. But how if we can really stop and pause and reflect and consider our role in regards to facilitating others and leading others, how that impacts them.

And when we are able to better show up for ourselves, again, what impact that has on them. And so it’s actually it’s funny enough, as this chapter came, kind of towards the end of my writing, as I was reading and reflecting and revising, there are these things that I do and I embody each and every day, but I wasn’t clearly saying that to the reader. And so I had a critical thought partner share, like you do these things so seamlessly, Jessica, but you need to tell your reader what those things are.

So they too, can set goals for themselves on how ‘How to be intentionally playful’ or ‘how to honour the whole teacher’or ‘to be curious and be reflective?’ And what are the things that you think about? I think a lot in questions, Claire, I take notes in questions. And that’s just my process of reflecting and thinking and how I can take that thing that is really natural for me and a skill that I’ve developed over time, and share that gift with others and help them reflect on their roles as leaders and as educators to

Claire Bown 

So useful, I can’t wait to get my hands on my copy hopefully winging its way to my house very soon. I want to ask you about books generally, can you share a book or books that you would recommend to our listeners, I obviously, we’re going to recommend your book as well. But what other readings should our listeners be doing?

Jess Vance 

I’ve mentioned Michael Stone, I can’t mention his work enough. It’s fantastic. And although he since passed away, his legacy lives on and I just just pick up awake in the world. His words are just so gorgeous and beautiful.

The work of Warren Berger, who’s actually an endorser for my book, and I couldn’t be more grateful to that. A More Beautiful Question was one that has been so transformational for me, in his newest publication, A Book of Beautiful Questions I’ve just started digging into but I love his thinking. And he’s outside of education, works with a lot of educators. But I love his approach and thinking about questions.

And then the work of Adam. Yes. And then the work of Adam Grant, Think Again, his latest publication, again, makes you stop and pause and think about your thinking. He does such a great job, and even just his little tweets, and how much he’s able to put in such a limited amount of characters. But I would say, those are some great authors to consider.

Although now looking at my list, Claire, I realised that they are all men. And so I think I need to stop and pause and consider some more important women too. So maybe we can put that in the show notes for your listeners, because lifting up women is as equally or more important as well. So I’ll do some reflecting and share some of your way that you can hopefully include in the show notes, really, and

Claire Bown 

yeah, so a fantastic list there. And if you do have any others, we do need to lift up female authors, including yourself. So how can listeners find out more about you reach out to you? How can they find out about your book?

Jess Vance 

Yes, so my website leadingwithinquiry.com has all the things on there from a blog to the work that I get to do around the globe with leaders and other educators. I share a ton on Instagram, I love the visual nature of Instagram and create a lot of rules and content on there to be able to lift up some of the different practices that I engage in each and every day with my learners here on my campus. And also shedding light and sharing things that I think will help us all as a collective group of facilitators grow. And so some of the ideas that I share on there actually come from questions from my PLN (Professional Learning Network). So I invite those as well and invite your listeners to find me there and say hello and introduce themselves.

Claire Bown 

Brilliant. And your book. How can they find your book?

Jess Vance 

Yes, it’s currently on Amazon. And like we started at the beginning of this episode -my book birthday was yesterday. And so hopefully we’ll be globally found on Amazon. But yeah, go check Amazon Leading with a Lens of Inquiry and it should pop right up and look forward to hearing what everybody thinks about it. Their feedback, their favourite pages, strategies, all the things.

Claire Bown 

So exciting. So exciting. Oh, I’m delighted for you many, many congratulations again. We’ll include links to everything in the show notes to your website, your Instagram, I highly recommend everyone listening, follow Jess on Instagram, you share so many ideas, so many thoughts, videos, and a special series on questioning which I loved and all sorts of things as well. So highly recommend that. And that just leaves me time to say thank you so much for coming on to the podcast and for celebrating your book birthday with this. It’s been a delight as always. Thank you Jess.

Jess Vance 

Thank you so much, Claire. It’s wonderful as always,

Claire Bown 

Thanks. Bye bye bye