Blog Post 4: A week in the life of a Guided Inquiry practitioner in India

This is a tale of one enormous parcel, cancelled planes, mice, an elephant and Guided Inquiry


Since 2007, I’ve visited Loreto Panighatta many times to work on establishing a library there. Loreto Panighatta is a K-10 school in the beautiful tea garden area below the Himalayas, near Siliguri, in West Bengal, India.  Students are Hindi and Nepali sons and daughters of tea pickers, whose future is limited to continuing to be tea garden workers. The tea gardens may be picturesque, but the labor is hard, the pay incredibly small and dependent on the weight of tea picked each day.

Following are some sad facts about life in Panighatta (similar to many areas of rural India):

  • Low life expectancy
  • Arranged early marriages
  • Poor health
  • Extreme poverty
  • Trafficking of girls from Panighatta to Mumbai and Kolkata.
  • Undervaluing of female life.

A possible way out to a better future is through education, and it is very satisfying to report that the school has now been registered as able to matriculate its students at least partly because of the library. It is a large, sunny room with intricate wrought iron windows and wooden shutters, which overlooks the school playground and the tea gardens. There is a No Frills Dewey Decimal System and procedures for accessioning and cataloguing books, and the collection now numbers over 2000 books, mostly purchased from Indian sources, like the Oxford Book Shop in Darjeeling, and the National Book Trust of India.  Room to Read has donated wonderful Hindi/English fiction and non-fiction books, which the students treasure.  Since my second visit in 2008, SybaSigns has donated signs and library bags. SybaSigns is Australia and New Zealand’s largest provider of library signage, as well as professional development, through the SybaAcademy. There are Hindi-English directional signs in the library and across the school, thanks to Syba Signs, our only mistake being the word for “window” was represented with the Hindi word, “toilet”, which caused many smiles from students and teachers!

So, the library is up and going, but libraries are pretty rare in India, and teachers and students need to be taught how to use it.  Up till now, on all my visits, we’ve concentrated on setting up systems, persuading teachers to allow students to borrow books and take them home, (even if goats do eat them),  reading to the children in fun-filled Hindi-English sessions run by my travelling companions or me, with class teachers.  Using the non-fiction section of the library was the goal for this, possibly last, visit to India.   So, how was I going to do that?

The answer was obvious!  Leap straight from rote learning into Guided Inquiry… in four days.

I’ve worked with Guided Inquiry for a long time at Loreto Kirribilli, and am now a lecturer in teacher librarianship at Charles Sturt University, where I’m continuing my interest in Guided Inquiry. This is to say that a crash course in Guided Inquiry in the Indian tea gardens as the theme of this article can’t be regarded as anything but a start! Nevertheless, the exercise of reducing Guided Inquiry’s elements to their simplest expression, trying it out with classes, and teaching it to Loreto Panighatta teachers was an interesting experience.  But must be followed up, so much for my last trip to India!

Travelling with me in December were Lizzy, a primary TL,  Maria, a HSIE teacher and Stephanie, her daughter, an 18 year old university student. My thanks to my travelling companions for all the hard work they put in, for sharing experiences that can only happen in India (e.g. driving up and down the narrow, winding, precipitous, two way road from Siliguri to Darjeeling, being passed by battered 4 wheel drive cars snaking down the mountains, with people sitting on the roof, hanging out windows, while obeying what seems to be the only Indian rule of the road, Please horn!)    And thanks to my companions in cancelled planes, mice, an elephant and stomach trouble!

The Parcel

Phyl Williamson of SybaSigns once more donated the most extraordinary collection of mats, signs and posters, including the Guided Inquiry Design Process, (now in pride of place in Panighatta Library).  I collected it a couple of days before we left, and Maria bravely volunteered to transport the Parcel!  My son in law attached a strap to it to ease the load, which was a great help, but still it looked like an astoundingly heavy parcel of rifles! At each check in point in India, we had to argue why it should not be charged excess baggage, and it’s a tribute to the Indian ground staff at various airports, that they never charged us!   It was just that they kept cancelling the planes on which The Parcel was to fly! The road was indeed long, with many a winding turn, getting that Parcel from Sydney to inside the library at Panighatta!

The following diary entries recount our progress in this Guided Inquiry journey:

Thursday 11 December – Plane cancelled

Today we experienced our first plane cancellation as we began the last leg of our journey from Sydney, from Kolkata to Bagdogra on Jet Airways. We checked in The Parcel, and sat in Kolkata’s new and empty airport waiting for some hours, then boarding the plane, and sitting on the tarmac for another couple of hours.  Then the plane was cancelled, with no reasons given, no talk of refunds, or how else to get to our destination.  We checked out The Parcel, and with difficulty got ourselves to Howrah Railway Station to catch the train to Jalpaiguri, close to Panighatta.  Howrah Railway Station literally teems with life, incredible noise, continuous cracked announcements over loud speakers, many platforms, beggars, and possibly the worst toilets in the world. Previous experiences with Indian trains had me very worried about our train, the Shatabdi Express.  Would it be like other Indian trains where people sit on the roof, fight each other to get on or off, and where 10 hours could turn out to be a life time? The Shatabdi Express turned out to be a really nice train, air conditioned, with comfortable seats and delicious meals served by attentive staff!  We arrived in Jaipalguri very late at night, dragging The Parcel off the train, to be met by Sister Initha, who runs Darjeeling Mary Ward Social Centre which looks after Loreto Panighatta.   A long night in a very hard bed followed!

Friday 12 December – Get ready for Guided Inquiry – Indian style, and mice

Today was our first day at Loreto Panighatta, where staff and students gave us a huge welcome, and we set ourselves up in the flat that volunteers stay in.  It’s a pleasant set of rooms, with saggy beds that are paradoxically very comfortable, each one shrouded with a mosquito net.  We had our own cook, though she went home at night, and it is then that you’d feel the remoteness of this school in the middle of the tea gardens, somewhere in West Bengal. We spent the day getting the library ready for what experience told us would be a run of classes on Monday, and decided what areas we would focus on for our experiments with Guided Inquiry in a land of rote learning – and they were The Human Body and The Solar System.   We unpacked The Parcel, and found a cornucopia of resources for the library – The Guided Inquiry posters, now on display in the library, a welcome to the library mat, and many of the signature Syba Signs posters.   We put them up, pausing to greet the children who were peeping into the library most of the day!  We tracked down library resources on both topics, and thought about how we would get students to understand that they were to follow their own interest, a notion completely foreign in Indian education, at least at primary and secondary level, and that asking questions and answering them was what using a library is all about.

My preparation was this really basic plan for our GI lessons, simplified from Guided Inquiry Design: A framework for inquiry in your school. (Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari, 2012)

Indian phases of GI

I knew from previous visits to Panighatta that students are used to rote learning, and expect it, and are not familiar with the idea of following their interest.  A little research showed articles over the last couple of years in The Indian Times blamed rote learning for the absence of critical thinking skills in Indian students. So, to try to express this simply to teachers at Panighatta, I brought with me some the thoughts of Vikram Karve, on Inquiry based learning versus rote learning an Indian blogger, available at:   The writing style is a little bombastic, but it was a very useful tool for the teachers at Panighatta, particularly the following:

Tell me and I forget

Show me and I remember

Involve me and I understand.

Our first night at Panighatta that night, all by ourselves in the middle of the remote tea gardens, saw us under our mosquito nets, all windows locked and barred, soundly asleep till a scream from Lizzy pierced the quiet. There was a definite squeak as a mouse ran across the floor under her bed.   Then followed a conversation about whether mice can climb, all of us convinced that they can’t.   A simple Google search safely back in Sydney confirmed that, oh yes, they can, and that the adjective to do with mice is “murine”. The frequency of murine squeaks definitely coloured the rest of our stay in that bedroom.

Saturday/Sunday 13/14 December – Darjeeling – Roof of the World

Our weekend was spent driving up the very scary road to Darjeeling, where we stayed with Loreto sisters at Loreto Convent, Darjeeling, a gracious, though dilapidated and nearly empty (haunted?) British Raj building. We stayed in very cold bedrooms, and found Darjeeling a rather grim place, where the last renovations of the very British buildings appeared to have been in1947, when the British left. We got up at 4am to go to Tiger Hill, where you can see the extraordinary spectacle of sunrise lighting up the Himalayas in pink and gold.  This time, all we could see was cloud!  After lunch with the very hospitable sisters, we hurtled back down the Himalayas on the scary road with what appeared to be a teenaged driver, who had two near crashes on the way down.   And safely back to the murine bedroom.

Monday 15 December – Hit the ground running with GI at the school

Monday morning saw us greeted at assembly, anointed with tika, then the classes started coming! Classes in India are enormous, anything up to 50 students, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear length of time the class goes for – it stops when you’re finished, it seems.  It was clear they love their library, and it is also clear that they use the fiction a lot.  The better condition of the non-fiction books showed that they are less used, because teachers and students don’t know how to approach their use. The non-fiction collection is quite strong, accessible and interesting.  There is very little technology, and haphazard internet connection with a dongle.

Working with Panighatta teachers and students, our pattern was this:

  • Open/Immerse: Hooking the interest of students in Class 9, studying The Human Body saw Maria tracing an outline of one of the students on a big sheet of paper, which was to form the Create/Share aspect of this mini Guided Inquiry, and drawing from students what they already knew about the parts of the human body.
  • Explore: Students were asked to sit with others interested in the same part of the body, in an inquiry circle, and to read texts about that part of the body.
  • Identify: Students were asked to focus on an aspect of that part of the body, to explore further.
  • Gather: The inquiry circle worked together to create a list of interesting points about that part of the body
  • Create/Share: Students then transferred that information onto the large paper cut out of a body, and talked to the rest of the group about their findings.
  • Evaluate: This was rudimentary, as our classes, though long and had many students, were for one period only.

Tuesday 16 December – More Guided Inquiry

We had huge classes all day today as well, and followed the above pattern, this time involving classes, for example, with using the dictionary and the solar system. We found that the Open/Immerse phase was critical in engaging students’ interest, and conveying the foreign idea to them that they were to follow their own curiosity. The solar system went very well, with Class 8, with the class sharing the drawing of a blank solar system on a large piece of paper at Open, and using the excellent non-fiction books we had showing interesting facts about solar systems.  Students then joined inquiry circles who shared the same interest in a planet, spent time finding interesting facts about that planet, wrote it down together, then transferred the information to the large solar system drawing. Lastly, they shared the information with their classmates.

The most difficult part of the elementary Guided Inquiry classes we ran was persuading students it was ok to follow their own interest.  This is a concept foreign to them, and they still prefer to be told what to do, and that verbatim reportage is the preferred mode.  We did not get as far as students creating their own inquiry questions, because of time, and the sophistication of the concept.  We made baby steps in the direction of inquiry. But it was clearthat their curiosity was aroused, and that they were engaged.

Wednesday 17 December – Teaching the teachers and the Elephant

Wednesday morning was fiction time, with a stream of classes coming in for bi-lingual stories (one of us, with one of their teachers reading one of the excellent bi-lingual Room to Read books). On Wednesday afternoon, all the teachers came to see me, and I took them through a sample inquiry task, modelled on the simple ones we’d done with classes over the last few days, and we talked through the need to move from rote learning in the direction of inquiry-based learning.   There were many head wobbles from my audience, which experience has shown me means that they are listening and are encouraging me.   I showed them What is Inquiry-based Learning at, which they enjoyed.   (Quite a technical feat, with the limited internet connection!)

That night, in the murine bedroom, we woke at midnight to the sound of a mob of frenzied men, shouting, and shooting.  We’d heard talk since arriving in India about the present government’s crack-down on all who are not Hindus, and the burning and looting of Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist premises.  Being in a Catholic school, all alone, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the tea gardens, we thought we were part of that crackdown.  We huddled together in silence, too frightened to move, not even considering the murine sounds, as we listened to the ruckus outside, which came closer, and sounded as if it were in the stairs of the building.  We knew our gate wasn’t locked, as we left it open to let in the maid in the morning. The noise died down about 2am, and we slept a little till waking up to find the ruckus was a rogue elephant (lame, and on its own – these are the dangerous ones), and what we thought were the riotous, Catholic killing men, were villagers shouting to get rid of them, the gunshots flares to frighten the elephant.  That was the night of the elephant!

Thursday 18 December – Another plane cancelled

Our flight back to Kolkata was scheduled for today.  We had to check if it was actually flying, so, after a fond farewell from staff and students of Panighatta, we went into Panighatta village, where a kind man who runs the travel agency/grocery found out for us painfully slowly, that our Jet Airways flight was cancelled.  Again there was no reason given, or any advice about alternative ways to travel.  We bought an expensive ticket on another airline, IndiGo, and, Parcel-less, we made our way back to Kolkata, where the next adventure awaited us, for me a GI adventure of another kind. My colleague, TL Alinda Sheerman, of Broughton Anglican College, in Sydney told me about a Science teacher colleague understanding the acronym GI as Gasto Intestinal, and I must say it is definitely an alternative adjective for the rest of our adventures with GI in India.

It’s been great fun writing these blogposts!  Please join our Australian Guided Inquiry Community

Nobody in Sydney slept at all last night – so HOT!!  Everyone is very tired and cranky – please let this heatwave end!



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